Hall of Famers enjoy spotlight

Hall of Famers enjoy spotlight

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Every year they meet on the wooden back porch of the 95-year-old Otesaga Hotel in a ritual that has become just as significant as the Induction Ceremony on Sunday that swells their ranks just as death ultimately thins them.

They are part and parcel of the 60 living members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. They sip wine, tell tall tales and laugh uproariously about bygone moments from their once stellar careers.

"We all get a kick out of seeing each other," said Mike Schmidt, the Philadelphia Phillies third baseman. "Most of us get to see each other only once a year. We get to feel important again for one weekend."

To give you an idea about the exclusivity of this club, there are only 258 players, managers, umpires and executives who are honored with a plaque in the 66-year-old museum. And just 12 are third baseman.

Three of them -- Schmidt, George Brett and Wade Boggs -- have been voted in since 1983 by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America with more than 10 consecutive years of experience: Schmidt in 1995; Brett in 1999, and Boggs, who will be inducted on Sunday with Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

Sandberg is only the 17th second baseman and first to be voted in by the baseball writers since Rod Carew in 1991.

The inductees, rookies once again in the eyes of the brethren, won't really take their official place in the fraternity until next July 30 when another group goes in. This year, Boggs and Sandberg are being shepherded through the weekend by Johnny Bench, the unofficial ombudsman and one of only 14 catchers in the Hall.

On Sunday evening after the festivities, Bench says he'll pull up three white, wicker rocking chairs on the hotel veranda, which has a sweeping view of Otsego Lake. He'll sit in the middle with the two inductees to his left and right and tell them to relax for just five minutes and drink in the entire experience.

A weekend of press conferences, autograph signings, cocktail parties, a golf tournament and the ceremonies will all begin to dissolve like the last glimmer of sunlight on the glassy, smooth surface of the lake.

"At that point, you can hear the sighs of relief and feel the tension release," said Bench, one of three catchers, along with Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, to be voted in since 1972.

A dinner among the boys is what happens thereafter. And that's when the experience of being a member of baseball's most exclusive fraternity really begins.

"It's a moment for us in the limelight, that's what this weekend is all about," Schmidt said. "We don't much have the limelight anymore. We get one weekend a year where it's kind of about us. It's obviously about Ryne and Wade, too. It is Induction Weekend. But nationally, it's also about the old guys, which is kind of fun. Come Sunday night, it'll be about the real guys playing the game once again and we'll have to go into hiding for another year. But we get our one weekend in the sun, so to speak."

That weekend has brought together strange bedfellows, so to speak.

Schmidt and Brett, who played on different teams in different leagues, have become fast friends because of these annual gatherings in the wooded countryside of upstate New York, Brett said.

Schmidt played the entirety of his 18-year career for the Phillies. Brett played all of his 21 seasons for the Kansas City Royals. Save for 1980 when the Phillies defeated the Royals in six games to win their only World Series, the twain never met.

That was the series when Brett had the hemorrhoids heard 'round the world, but still batted .375 with a homer and three runs batted in. That was the series when Schmitty hit .381 with two homers and seven RBIs, forever cementing his status as a money player in Phillies folklore.

They were two distinct personalities. Schmidt could bite your head off if he had a bad day and was regaled with the usual cacophony of boos from the faithful at Veterans Stadium. Good or bad, Brett wouldn't stop talking and laughing. Still doesn't.

The two of them were on that back porch on Friday night. That same porch where Warren Spahn, confined to a wheelchair, still visited with friends during the 2003 inductions that ushered in Eddie Murray and Carter. It was the last weekend in the limelight for baseball's all-time greatest left-hander. At 82, Spahn passed only four months later.

Schmidt and Brett became buddies when the lifetime Royal asked the lifetime Phillie to attend his 1999 induction in the incredible class that also included Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount -- the all-time strikeout leader and a pair of players in the 3,000-hit club.

"We third basemen have to stick together," said Brett, who unlike Schmidt, played the last seven years of his career as a designated hitter and first baseman.

They go to the parties together. Share drinks with their wives together. Play golf together. And generally have a good old time.

"We're inseparable. Can you believe it?" Brett said.

As this mystic fraternity proves year after year, on the magical back porch of the Otesaga, anything is possible.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.