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07/28/06 10:00 AM ET

Baseball immortality awaits Sutter

Trailblazing reliever, Negro Leaguers headline Hall induction

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- It has been a summer of uncommon rain followed by relentless heat, swelling the banks of Otsego Lake by as much as 40 inches at one point. Docks were submerged and the water had been rendered off limits to swimmers.

But today, the skies are expected to be blue and the sun bright on the rolling fields behind the Clark Sports Center as Bruce Sutter and 17 former Negro Leaguers take their place along with the other 260 players, managers and executives whose plaques already hang in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

BaseballChannel.TV and MLB Radio will carry the ceremony in its entirety. It's a moment when heroes can be reduced to mere mortals and a hardened former player can be beset by his own flood, so to speak.

"It's going to be an honor to go in the same day as the 17 players and administrators," Sutter said last week during a conference call with the media. "Obviously, I didn't play against them or know a whole lot about their careers, but it's an extreme honor. I'm just excited about it."

The weekend begins with Friday's "Play Ball With Ozzie Smith" event on Doubleday Field, featuring two hours of tutelage for fans from the Hall of Fame shortstop, fellow Hall inductees Ryne Sandberg and George Brett, plus Negro League icon Buck O'Neil. The festivities continue at the red brick museum on Main Street, which was given a makeover last year, with various other functions, including a lavish, private cocktail party on Saturday night in the plaque room.

Gene Elston, the former voice of the Houston Astros, won the Ford C. Frick Award and was elected to the broadcasters' wing; Tracy Ringolsby, the longtime Rockies beat writer for Denver's Rocky Mountain News, won the J.G. Taylor Spink Award and was selected for the writers' wing, thus rounding out the honorees on Sunday's program, which is usually filled with uncommon emotion and grandiose speeches.

O'Neil and Sharon Robinson, daughter of the late Jackie Robinson, who shattered Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, are scheduled to deliver special speeches on Sunday in behalf of their 17 Negro League cohorts, who will be enshrined after five years of research into their records and a special election.

With the January selection of Sutter, it also has been a big year for the reliever. The right-handed split-fingered fastball artist -- who plied his craft for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves in a career that spanned 13 years from 1976 to 1988 and ended when he irrevocably hurt his right shoulder -- became the first pure reliever to be elected. Sutter joins a trio of other pitchers in the Hall whose claim to fame may have been closing games -- Hoyt Wilhelm, Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley. But each was a starter at one time or another.

Sutter, who never started a game -- but finished 512 of them to record 300 saves, the 19th most in history -- was asked if his long-sought election was a milestone for relievers.

"I hope so," he said. "Rollie stared a few games, but I think he was mainly thought of as a reliever. I'm one of the first of the breed. Before me, there was Sparky Lyle and Tug McGraw. But most of the guys started out as starters. We paved the way for changing how the relief pitcher is thought of. Really, I don't see that much significance of it. If I'd have started one game, it wouldn't be a big deal. It's just a sign of the times that the role was becoming more popular."

A player must be named on at least 75 percent of the ballots to be elected, and Sutter, who received 76.9 percent of the vote, was the only former Major League player to make it this year.

He's the second inductee in as many seasons to join the Hall boasting a Cubs pedigree.

Sandberg, the All-Star second baseman who was inducted last year along with seemingly perennial American League batting champ Wade Boggs, came up in the Phillies organization, but in 1982 was traded to the Cubs, with whom he played for 15 seasons until retiring in 1997. Sutter was drafted by the Cubs in 1971 and played his first five years in Chicago.

This was the right-hander's 13th year on the BBWAA ballot, two shy of the end of his eligibility for the writers' vote. His percentage had steadily increased in recent years, from 53.6 percent in 2003 to 59.9 percent in 2004 to 66.7 percent last year until he exceeded the necessary toll this past January.

Sutter's selection snapped a string of three straight years and six of the last seven during which the writers elected at least two players. Smith, who played for the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals, was the lone electee in 2002. After electing no one in 1986, the writers have selected at least one player for induction every year.

Since 1997, the roster of inductees has been a veritable Who's Who of modern baseball history: Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Nolan Ryan, Brett, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, Tony Perez, Winfield, the late Kirby Puckett, Smith, Eddie Murray, Gary Carter, Paul Molitor, Eckersley, Boggs, Sandberg and now Sutter.

And next year's possible class -- which almost certainly will include Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr., and possibly Mark McGwire -- will only swell those ranks.

But first things first.

On Sunday, the living Hall of Famers will take their place on the stage next to Commissioner Bud Selig and welcome in this year's inductee. Stretched out on the lawn before them will be a sea of adoring fans who come from far and wide and undoubtedly will be decked out in Cubbie blue and Cardinals red.

The speeches will be of various lengths, invoking images of past childhoods and careers. Family members will be seated in the audience on plastic folding chairs along with friends and former teammates.

They may dab their cheeks. Tears may flow.

"This is going to be special," Sutter said. "I think I've got 85 family members who are going to be there. It's been a long time. I was on the ballot for 13 years. Everybody always had their fingers crossed, and every year at election time, everyone was hoping. But then when it finally happens, it's like, am I dreaming? I think on Sunday, it's all going to come into focus and be real."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.