| There are
some fine players who aren't enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame;
but really, how important is Cooperstown?
About 100 kids clawed a chain-link fence, fingers curled around
the wire. Some pulled themselves higher for a better view as their black
sneakers dangled off the ground. The fence encased a concrete runway that
sloped into the belly of the stadium. Some of the baseball players from the
home team walked up this incline toward their cars after the game.
The local, big-city boys knew the ropes. He didn't. This was
his first Major League Baseball game and he decided there was no chance a
small-town kid from Minnesota's Red River Valley could wrangle an autograph in
He was Cuban: dabbed with dark ink, something the boy
didn't see in his small Midwestern town.
It was cold for June in Minnesota and it had rained earlier.
The wind whistled from a gray sky past concrete and steel that hadn't seen the
sun for days. But the home team had won -- and he had a free bat in his hands.
Baseball's biggest promotion at the height of the Vietnam era
was Bat Day, when teams handed out real wood bats to youngsters as they entered
the stadium with their parents. Most kids would use the shiny ash with the
deep-grained yellow barrel the minute they hit the front yard.
He was unsure what he'd do with that 30-inch Hillerich &
Bradsby Louisville Slugger.
Dad snapped a couple of photos with the Kodak -- black and
white film -- of him swinging the bat in front of the stadium, and then as he
walked with his family to the Pontiac he glanced up and saw the big man
walking, walking in the parking lot where the largest mall in America now
The man wore a sport coat, light blue knit golf shirt and black
slacks, and he was Cuban: dabbed with dark ink, something the boy didn't see in
his small Midwestern town. This was a big-league baseball player walking alone
to his car; unheard of outside any ballpark today.
The kid told his parents this was the reigning American League
Rookie of the Year, reigning league batting champion, and maybe on his way to
another batting title.
Fountain pen autograph
"Ask him for his autograph," his father said.
Wow. He could. He felt a little timid, but he knew it
was a rare bolt of luck. So he carried the ash toward the man.
He made sure not to hit the ball near the end of the
barrel where the autograph stained the wood.
"Will you sign my bat?"
The man's smile revealed a gold tooth in front and a few
English words escaped his mouth. He seemed to suggest his pen might not be the
best tool for the job, but the boy was too excited to understand. The man
signed his name. In blue ink. With a fountain pen. The Cuban was a nice man.
The bat was never used. The boy showed it to his friends, and
once he threw a baseball into the air and hit the ball just to christen the
bat, but he made sure not to hit the ball near the end of the barrel where the
autograph stained the wood.
That bat leaned against the bedroom wall in his parents' home
until college days came. It seemed the bat belonged to his childhood, so it
stayed in his bedroom. After college he took the bat with him to lean uncovered
in corners where years of daylight faded the ink. He thought autographs were
silly, but sometimes he wanted to make that signature readable again.
Eventually, he became a journalist, which provided
entrée to the former batting champion's world. Time had turned the
Rookie of the Year into a coach and sometimes the journalist found himself with
the Cuban, leaning against a batting cage before a game. But he wasn't about to
haul a bat through the press box to the field and have the former batting
champion sign it.
The years slipped by. Journalism and Minnesota were left
One winter he returned to the city where they tore down that
cold clot of a ballpark to build a mall. The newspaper reported the player who
signed that bat 30 years ago would appear at an off-season baseball event.
They signed autographs for money now, but at least this was
for charity, so he took the bat and drove to the appearance. After an hour's
wait in a line thick with electric kids, he gave the Cuban the bat.
"Will you sign right under the spot here, where you signed
my bat in '65?"
The strong, long, slender fingers cradled the bat, and the
ex-ballplayer verified where the man wanted it signed. Then he scripted his
name. Very deliberately, and added, #6. The Cuban was still a nice man.
The bat went into a clear plastic case. No more leaning in a
Too good for the Hall?
The car skimmed through melting snow as he drove away, and he
wondered if he should add more names to the wood. There would be other players
at the public appearance tomorrow, men who were more famous than the Cuban.
Should he return the next day for the autograph of the Hall of Famer? The
future Hall of Famer?
The thoughts swirled him home, where he removed the bat from
its case, stood in the middle of the living room and took a few swings. He held
the barrel before his eyes and looked at the signature.
He didn't believe Cooperstown validated a player's
career or christened him a hero.
If the Cuban had been born just a few years later he would
have played when sophisticated surgery replaced a complete knee filet and the
accompanying insult. Maybe that would have bought the Cuban more time. Before
thumb surgery, shoulder surgery and seven -- seven -- knee surgeries, the Cuban
was a gazelle in right field, a baseball player who could hit and run and field
He was a bad-ball hitter, and some seemed to think it was just
raw talent, not knowledge, that allowed him to hit so well. Perhaps they
thought that because he was born in another land.
Didn't baseball just come naturally to kids on "the
In reality, in any language, the Cuban was a thinking man in
the batter's box, maybe one of the 10 best curveball hitters to wear a
The Cuban wasn't in the Hall of Fame, and he didn't stay
healthy long enough that anyone could irrefutably argue his case. Healthy, the
Cuban was a better all-around player than many in the Hall of Fame, probably
the best all-around player in the history of his team, but that is not a point
when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
You put up numbers for Cooperstown.
But the man with the bat didn't believe Cooperstown validated
a player's career or christened him a hero.
As a boy he accepted that all members of the Hall of Fame were
great men and great baseball players and they all deserved to be there, but
when he grew up he learned some were enshrined because they played long and
well, or maybe because they owned a baseball club. But some had lived
questionably. Others just knew how to play the politics of induction.
Cooperstown was not a flawless shrine.
At the ballpark, at funerals, at celebrations, the man
encountered the Cuban, who was always natural and polite, just a regular
person. It must have been painful to live and play ball during a time when
politics kept him from his parents, brothers and sisters back home, but the
The man thought: Maybe the Hall of Fame isn't good enough for a
great ballplayer who thrilled thousands with his stylish play, who smiled and
signed an autograph for some kid in a parking lot.
What was a Hall of Famer? He didn't know -- maybe even care --
why adulterers, drunks, liars and bigots are immortalized in Cooperstown. But
he knew the Cuban deserved an honor, a small monument to a decent man who
baseball played well.
He swung the bat a couple more times, then put it back into
the clear plastic cylinder. There would be no more signatures on this bat. Men
in Cooperstown don't share a plaque with anyone. He leaned the bat against a
wall where the sun would not fade it.
He was uncertain what a Hall of Famer should be, but he knew
the Cuban was quite enough.