COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — They are like the Beatles and a handful of men who walked on the moon. They belong to an exclusive club and know things that no one else knows.
They are the men who have been enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Saturday in Cooperstown, I was allowed to salute the diamond gods from a temporary stage assembled atop second base at Doubleday Field. It was part of an awards presentation one day before Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. were officially enshrined.
What in the name of Ty Cobb was I doing there, you ask? Good question. I was there to humbly accept the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, presented annually to someone who’s covered baseball for a long time. But let’s get this straight: The lucky baseball scribe who accepts the award is not “inducted” or “enshrined.” The writer is not a Hall of Famer. That title is reserved for players, managers, and the occasional owner or general manager who has had a seismic impact on the game.
Despite this important distinction, the baseball writer gets to live and hang out with the real Hall of Famers for four days at the grand Otesaga Hotel. We get to eat, drink, and share elevators with the gods of the game.
But we never stop serving as the eyes and ears of the fans, so here are some notes and vignettes from behind the curtain on Hall of Fame Weekend:
■ See Ferguson Jenkins in the lobby of the Otesaga. Remind him of the time in Texas when we all boycotted postgame interviews because the Rangers wouldn’t allow female reporters in the clubhouse. Fergie came to the press box, in uniform, still sweating, to talk about his shutout of the Orioles. Fergie smiles. He remembers.
■ Reggie Jackson seems agitated. Says he doesn’t usually make the trip but he’s here to honor Griffey. Minutes later, see Reggie playing cornhole on the back lawn of the hotel.
■ Hang out with Wade and Debbie Boggs in the lobby. Boggs says he was worried that he was going to get booed at Fenway the night the Sox finally retired his number. Also says he signed a contract to work as an ambassador for the Red Sox.
■ Walk into downtown Cooperstown, where Denny McLain is at a table, signing stuff in front of a storefront on Main Street. McLain looks big, but says he’s lost 200 pounds.
■ At night, Boggs sings karaoke in the lounge on the lower level. Piazza plays the drums while Boggs sings. No public is allowed at the Otesaga all weekend and the joint is almost empty. Debbie Boggs says they have their own karaoke machine at home. Wade sings “Friends In Low Places.’’
■ Get goosebumps standing next to Juan Marichal at the omelette station in the breakfast room.
■ Introduce myself to Phil Niekro and tell him I am from Boston. Niekro asks about his childhood friend, John Havlicek, who has been having some health issues.
■ See Eddie Murray and Jim Rice having breakfast together. Had old tension with both so I’m careful not to interrupt them. Maybe later.
■ Back downtown, signing in a storefront across the street from where McLain sat, Pete Rose and Steve Garvey sign for cash. Side by side.
■ Remind everyone in our credential-wearing family group that there’s a strict no-autograph, no-selfies policy in the hotel. While hanging out on the spectacular hotel porch, Pedro Martinez emerges from the lobby. I worry. I once said he was a diva on par with Diana Ross. Pedro smiles and hugs me and says we are good now. He understands. “I am part of the media now and I know sometimes you have to be tough,’’ says Pedro. He pinches the cheek of a blue-eyed toddler in our group and says, “Look at those eyes. I see you’ve got the family disease.’’
■ See Murray and take a shot at saying hello. Eddie says, “How did you ever get here?” then smiles and we hug it out. I ask him to make me look good in front of my family next time we see him. “I’ll try,’’ he says.
■ Late at night, Griffey is in the lobby, alone, waiting for a ride. He has just been to the Hall of Fame for the first time in his life. We talk about his talented children. He says his 14-year-old son is the best of the bunch.
■ Griffey poses for a photo with my 28-year-old son. My son sends it out on Instagram, captioned “two guys with a combined 630 big league homers.” Late at night, he talks hitting with George Brett and Boggs. He knows that Boggs only ripped a foul ball down the right-field line once in 10,740 plate appearances. “It was a changeup.’’ says Boggs, adding, “I also once went 790 at-bats without popping up.’’
■ Get a morning e-mail from Jim Palmer, who is driving up from Baltimore. It reads, “Don’t [expletive] up your speech.’’
■ In mid-afternoon, 48 Hall of Famers, plus retired New York City Fire Department battalion chief Vin Mavaro, Dick Enberg, and I gather in a ballroom, where we wait to be taken to Doubleday Field. Vin and I are nervous because we are going to have to speak. Our speeches are ready in black binders. “Don’t let go of your binder,’’ says Enberg. “Johnny Bench likes to mess with people and hide their speeches.’’ After that, I hold my binder in a vise-like grip.
■ Strike up a conversation with Randy Johnson and ask him how his photography career is going. The Big Unit loves to talk about photography. He says he wants to travel the world, taking photos for humanitarian purposes. I tell him I’ve got a Globe guy down the hall, Stan Grossfeld, who has won two Pulitzers doing exactly what Johnson wants to do. He says he wants to meet Stan. Seconds later, they are out in the hall talking. When the conversation ends, Johnson comes back and says, “Thanks. I’ve got all Stan’s contact info. I think he’s willing to help me.’’ From this moment forward, Randy Johnson will shake hands and pose for photos with anyone in our group.
■ At 3:45, they open the doors and herd us into courtesy vans. I line up behind Andre Dawson, Rice, Griffey, and Frank Thomas. “Lot of power on this bus,’’ says Rice as he climbs the steps. On board we already have fireman Vin, plus Dennis Eckersley, Palmer, John Smoltz, and Pedro. The conversation on our short ride is priceless. Pedro teases the Big Hurt: “Remember the time you fouled off 18 pitches and then I struck you out?’’ They argue about whether the game was in Chicago or Boston. Griffey, who evidently had trouble hitting Smoltz, says, “I remember my first hitters’ meeting about you. They said, ‘He’s got a plus-five fastball, a plus-five changeup, a plus-five slider, a plus-five curveball, and a plus-five splitter. I said, ‘Does this [expletive] have any pitch that’s not plus-five?’ ’’ Everybody on the bus loves to talk about Adam Dunn. They are wowed by how far and how hard he could hit the ball. It’s weird. Who hit it harder than Rice or Thomas? Then they start talking about guys who could play football and baseball. Somebody mentions Wily Mo Pena and Griffey says, “If that [expletive] was born in America, he’d have been an outside linebacker in the NFL.’’ Dawson says nothing. He’s happy but quiet.
■ When we get to Doubleday Field we go backstage, where there are bins filled with ice and water bottles. Bench comes over to me and says, “Want me to hold your binder?’’ I decline.
■ The speech goes OK. No Albert Brooks flop sweats.
■ After the awards presentation, each player hops in the back of a truck for a parade to the Hall. I ride with Vin, which is good cover for me. Nobody’s going to boo the firefighter who discovered a baseball in the rubble of 9/11. Behind us, Whitey Ford rides in a white Ford truck. Nice touch.
■ Just after noon we gather in the same ballroom we used Saturday. I sit at a table with Palmer, Niekro, Luis Aparicio, and Rod Carew, who is on a list for a heart transplant. Palmer talks to Carew about the waiting list. Then he turns to Aparicio and tells me, “This was my shortstop in 1966. I was 20. He was a veteran. There was a game when I had to face Duane Josephson, his former teammate. Luis comes in from short and tells me, ‘Don’t worry about this guy. I was with him last night and had him out til 5 in the morning.’ He goes back to short, I throw a pitch, and Josephson hits a three-run homer. I told Luis never to visit the mound after that.’’
■ Backstage at the Clark Sports Center, Piazza is nervous. He’s clutching his binder. “I just have to remember to go slow,’’ he says. “Lot of Mets fans out there.’’ There are 50,000 fans, tied for second-largest Cooperstown crowd. I ask Cal Ripken Jr. how big the crowd was for his induction. “I think it was 82,000,’’ Ripken says. “Biggest one ever.’’
■ Piazza delivers a great speech. Griffey brings down the house when he puts on his ballcap backward at the end of his speech.
■ After the induction ceremony, back at the Otesaga, players pose for official Hall photos, then relax on the veranda. As the sun sets on another Hall of Fame Weekend, Brooks Robinson and Ripken sit in adjacent rocking chairs and share stories that no one else will ever know.