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TELANDER: Stars of the past fill induction void in Cooperstown

Fans walk outside Baseball Hall Fame Saturday July 27 2013 Cooperstown N.Y. Jacob Ruppert Hank O’Day DeacWhite will be inducted

Fans walk outside the Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday, July 27, 2013, in Cooperstown, N.Y. Jacob Ruppert, Hank O’Day and Deacon White will be inducted posthumously to the hall on Sunday. The three men represent the Class of 2013 and they've all been dead for more than 70 years, making Sunday's festivities something out of the ordinary. (AP Photo/Mike Groll) ORG XMIT: NYMG108

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:47AM



COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — They roll toward the red-brick National Baseball Hall of Fame in this fairy-tale village as the sun starts to drop toward the Catskills.

First comes old Ralph Kiner, in the back of a shiny pickup truck. He steps gingerly down a portable stair, aided by a worker, as fans cheer, “Kiner! Kiner!’’

Next is Henry Aaron, with his wife. ‘‘The Hammer’’ descends from his truck to the staccato chant of “Hank! Hank! Hank!’’

He is followed in a minute by Frank Robinson. Then the controversial, bat-swinging Juan Marichal. Then ball-scuffing Don Sutton. Then controversial ­Orlando Cepeda. Then Carlton Fisk. Then the great and entertaining Ozzie Smith, with cheers of “Oz-zie! Oz-zie!’’ filling the summer air.

Yes, the names roll off one’s tongue the way the memories of one’s youth scroll through the mind. Happily. Sadly. Wistfully. Preciously.

For these are living Hall of ­Famers who have come back to help fill the void created in this Cooperstown induction class by the Steroid Era.

No living ballplayers are being inducted in 2013.

None.

Nobody.

No one on the list presented to the Baseball Writers’ Association of America members last year got voted in. Incredible.

Why?

There were not 75 percent of us who wanted to endorse any player, from Barry Bonds to Mark McGwire to even — perhaps totally unfairly — catcher Mike Piazza. But there are rumors. And rumors in the drug era almost always have turned out to be true.

And we writers have been forced to be the moral compass for a game that wouldn’t police itself, for a commissioner who needed his face rubbed in the mess, for a players union that couldn’t smell the stench in its feed trough.

◆ ◆ ◆

“Pete Rose!’’ says a man smoking a cigarette on the Main Street sidewalk. “Inside! Still signing!’’

I walk into the Safe At Home memorabilia store. The narrow building is old and, like so much of Cooperstown, quaint to the point of touching antique.

“Is Pete back there?’’ I ask the woman at the counter as I crane my neck to see around the displays.

“Yes, he is,’’ she says sweetly.
“What do you want signed?’’

I don’t have anything, so I buy a ball for $15.

The signing ticket is $60, and the total, after tax, to have the man with the most base hits in baseball history sign my souvenir ball is $81.

I walk to the back. Nobody is in line.

Rose sits at a table in a folding chair, next to two pretty Asian-American women on his left, one of whom I know is his girlfriend, Kiana Kim, a Playboy model.

The chair to Pete’s right is empty, and he gestures for me to sit down. He looks at me.

“You’re a writer, aren’t you?’’ he says.

I explain who I am, that we’ve met before, likely at Wrigley Field as far back as the mid-1970s, and here in Cooperstown in 1999, when he was signing autographs the same way as now.

But that’s not why I’m here. I just find his story — of hustle, skill, cheating, hubris, denial, attempted redemption — so … compelling. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, and he might never be.

He knows. He lives it. He owns it.

“What do you think about this, this … the whole thing?’’ he asks. He means the drug cheating that has led to the emptiness of an induction ceremony for no one.

We talk, and he says of the cheaters, after a time: “I know them. Know them all. But baseball is built on records. It cares about statistics more than any other sport. Yeah, I gambled on baseball, but I didn’t affect any of the ­statistics. These guys did.’’

He signs the ball to me — the same as the one I bought from him 14 years ago. It reads, as ever, “Pete Rose — 4,256.’’

What the hell, I buy another ball and have him autograph it to my grandson. Ben’s only a year old and doesn’t have a clue.

Pete is friendly and cheerful, as he always is. On the surface. His ache is internal, ferocious.

“From 1919 to 1987, you think I’m the only f---in’ guy who bet on baseball?’’ he asks before I leave.

I do not.

◆ ◆ ◆

At the parade, the hits keep coming.

The old men are all smiles and glee, waving joyously to the crowd. I half expect Ozzie Smith to do a back flip out of his truck bed.

Even career grump Eddie ­Murray looks happy. Dennis ­Eckersley follows him. Then comes Wade Boggs.

No, these guys were never ­without scandal. Alcohol, sex, divorce, greenies, drug-dealing, violence, it was all there. Because they were — they are — human. But after them, the steroid cheating just turned the needle too far.

On comes beloved Tony Gwynn, his face disfigured from the tobacco he chewed that gave him cancer. Tobacco is a vice, too, right?

Cal Ripken, Goose Gossage (with his outrageous white mustache), Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice …

Great, all. But choir-boy pure? None of them.

But here they are.

It’s a lot to think about on a beautiful evening in baseball heaven.



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