By Ernie Palladino
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There they sat Sunday, Joe Torre up front as a new Hall of Fame inductee, the great Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson in the back as one of the 50 past inductees who showed up in Cooperstown to honor Torre, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas on baseball’s happiest day.
In a very real way, the connection between Torre and Gibson was still strong after all these years. Gibby, as his friends called him, remained a frequent subject of Torre’s yarns about his playing days, an era where a conversation about a guy’s faulty eyesight was far more likely to happen than a debate about steroids. Players back then didn’t even know what steroids were, for goodness sake.
Torre told a story about exactly that one sunny pregame afternoon at Yankee Stadium. He had been traded from Atlanta to St. Louis in 1969. He had just moved into his house when someone knocked on his door.
He answered, and there stood a friend with a tall fellow who wore Coke-bottle glasses.
“Joe,” Tim McCarver said. “This is Bob Gibson. You’re going to be catching him.”
Torre was astounded, and not because of the imposing presence of a flamethrower whose 22-9 record and microscopic 1.12 ERA had earned him the previous season’s Cy Young Award. It was his appearance that threw Torre. Every batter Gibson ever faced knew this man would bury his grandmother in the batter’s box before he gave in to her.
Predictably for Torre, his first words were not “Pleased to meet you, Bob.”
“I looked at him and I said, “Are you crazy?’” Torre recounted. “The way you throw, you take the mound without those glasses? You’re liable to kill somebody!”
Spectacles. Not steroids.
Sunday’s induction ceremonies harkened Torre and the rest of them back to when players did things the right way. Gibson, like a number of his contemporaries which included Don Drysdale, might have gotten their edge with a bit of chin music — OK, a lot of chin music — but it was all within the rules. Sunday, too, was about doing it by the rules. As far as anyone knows, Glavine, Maddux and Thomas achieved their stats playing it clean in an unfortunate era where chemicals overshadow its greats.
Even La Russa had to get into it during the celebratory week, stating that the PED users deserve their spot in the Hall, too, perhaps with an asterisk on their plaques. Thankfully, he refrained from using his induction speech to push the point, opting instead to thank the leadership of the three teams he managed — White Sox, A’s and Cardinals — and the coaches that made so many of his 2,728 wins possible.
The Hall itself took an indirect part in influencing the potential of a cheater’s induction by reducing the ballot eligibility from 15 to 10 years. For players like McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others, a non-writer committee will have to deal with their issues unless the scribes have a change of heart, en masse.
Sunday, though, was happily a day for looking back, for honoring those who did it the right way. Torre, the teller of so many stories about a more innocent era, couldn’t have honored fellows like Gibson better than he did in his closing sentences.
“Today is a celebration of chasing your dreams and putting your dreams above yourself,” Torre said. “Tony Gwynn … said, ‘All I ever tried to do was play the game the right way.’ No better message for our youngsters than that.
“There is a power to both patience and persistence. Baseball is a game of life. It’s not perfect, but it feels like it is. That’s the magic of it. We are responsible for giving it the respect it deserves. Our sport is part of the American soul, and it is ours to borrow, just for a while; to take care of it for a time and then pass it on to the next generation.
“If all of us who love baseball are doing our jobs, then those who get the game from us will be as proud to be a part of it as we were.”
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