Barry Larkin lost it before he even started. Vicki Santo never wavered as she honoured her late husband, Ron.
Baseball's highest honour always seems to leave a special impression on those directly involved.
Larkin, the former star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, and Ron Santo, a standout third baseman for the Chicago Cubs and later a beloved broadcaster for the team, were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y.
After wiping away tears as his teenage daughter sang the national anthem, Larkin began a litany of thank-yous to the important people who helped him along his journey, none more important than his mom, Shirley, and father, Robert, who were seated in the first row.
"If we were going to do something, we were going to do it right," Larkin said. "Growing up, you challenged me. That was so instrumental."
Born and raised in Cincinnati, Larkin was a two-sport star at Moeller High School and thought he might become a pro football player after accepting a scholarship to play college ball at Michigan for Bo Schembechler. That changed in a hurry.
"He [Schembechler] redshirted me my freshman year and told me that he was going to allow me just to play baseball," Larkin said. "Occasionally, I'd call him while I was playing in the big leagues and told him that was the best decision he made as a football coach. He didn't like that too much."
Good 1st impression
Drafted fourth by the Reds in 1985, despite playing just 41 games his first year Larkin finished seventh in the National League rookie of the year voting in 1986.
'I played with some monumental figures in the game. They helped me through some very rough times as a player.' — Former Reds shortstop Barry Larkin reflecting on his career
Two years later, Larkin was an all-star with a .296 average, 91 runs scored, 32 doubles and 40 stolen bases. And with a host of older players to guide him — Eric Davis, Ron Oester, Buddy Bell, player-manager Pete Rose, a Cincinnati native, slugger Tony Perez, and even star shortstop Dave Concepcion, the man he would replace — Larkin's major league career quickly took off.
"I played with some monumental figures in the game," said Larkin, who was introduced to baseball by his dad at the age of 5. "They helped me through some very rough times as a player."
After giving special thanks in Spanish to the Latin players that also helped mold him, Larkin heaped special praise on Rose and Concepcion.
"I wouldn't be in the big leagues if it weren't for Pete," Larkin said, eliciting a stirring applause from the fans, two of whom were holding a placard inscribed with "Cincinnati's hometown heroes, Larkin and Rose."
"And Dave Concepcion, understanding that I was gunning for his job, understanding that I was from Cincinnati, he spent countless hours with me preparing me for the game," Larkin said. "I idolized Davey Concepcion as a kid. Thank you, my idol. My inclusion in the Hall of Fame is the ultimate validation. I want to thank you all for helping me along the way."
Larkin, who played his entire 19-year career with the Reds, retired after the 2004 season with a .295 career average, 2,340 hits, 1,329 runs scored and 379 stolen bases.
Ron Santo didn't live to experience the day he always dreamed of. Plagued by health problems, he died Dec. 3, 2010, at the age of 70. His long battle with diabetes cost him both legs below the knees, but he ultimately died of complications from bladder cancer.
'Ron left an awful hole for many of us today. This is not a sad day. This is a great day.' — Vicki Santo, wife of the late Ron Santo
A member of the Chicago Cubs organization for the better part of five decades as a player (1960-74) and then beloved broadcaster (1990-2010), Santo was selected by the Veterans Committee in December, exactly one year after his death.
Vicki Santo said she cried a lot while practicing her speech. Her poise was remarkable when it counted most.
"It just feels right, a perfect ending to a remarkable journey," Vicki Santo said. "Ron left an awful hole for many of us today. This is not a sad day. This is a great day. I'm certain that Ronnie is celebrating right now."
So, too were his beloved Cubs. They paid a tribute of their own to Santo, clicking their heels as they jumped over the third-base line to start the bottom of the first inning at St. Louis.
In 15 major league seasons, all but one with the Cubs, Santo was one of the top third basemen in major league history. He compiled a .277 batting average, had 2,254 hits, 1,331 RBIs and 365 doubles in 2,243 games. He also was a tireless fundraiser for juvenile diabetes, raising more than $65 million US.
Santo fought serious medical problems after he retired as a player. He underwent surgery on his eyes, heart and bladder after doctors discovered cancer. He also had surgery more than a dozen times on his legs before they were amputated below the knees — the right one in 2001 and the left a year later.
As a broadcaster, Santo was known for unabashedly rooting for the Cubs, a trait that endeared him to fans who never saw him play.
"I want you to know that he loved you so much, and he would be grateful that you came here to share this with him," Vicki Santo said to the fans. "He fought the good fight, and though he's no longer here we need to find a cure [for juvenile diabetes]. He felt he had been put here for that reason. He believed in his journey. He believed in his cause. We can't let him down."
Two inductees were honored Saturday in a ceremony at Doubleday Field. Former catcher Tim McCarver received the Ford C. Frick Award for his contributions in broadcasting, while Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun was given the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for sports writing.