This day was long overdue for Sutter, this class

July 31, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.-- --In the scenic village where baseball mythology and baseball history have learned to coexist, groundbreaking relief pitcher Bruce Sutter tried to make sense of his place among the game's all-time greats.

More than six months after he got the call notifying him of his election to baseball's Hall of Fame, he's only now getting a grip on what it all means.

"After hanging up the phone, my emotions got the best of me and I didn't know why," Sutter told the crowd at yesterday's Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Clark Sports Center, "but in the six months since I've had time to reflect on how important that call was.

"It brought closure to a baseball career that did not end how and when I had always hoped it would. The call answered a question that had been ongoing for 13 years ... a question that, quite frankly, I would ask myself every year at election time. Do you belong?"

Sutter certainly belongs. He revolutionized the late-inning closer role when he perfected the split-fingered fastball during the 1970s. And though he generally pitched more than one inning when he came on in a save situation, he was a transitional figure in the evolution of the closer.

"He was an innovator," said former teammate Ozzie Smith. "There is no doubt in my mind that he belongs in the Hall of Fame."

Well, there apparently was some doubt or he wouldn't have had to wait so long to get in. Relief pitchers have largely been ignored by Hall of Fame voters and are grossly under-represented at Cooperstown. Sutter is only the fourth full-time reliever to gain admission and the first to enter the Hall without starting at least one game in the major leagues.

There is a reason for that. There was a time when relievers were considered second-tier pitchers, but in the era of bullpen specialization, the late-inning closer may be more valuable than any single starting pitcher. Hall of Fame voters have been slow to recognize that, though the recent elections of Dennis Eckersley and Sutter may be an indication of a growing appreciation of relief pitchers among voters.

Sutter's speech punctuated an afternoon devoted to the issue of belonging. The Hall of Fame also posthumously inducted a group of 17 Negro leagues players and administrators - including the first woman - to complete a long-running program to assimilate the most important figures from the era of baseball segregation.

The Hall of Fame is not, technically, affiliated with Major League Baseball, but it willingly serves as the conscience of the sport.

The only thing missing from yesterday's celebration of Negro leagues baseball was a bronze plaque for 94-year-old opening speaker Buck O'Neil, who somehow did not make the final list of inductees.

O'Neil played and managed in the Negro leagues and became the first black coach in the major leagues when he was hired by the Chicago Cubs in 1962. He would become the face of the Negro leagues for a whole new generation of fans as the immensely likable storyteller in the Ken Burns documentary Baseball, and he currently is the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo.

He joined Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson, as featured speakers and delivered a message of love and inclusion that ended with everyone in attendance holding hands and singing "The greatest thing (in all my life is loving you)."

"People say, `Buck, I know you hate people for what they did to you and your folk.' I say, `No, I never learned to hate.' I hate cancer. Cancer killed my mother. My wife died 10 years ago from cancer. ... I hate AIDS. A good friend of mine died of AIDS. I hate AIDS. But I can't hate another human being."

O'Neil had expressed disappointment when the list of inductees was announced, but there was no rancor yesterday. The huge class of Negro leaguers was intended to be the culmination of the Hall of Fame's black baseball project, but a baseball official indicated that O'Neil could still gain induction later.

So yesterday belonged to Sutter, another soft-spoken man who seemed genuinely awed to be on the same stage with the 40 Hall of Famers who sat behind him while he delivered his acceptance speech.

"When I played, I never needed the spotlight, nor did I want it," he said. "I simply wanted to play baseball and be respected by my teammates and the opposing players. So today my name goes on this plaque, but this day is not about me. It's about all the people who helped me along the way."

It was also about belonging, something Sutter does not have to worry about anymore.

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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