San Diego — The call came in around 2:45 p.m. Eastern. It was a New York number.
"Six-three-one. Long Island," Tom Gage said. "I thought, it's a little early for bad news. I didn't know you got the call if you finished second or third."
They don't, Tom. Only winners get the call.
Gage, The Detroit News' Tigers beat writer since 1979, was voted into the writers' wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced Tuesday afternoon at the winter meetings. That was BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell calling with the good news, just like he does when a player gets in.
Gage has covered countless Hall of Famers in his career, and next summer in Cooperstown, New York, Gage will be joining them on stage as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award.
"We're thrilled for Tom to win this honor," said Jonathan Wolman, publisher and editor of The Detroit News. "He's been a master storyteller from the ballparks of America and he's made the Tigers come alive for our readers. We tip our Olde English D to his terrific coverage, and to the others who were on the ballot. Tom was in strong company from the day of his nomination to the day of his election."
Gage, 66, won in the closest vote since 2002 — a result that was the product of some good company. He received 167 votes to 161 for the late Furman Bisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, the biggest name nationally among the three, finished with 134.
Next July, Gage will become the first Detroit News writer to enter the Hall since the late Joe Falls in 2001.
"It has been a great ride, which has included literally years of shared life in Lakeland during spring training," said Detroit News baseball writer Lynn Henning, who first met Gage at Tigertown in 1979, when Gage was a rookie on the beat, and Henning was at the Lansing State Journal. They were colleagues at The News months later.
"I've seen through the years how Tom's steady passion for his work has kept him fresh and galvanized to his beat."
Gage, known in press boxes for wearing his baseball caps and his creative leads, figures he's covered games in 54 ballparks, and written more than 11 million words and covered more than 5,000 games — including five no-hitters — plus one night game in Boston, after undergoing a root canal in the morning.
In 1989, he famously wrote only an act of God could save the San Francisco Giants in the World Series against the Oakland A's. The next day, an earthquake suspended play for 10 days.
"Extremely happy for Tom," said Dave Dombrowski, Tigers president and general manager. "Cannot think of a more deserving individual. Tom is a true professional in every aspect."
The sentiments were echoed by many Tigers folks who Gage has interviewed over the years, many of whom called or texted their congratulations Tuesday afternoon.
"We came into the league together, and he covered me my entire career," said legendary Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell. "To be with somebody that long and to know he's going to be recognized in the Hall of Fame, it's mind-boggling.
"I am so happy for him. It's a tremendous honor, obviously, and I know he's overwhelmed right now. Now he knows how we feel sometimes when he asks us questions and you are speechless and don't know what to say."
Gage acknowledged the emotions that Trammell mentioned. When O'Connell called from the Hall of Fame, Gage, literally, had to sit down and compose himself.
His election was a big hit among the writers at baseball's winter meetings.
"I've admired and respected Tom from the time I started covering the Twins as a daily beat writer in 1994," said Bleacher Report national baseball writer Scott Miller, a native of Monroe. "His writing, his reporting and his genuine kindness were always an inspiration. His knowledge and passion for the game are unsurpassed.
"Whenever I saw Tom in the press box, it was going to be a good day. He has been a gift to Michiganders who love the best game there is, myself included."
Gage, a Detroit native, came to The News from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1976, and actually spent a month on the Tigers beat during Mark Fidrych Mania. Dan Ewald had left the beat, so three reporters took turns covering the team, a month at a time.
The Tigers job eventually went to the bowling writer, Doug Bradford, so Gage started filling in on the bowling beat, among others.
"I didn't know anything about big-time bowling," Gage said. "I knew a lot about open bowling."
In 1979, Bradford left the paper, and Gage began his three-decade-plus run as Tigers beat writer – a run that continues to this day.
He's never taken a sick day, for which his readers — and bosses — are appreciative.
"I've worked with Tom since 1985 and he's the ultimate professional," said Phil Laciura, sports editor of The News. "He always put 100 percent into everything he did. He's always been one of the most dependable people I've ever worked with."
Gage, a graduate of Washington and Lee in Lexington, Va., is not at the winter meetings. He declined the assignment, saying he preferred to hear the news at home in Grosse Pointe, where he lives with his wife of 32 years, Lisa. They have one son, J.T., an attorney in Dallas, two mini daschunds and a 25-year-old African water frog.
"The game is player-oriented. I'm just proud to be a part, in a small way, of the Detroit baseball scene all these years," Gage said. "I've covered baseball since the dawn of computers. I've been through a lot of different ways to file a story, though not the Pony Express.
"I've made it all the way to Twitter."