Bench puts Elliott, new to Hall, at ease
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Johnny Bench approached Bob "Boxer" Elliott on Saturday afternoon and put a hand on his shoulder.
In a couple of hours, Elliott would receive the highest honor our business can bestow on someone. After more than three decades of covering baseball with grace and distinction, Elliott was to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award "for meritorious contributions to baseball writing."
Elliott, of the Toronto Sun, is the first Canadian to win the award and have a plaque displayed in the Hall of Fame, and it got the attention nationally of everyone from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hockey analyst Don Cherry.
On Saturday, Robbie Alomar gave Elliott a bear hug. Former Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick's eyes welled with tears a couple of times as he spoke of his old friend.
The Spink Award is voted on by the people who know Boxer best. That is, his peers. Ring Lardner won it. So did Grantland Rice and Red Smith and Peter Gammons and Tracy Ringolsby.
Elliott and Tim McCarver, who won the Ford C. Frick Award for his work in broadcasting, were honored in a ceremony at Doubleday Field on Saturday.
Boxer was nervous because of the speech he was to make. He'd practiced and rewritten it for months.
All he had to do was deliver it with a couple of dozen Hall of Famers sitting behind him and hundreds of friends, family members and fans spread in front of him.
Bench had been there. He knew about the nerves. He knew how much Boxer wanted to say just the right thing.
Bench has a long history of assisting and offering advice to new Hall of Famers, of saying and doing just the right thing.
Here's the conversation he had with my buddy:
Bench: "How are you doing?"
Elliott: "Not too good."
Bench: "This is going to be one of the great days of your life. You've covered, what, 33 straight opening days, dozens of World Series? You've covered thousands of players, and almost all of them think the world of you. You've got a beautiful family, great kids. Your peers are here because they care about you. This is going to be the greatest day of your life. Everyone on that stage is rooting for you. You'll do fine."
Boxer said he felt totally at ease about the whole thing after talking to Bench. It wasn't just what he said. It was how he said it.
Boxer did fine, giving a speech that hit all the right buttons -- funny at times, emotional at times, perfect in every way.
"My job has been like winning a lottery," Elliott said. "I have given a lot less to baseball than it has given to me."
That night at a reception at the Hall of Fame, Elliott approached Bench and stuck out his hand.
Bench: "You did great."
Elliott: "I was completely calm after talking to you."
Boxer told Bench he'd always heard about his reputation helping Hall of Famers, etc., and now he knows and he can never thank him enough. He'd said words that were both calming and reassuring.
By the time they were done talking, both men had tears in their eyes, and that conversation spoke volumes about Hall of Fame weekend.
It's the three days we set aside each year to to honor our game and the men and women who've made it great.
I've been here maybe a dozen times and am always overwhelmed by the serenity and beauty of Cooperstown (pop. 1,900 most of the year) and the emotions of the weekend.
To see the best of the best gathered in one place -- Willie Mays here, Frank Robinson there -- to remember the years and memories that made this the greatest game on earth is a special joy and precious memory.
To have a friend honored made the weekend even more special. Late Saturday, the Blue Jays threw a reception honoring Boxer.
A few dozen of us gathered to laugh and tell lies and laugh some more. As the evening grew late, Blue Jays executives Paul Beeston and Howard Starkman raised a glass to Elliott.
They spoke of his integrity and honesty and ribbed him about some of his articles they hadn't liked as much.
Most of all, there was affection and an appreciation for what Bob Elliott has contributed to baseball in Canada.
"Bob," Beeston said at the end of the evening, "thank you."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.