COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—Derek Jeter visited Cooperstown when he was a kid nearly four decades ago and says he doesn’t remember much about the trip. He’s returning this week and likely won’t ever forget even one moment.
After a delay of well over a year, the former New York Yankees shortstop and captain will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Wednesday along with fellow class of 2020 members Ted Simmons, Larry Walker, and the late Marvin Miller, whose efforts on the labor front changed the game.
Last year’s ceremony was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody was selected from this year’s writers’ ballot and the Hall of Fame’s Era committees postponed their scheduled elections until the upcoming offseason because of the pandemic.
“As strange as this sounds or may sound, I’m trying not to think about it,” the 47-year-old Jeter, now an owner and CEO of the Miami Marlins, said last week. “I just want to go there and experience it. I’m trying to keep it out of my mind because I do want to go in there with no preconceived notions of what may happen. I want to experience it and try to enjoy it. It’s been a long time coming.”
In 2007, the inductions of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn drew an estimated record crowd of 82,000 to the expansive grass field at the Clark Sports Center on the outskirts of this one-stoplight village in upstate New York. When the wildly popular Jeter was elected in January 2020 that record figured to be in jeopardy because fans had been booking reservations well in advance. With a mid-week ceremony instead of the traditional Sunday afternoon, school back in session, and the threat of inclement weather the Hall of Fame wasn’t offering an attendance prediction. The deaths of eight Hall of Famers over the past year and a half, including Hank Aaron and Yankees star Whitey Ford, and the lingering pandemic have limited the number of returning Hall of Famers to 31. Two years ago a record 58 showed up.
The 72-year-old Simmons, a star catcher and first baseman in the 1970s and 1980s for the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers, found a silver lining in the long wait.
“The wait has been good and bad—bad in that you’ve had to wait an extra year for this thing to kind of come to a head, but good in that it’s extended an additional year,” said Simmons, who grew up just outside Detroit. “It’s been such a difficult time for everybody here in the last two years, all over the country, in the workforce, in society in general with this pandemic. The fact that it’s now going to happen just brings us closer to some normalcy, which we’re all hoping for.”
The self-effacing Walker, now 54, said the delay sort of made his election seem a bit dreamlike.
“I’ve been caught on many occasions when somebody wants me to sign something and … I give it back to them and then they give it back to me because I forget to put HOF2020 on there,” said Walker, who will join Ferguson Jenkins as the only Canadian-born players in the Hall of Fame. “So I guess that reality of it hasn’t sunk in. I don’t necessarily consider myself a Hall of Famer at anything.”
Jeter was the 57th player elected by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on the first try. He was one vote shy of becoming the second unanimous pick, named on 396 of the 397 votes cast. His former Yankees teammate, ace reliever Mariano Rivera, remains the only one.
A key member of five World Series champions, Jeter stayed right where he always wanted to be from 1995 to 2014—two decades in the Big Apple playing for a storied franchise.
“The most important thing during my career, what I wanted to be remembered as, I wanted to be remembered as a Yankee. That was it,” he said. “That was the only team I ever wanted to play for since as far back as I could remember. As you start playing your career you start thinking about legacy. It’s much more than what you do on the field. It’s the legacy you leave off the field.
“I never wanted my career to be over and then for me to say, ‘Well, I wish I would have done a little bit more.’ Ultimately, you’re judged, especially in New York, by winning. They remember you if you win.”
As for those speeches, Simmons said he took care of his right away and Walker said he wrote his, believed it was final, and keeps practicing it.
“I’m trying to just keep it short, simple, not going over the top on one subject or any one person or any one team,” said Walker, who starred for the Montreal Expos and Rockies. “I’m just trying to show how [grateful] I am for this opportunity without having everybody fall asleep.”
And the Captain?
“It’s something that I’ve tried to take my time with,” Jeter said. “I didn’t want to get help from anyone. I didn’t want anybody to see it before I deliver it. It’s kind of hard to cover your entire career in that short a period of time. I’m still working on it.”
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1983 to 2009 and now in the same role with the National Hockey League, will accept Miller’s plaque and speak on his behalf. Miller hired Fehr as general counsel of MLBPA in 1977.
“It really comes down to how our house has been built,” said Tony Clark, MLBPA executive director. “In other words, how he built our house, our players’ association, our union. In order for that house to stand the test of time, it has to be built on a strong foundation.”
By John Kekis