“Basically what I did was work very, very hard, physically and mentally, to play 21 years, and that was the key to my career,” said Rodriguez, who set the record for games played as a catcher. “I know there was a lot of speculation, but look at where I am right now.”
Now he is part of the gilded 1 percent who have worn a major league uniform and made it to the Hall. Rodriguez has the added distinction of being one of only two catchers elected on the first ballot. The other is his idol, Johnny Bench, and Rodriguez said Bench had called him on Wednesday.
Connections like that define the Hall of Fame, and partly explain why baseball fans care so much about its membership. No other sport is so steeped in tradition, and no other Hall of Fame is so hotly debated. Those who make it often get there with help from others in the club.
Bagwell got help from Ozzie Smith. Bagwell, a third baseman in the minors for the Boston Red Sox who had Wade Boggs and Scott Cooper ahead of him, was traded to Houston in 1990 for reliever Larry Andersen. Bagwell reached the majors with the Astros as a first baseman, but he struggled with balls to his backhand; at third base, most grounders had gone to the glove side.
One day in 1991, in a game against St. Louis at the Astrodome, Smith was on first during a pitching change. Smith, the best fielding shortstop of his generation, asked Bagwell how the transition was going, and Bagwell explained his problem.
“He goes, ‘You’re taking the ball too far back here,’” Bagwell said, reaching behind his right hip. “So he’s literally leaning off first base in a pitching change showing me how to keep my glove hand out in front, not take it back here. I was like, ‘Man, that’s cool.’ He left, and I was sitting there going, ‘Did I just get a fielding lesson from Ozzie Smith?’”
Bagwell would win a Gold Glove in 1994, the year he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Bagwell hit .368 that season, yet sometimes doubted his unusual batting stance, in which he squatted, with his legs spread wide. He said it helped him keep his head still, and he shared his reasoning with Tony Gwynn, who hit .394 that season and understood.
Gwynn had a wide stance, too, and he told Bagwell it helped him for the same reason. He signed a bat Bagwell displays in his home, with the inscription, “Keep the same stance.” Bagwell listened.
“Well, that makes sense,” Bagwell said he told himself, “because I’ve never seen anybody hit a baseball better than Tony Gwynn.”
Raines’s inspiration came from Joe Morgan, the N.L. M.V.P. for Cincinnati in 1975 and 1976, when Raines was in high school in Sanford, Fla. Raines had once dreamed of playing in the N.F.L., but in Morgan, who was 5-7 with a similar set of skills, Raines found a model for what he could become. Raines even played second base, like Morgan, for most of his stay in the minors. When he reached Montreal and faced Morgan’s team, Raines eagerly introduced himself during batting practice.
“I was like a little kid trying to get an autograph,” Raines said. “I told him, ‘You are the reason why I play baseball.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Good, kid!’ He didn’t know anything about me. I came out of nowhere, Double A. But I shook his hand and said, ‘I’m a big fan, and I’ll always be a big fan of yours.’”
Raines said he had remained friends with Morgan but had lost touch with him in recent years and worried about Morgan’s health. Former teammates said last year that Morgan, 73, needed a bone-marrow transplant. Then Morgan surprised Raines with a call on Wednesday night.
“Just to hear his voice has made this day so much more special,” Raines said.
Raines did not compare himself to Morgan, who did more things well and is an inner-circle member of the Hall of Fame. Raines took the full 10 years on the ballot to gain entry, but now he is there, a teammate of his role model. Maybe they will sit together in the team picture, down front with the short guys, in Cooperstown this summer.