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Legends gather for Stadium sendoff

Legends gather for Stadium sendoff

NEW YORK -- They came to honor Yankee Stadium, and in doing so are on the receiving end of one of the biggest honors of their exemplary lives and careers.

They turned the Astor Ballroom of Manhattan's Intercontinental Hotel into a temporary shrine on Tuesday morning. One needed sunglasses to block the glare of baseball's greatest.

There they were, sitting comfortably behind little desks that ringed the ballroom, Hank Aaron to Dick Williams ... more than three dozen members of the baseball Hall of Fame, one of their biggest gatherings ever outside of Cooperstown.

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In a few hours, they would be a featured part of the Big Show, the 79th All-Star Game, in Yankee Stadium.

Now, however, they were just a bunch of old friends reminiscing in front of the fireplace of burning memories.

An immortal bunch, but a bunch nonetheless.

"We talk about the past. Maybe a particular game we were in," said Tony Perez, the first baseman piston of the Big Red Machine. "There are a lot of memories.

"It's fun to come back, and to remember. And to be remembered."

"This is the greatest fraternity in the world," said Joe Morgan, the second baseman on those same great Cincinnati teams of the '70s. "You can talk about the other halls of fame, but baseball is held to a higher standard.

"When we get together, it's always special for me. But this ... the mystique of the Yankees and of New York ... this All-Star Game will be very exciting: It's the first time the venue matches greatness of the players.

"You play the All-Star Game in some of the newer parks, and the players are the stars of the show, and rightfully so. Tonight, both the park and the players will be stars."

Yesteryear's players will be featured in the poignant opening act. Details of the pre-game tribute that will showcase them were a secret, but the Hall of Famers knew they were in for something extraordinary.

"It's always special when this group convenes," said Paul Molitor, who is remembered mainly as a third baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers, but who also excelled for six years as a DH for Toronto and Minnesota. "But when it's Cooperstown ... well, that's where we're expected to be. When you get outside of that venue and have a special event like this ... when we go out on that field tonight, it'll have little power to it. Although, the Boston experience was pretty cool, too."

Molitor alluded to the occasion of the 1999 All-Star Game in Fenway Park, the only one which comes close as a precedent to this. On that night, however, baseball "only" celebrated its Team of the Century, of which Hall of Famers were only a part of the cast.

Now, the Mythical Mob is the show.


"You play the All-Star Game in some of the newer parks, and the players are the stars of the show, and rightfully so. Tonight, both the park and the players will be stars."
-- Joe Morgan

"I know that for everyone in the Hall of Fame, to be a part of this year's event will be a big thrill," said Ralph Kiner, who, untrue to old Forbes Field's Kiner Korner, sat in the middle of the room.

So they were drawn in uncommon numbers, including Aaron, who recalled Yankee Stadium as "a ballpark which scared the hell out of me."

"I was told the shadows would come and I wouldn't be able to pick up the ball," said Aaron, who played right field for the Milwaukee Braves in The Stadium in the World Series of 1957 and 1958. "And you could be up by five runs and you still felt like something would happen, like from somewhere Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig would pull the ball out of the park."

One of the biggest smiles in the room belonged to a Hall of Famer-elect, Williams, the managerial great who will be enshrined in 10 days.

"This is the biggest thrill of my baseball career. It's right at the pinnacle," said Williams, quickly knocking 1,571 wins and two World Series titles down a notch. "It's hard to explain ... looking around at these fellows and realizing that I'm part of it now.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world. I've got my [induction] speech all ready. I just hope I can deliver it all right."

"When we get together, there's that H-O-F in front of our names. We're just a select few, and we know it," said Rod Carew, a lifetime .328 hitter while splitting his 19-year career between the Twins and the Angels. "We appreciate each other and what we did to get to the top.

"But this ... this is going to be a memorable day. To be there as they get ready to close Yankee Stadium, with all the talented great players and champions who went through that stadium? It's unbelievable."

The toughest part of walking onto the field for the Hall of Famers, Carew reasoned, would be having to accept they were there to take a bow, not take two and hit to right.

"How can you walk into Yankee Stadium," Carew posed the rhetorical question, "and not want to play?"

The only one in the room who could not yet relate to that sentiment was Ryne Sandberg, the only Hall of Famer who has never played in Yankee Stadium -- regular season, postseason, exhibition, whatever.

"I've never been to Yankee Stadium, much less played a game there," Sandberg said. "So to be a part of this ceremony in the final year of Yankee Stadium is an incredible honor. It's a personal thrill and I'm very much looking forward to being part of the event."

"Since I've been in the Hall of Fame," said Harmon Killebrew, the former Minnesota Killer (573 home runs) who was inducted in 1984, "I can't remember as many of us together as we have here. Just being here as part of this group is unbelievable."

"These guys ... in New York ... you've got to pinch yourself to make sure you're really here," said Phil Niekro, the knuckleballer who won 318 games.

"We're living a dream ... another dream, to be part of this history and be invited to be a part of Yankee Stadium's history" said Don Sutton, who won 324.

"Whenever we get together, I don't know ... there's some magical power we have in numbers," Molitor said.

The magic was in their swings, or in their vacuum gloves, or in the way they wound up and delivered. The power will come from Tuesday night's memory generator.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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