07/23/2004 7:53 AM ET
For inductees, it's baseball heaven
Eckersley, Molitor look forward to joining legends
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
COOPERSTOWN -- As the gateway to an array of multimedia and archival exhibits, the National Baseball Hall of Fame's centerpiece Gallery is a cavernous chamber with simple rows of bronze plaques on display.
As such, the Gallery is one of the Hall's most modest and least affecting areas. But not to everyone. Not to those about to go on the wall.
"Going into the plaque room ... that is what really brought out the goosebumps," Paul Molitor was saying recently. "Seeing where your spot is kind of picked out, looking at the other faces on the wall that you are going to join."
It is less a wall than pearly gates leading into baseball heaven. That wooden statue in the foyer may as well be of St. Peter, even though it really is of Lou Gehrig.
Sunday at 1:30, in a ceremony broadcast live on ESPN Classic and streamed live on MLB.com, Molitor and Dennis Eckersley will ascend among the clouds, becoming the newest stars in baseball's eternal galaxy.
"More than anything, it's the time for me to convey the passion I have for this game," says Eckersley, as New Wave and hip-hop as Cooperstown has ever seen. "Having that title of 'Hall of Famer' behind your name does give you more hump. That's okay; I like that."
Both first-ballot electees spent much of their careers in obscurity. Molitor was enveloped by a Midwestern shroud, Eckersley by his smothering fear of failure.
Sunday, they will step out from behind the curtain.
Their induction as the 99th and 100th players elected by the annual vote of veteran members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will in many ways signal a new era for Cooperstown.
An era of designated hitters, of relief specialists, of cracks in the human condition and overcoming them.
Sunday afternoon's induction ceremony, at which Molitor and Eckersley will formally accept their laurels backed by 50 of the 58 living Hall of Famers on the outdoor stage of the Clark Sports Center, will also be the showcase of Induction Weekend.
The unprecedented reunion of Hall of Famers -- the previous high was 46, in both 2000 and 2002 -- will also welcome a pair of their chroniclers to their own special Museum niches: San Francisco play-by-play maven Lon Simmons and New York Times baseball writer Murray Chass, recipients of the Ford Frick Award and J.G. Taylor Spink Award, respectively.
As ever, Induction Weekend is a three-day homecoming into the cradle. Players reconnect with their heritage. Older fans reconnect with their childhood memories, and the young ones forge new memories.
Thousands will exponentially swell Cooperstown's population, crowding The Hall, milling among the shops of Main Street and side streets, attending various affairs with hopes of spotting old favorites.
There are clinics ... Ozzie Smith Turns Two with George Brett, Friday morning at Doubleday Field; Legends For Youth, Monday 1 p.m. Clark Sports Center.
There are events ... Hall of Famers golf tourney, Saturday morning at Leatherstocking Golf Course; New York-Penn League game between Tri-City and Oneonta, Saturday 1 p.m. at Doubleday Field.
There are book-signings ... Baseball As America, Saturday 1:30 p.m. at The Hall, with select Hall of Famers.
There are panel programs ... Connecting Generations, Saturday 3 p.m., and Legends of the Game, Monday 10:30 a.m., both at Clark Sports Center.
Mostly, though, there are two men who wound their ways through some dense personal and professional thickets to arrive at this clearing in upper New York State.
Molitor was born in the Midwest (St. Paul, Minn.) and never left. A three-year Canadian detour did bring him his only World Series ring with the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays, but he spent the first 15 years in Milwaukee and the last three with the hometown Twins.
So his numbers were compiled in shadows, but they are staggering: 3,319 hits, 1,053 of them for extra bases; 12-time .300 hitter, first as a 23-year-old and the last at 41; 504 stolen bases.
Only two other men grouped 3,000 hits and 600 doubles and 500 steals, and both played at the turn of the last century: Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner.
Molitor traveled a rarely-trod trail, and blazed some of his own. Quite an adept glove man, various leg injuries eventually sentenced him to DH-ing, and he is the first Hall of Famer to have played more games at the hitting position (1,174) than at any other. Until now, Reggie Jackson's 630 DH games had been tops.
Himself a purist at heart, Molitor makes no apologies for hitting his way to Cooperstown.
"I fought the DH originally, because I still enjoyed defensive baseball," he recalls. "But I saw the logic behind it. And, over time, it proved to be a wise move because it enabled me to play into my early 40s."
Molitor did not serve his 100th game as a DH until the end of his 10th season, by when he'd already played more than a thousand games. So he does not feel like he is holding open one door to the Hall of Fame for other DHs to follow.
Similarly, Eckersley isn't holding open the other door for a delayed influx of closers.
The Eck doesn't claim to be a bullpen Moses. He doesn't think he'd be here if it weren't for the 151 wins he had already posted as a starter before Tony La Russa tried to "hide" him in Oakland's bullpen.
"It's not just about me being a closer. It's so different now, with the one-inning thing ... if that had been me, I don't think I would've gone in," Eckersley says. "The uniqueness of my career got me in."
Career totals of 197 wins and 390 saves certainly are unique. The only two men with more saves (Lee Smith and John Franco) have combined for 159 wins.
For five seasons by The Bay, Eck was more than unique. He was scary. From 1988 through 1992, he vise-gripped his new gig as a reliever for the A's to log 220 saves -- compared with 38 walks.
Hence, he goes up on that wall under an Oakland cap, although he spent 15 of his 24 seasons elsewhere; also being an Oakland native just makes the pick sweeter. The choice of a Milwaukee cap is more obvious for Molitor, who spent the first 15 seasons of a 21-year career with the Brewers.
Appropriately, in Oakland, Eckersley was scared sober. That five-season stretch closely followed an early-1987 six-week stay in a Rhode Island clinic, fighting the alcoholism that had ravaged his family and threatend to take him down, too.
And, nightly, Eckersely scared himself into perfection. "There's good fear and bad fear," he says. "The bad fear is when you're feeling sick and almost paralyzed with it. For me, it made me get fired up, it made me more aggressive. And the more aggressive I became, the better I was."
Molitor also conquered a demon, his being cocaine, early in his career. So they had their common foes. And they were common foes, often confronting each other during their parallel careers.
"I know he pointed at me at least a half a dozen times," Molitor says, alluding to the hyper Eck's habit of discharging an air pistol after strikeouts. "I also know that there were a couple days where I got mine off of him too."
Molitor's recollection is fair. An MLB.com study of box scores shows he batted .333 against Eck (15-for-45), with three homers and nine RBIs -- and also fanned 11 times.
In Eckersley's closer mode, they battled to an end-game draw. On May 22, 1988, Eck made Molitor the final out of career save No. 41. Ten years later, in their final meeting on Aug. 22, 1998, Molitor's bunt single gave the Twins a win over Eckersley's Red Sox.
In-between, Molitor claimed one of Eck's rare blown saves: On Oct. 2, 1992, his ninth-inning RBI double ruined what would've been his 52nd save.
Now they stand on common, and hallowed, ground.
|Dennis Eckersley enters the Hall of Fame on Sunday. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.