COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — They spoke of the racism and cruelties they endured while becoming the greatest ballplayers in the world.
They spoke proudly of their Cuban and Dominican and even Michigan roots.
They spoke of the perseverance and fight it took that led them to baseball immortality.
There were two hours spent celebrating the Hall of Fame class — Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, the late Minnie Minoso, the late Gil Hodges and the late Buck O’Neil — telling the stories and journey it took to get to baseball heaven, with the crowd of 35,000 catching their breath and readying themselves for the glorious finale.
David Ortiz, Big Papi.
You couldn’t walk around town this weekend without seeing Dominican flags, Ortiz shirts and jerseys, Boston Red Sox hats, anything and everything showing their love for one of the most beloved baseball sluggers of his generation.
The moment Ortiz walked onto stage, the crowd erupted, with fans chanting, “Papi! Papi! Papi!,’’ waving Dominican flags.
Ortiz, who said he cried often practicing his speech and thinking of his late mother and father, looked out at the crowd of about 35,000, and yelled out:
“Hello, my people!
“I was not surprised to see all of my people representing the Dominican Republic,’’ Ortiz said. “The Dominican Republic, we have a lot of wonderful people that believe in God. I’m so lucky. It’s such a beautiful place with beautiful people.’’
Ortiz, whose daughter, Alex, sang the national anthem before the induction, spoke for 18 minutes in Spanish and English, before eloquently summing up his emotional day.
“You know me,’’ Ortiz said, “I’m always outspoken, I’m always saying what I feel like saying. I’m always joking around. I’m always being me.
“But you have the whole planet, the whole nation watching you, and you want to deliver a positive message — especially the way life is going nowadays — so people understand that we need to stay together. We need to be more humble. We need to share more love because that’s what we need.
“A lot of bad things are happening nowadays, we need to step up and make things different.’’
MORE: Meet the 2022 Baseball Hall of Fame class
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While the large contingent of Dominican Republic fans wildly celebrated their native son, Ortiz made sure to let Boston and New England know just what they mean to him, and always will.
“When I think about Boston,’’ Ortiz said, “I definitely think about 2004, 2007, and of course, 2013 when our city was shaken by a Marathon bombing. I have never seen a community bounce back and reunite like Boston.
“When I think about Boston, I also think about the last game I played [in 2016]. Standing on that field, it felt like the whole city of New England and each one and every one of you was surrounding me and was showing me all your love.
“I love you Boston!”
If there was enough time, Ortiz could have spent 12 hours on stage thanking everyone along the way, from his former teammates to coaches to traveling secretaries to scouts.
He thanked and acknowledged more than a dozen of his former teammates, everyone from Pedro Martinez to Kirby Puckett to LaTroy Hawkins to Dustin Pedroia to Johnny Damon to Jason Varitek.
“I’ve been thinking about my life, my career, and most of all, the people who believe in me,” Ortiz said. “When you believe in someone, you can change their world, you can change their future.’’
Ortiz was inundated with advice along the way, but the greatest may have been from former Red Sox manager Grady Little.
They were playing a game shortly after he was dumped by the Minnesota Twins and signed with Boston in 2003, and remembers hitting a ground ball that moved the runner over from first base into scoring position.
He got to the dugout, expecting to get high-fives, but was greeted only by silence.
“Grady told me, ‘Hey big boy,'” Ortiz recalled. “‘I don’t want you to move them over. I want you to bring them in.’
“The rest is history”
Ortiz became the fourth Dominican player inducted into Cooperstown, and the first DH elected on the first ballot.
“That’s what makes this club so special,’’ Ortiz said, “you can not go shopping to get it. You got to earn it.’’
Ortiz, who tested positive for steroids during anonymous drug testing in 2003, was asked whether Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Sammy Sosa would one day get into the Hall of Fame.
“Those players,’’ he said, “they did their duty. Situations happened the way I understand it; that explains why they’re not here. They will have their opportunity.’’
Rodriguez, who had never been to the Hall of Fame, flew in Saturday to honor Ortiz. He walked around the museum on Saturday night, closely read dozens of the plaques, went to the Red Sox party, and later relaxed and smoked cigars at the Otesaga Hotel.
There were plenty of laughs and light-hearted moments along the way too.
Former Twins greats Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau came to honor Tony Oliva and Jim Kaat, and decided to go old-school. They may have earned a combined $315 million during the course of their careers, but roomed together in a hotel room outside of town.
The last time they shared a room was back in 2001 in their first professional seasons in the Appalachian League in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Oliva joked that he was going to speak for 45 minutes, taking one minute for every year it took him to get elected. He wound up speaking for 18 minutes, 5 seconds — eight minutes longer than the Hall of Fame wanted — but, significantly shorter than he threatened.
He talked about meeting his wife in Minnesota, not knowing a word of English while she didn’t know a word of Spanish, and falling in love with Minnesota. It took a lot longer than he ever envisioned to get to Cooperstown, and now wants former Red Sox great Luis Tiant to join him.
Kaat, 83, told the stories of growing up in Michigan, falling in love with baseball at his first game on June 26, 1946 at Briggs Field in Detroit, and being able to recite the first class of the Hall of Fame at the age of 8: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner.
Kaat got emotional thinking about his father, who earned just $72 a week, but still recommended that his son take the $4,000 signing bonus offered by the Washington Senators to develop in the minors, instead of accepting the Chicago White Sox’s offer of $25,000 where he would be on the big-league roster, but sit on the bench for two years.
“You do the math,’’ Kaat said, “to see what my dad sacrificed for me to play at the right level.’’
Kaat won 283 games, pitched 180 complete games, but still waited 34 years before his induction, finally rewarded for longevity and durability. He never missed a single game with an arm injury, and campaigned for the man who made an elbow surgery famous to join him one day in Cooperstown.
“I think it’s a tragedy Tommy John is not in the Hall of Fame,’’ he said. “Is there a pitcher more famous than Tommy John?’’
Irene Hodges, the daughter of Hall of Famer Gil Hodges, told enlightening stories of her father’s close relationship with Jackie Robinson as teammates with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
She remembers her dad talking about the racial taunts Robinson received by an opposing team one game when Hodges had enough, stormed toward their dugout, and threw down his glove.
“If anyone else has anything to say,’’ Irene Hodges recalled, “let them come out here right now and we will settle it. Needless to say, nobody came out and nobody said another word.’’
It was one beautiful tribute after another, but this was a day that belonged to Ortiz, and, just as he did during the Red Sox’s biggest moments that led to three World Series titles, he delivered.
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: David Ortiz delights Cooperstown crowd at Hall of Fame ceremony