Cooperstown, N.Y. — Late Saturday night outside Nicoletta’s Italian Cafe, a swanky bar and restaurant on the main drag here in this baseball-obsessed town in upstate New York, a mob surrounded a Hall of Famer, requesting pictures and autographs.
Tom Gage, with a smile that seemed to stretch from Cooperstown back home to Grosse Pointe, happily obliged, often with a handshake and a hug, too.
Gage, the longtime Tigers beat writer at The Detroit News, had accepted his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame earlier in the day, with a speech filled with humor and heart as the winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball-writing excellence.
“Wow, just wow,” Gage said, as he took the stage at Doubleday Field under a hazy afternoon sky, dozens of living Hall of Fame players seated behind. “I can’t believe I’m standing here.”
Gage has said since December, back when he learned he was receiving the honor, that it all wouldn’t hit him until the day arrived. Even Saturday, you’d have to excuse him if it all still seemed surreal.
As a kid in Detroit, his baseball fandom was born via trading cards and the popular board game All-Star Baseball, and flourished from the 1970s until today, as he carved out a reputation as one of the best baseball writers and storytellers in the business.
Then, on Saturday, there he was, delivering a 13-minute speech with the rhythm and poise of the day’s other award winner, Armada native and Central Michigan alumnus Dick Enberg, whose experience speaking in public is far greater than Gage’s as the winner of the Ford C. Frick Award for baseball broadcasting.
Gage more than held his own, going first of the two. He was so good, in fact, Enberg later lamented to Gage’s wife, Lisa, that his first thought delivering his speech was, “I have to follow that?”
Thousands of fans soaked up every word of Gage’s 13-minute speech, which included handfuls of funny anecdotes from his days around the Tigers, as well as a sincere appreciation for family, friends and colleagues.
“The Tigers, of course, are one of the great franchises in baseball. But they had some bumpy times,” said Gage, 67. “I had some bumpy times, too. The first manager I ever asked a question of, likable but loud Ralph Houk, well, he yelled at me just for asking it.
“The first general manager I asked a question of, irascible, but also likable Bill Lajoie, well, he cursed me out for asking it.
“And the first manager I covered after I got the beat full time (in 1979), kindly but less than loquacious Les Moss answered the first three questions I asked of him by saying, ‘You never know,’ to all three.
“About that time, I was thinking to myself, ‘This is not going to be an easy beat.’ It wasn’t. And that holds true even now. Baseball is not an easy beat. You miss weddings. You miss funerals. You miss birthdays. I say my son (J.T.) is 29 going on 18 because of all the birthdays I missed.
“But I loved the beat.”
And readers loved Gage because they knew every day they could open up The Detroit News and find his one-of-a-kind report, day after day, year after year, writing about some unique angle, and writing it beautifully.
Gage covered the Tigers for The Detroit News from 1979 until being taken off the beat this spring, and then continued writing for Fox Sports Detroit’s website for three months until Fox Sports laid off all its regional writers nationwide on July 1.
Gage doesn’t know what’s next for his career, though he suspects a book is finally in the cards. He still hopes to find a daily beat, because he’s not comfortable hanging around the press box with nobody for whom to write and report.
And there are many fans, friends and family members who are hoping for that, too, judging by the crowd of his after-party at Nicolletta’s, where more than 100 folks attended, including acquaintances from at least 15 states, Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski and fellow Hall of Famer Al Kaline. When Gage’s wife sent out the invitation weeks ago, one of the first to RSVP was Kaline, who was beaming when Gage walked over to his table just after 9 p.m. Saturday night.
Across the room was Lisa, who threw the party.
“My career has been work and it’s been fun, but it wouldn’t have been the splendid balance it was if I hadn’t had a true saint at home understanding my job, and more amazingly understanding me,” Gage said. “My wife, Lisa, is the light of my life. I met her at a Christmas party. She almost left before I got there, and one I nearly didn’t go to. I’m glad she didn’t, I’m glad I did.”
Lisa also served as life-saver Saturday afternoon, about a couple hours before Gage’s ceremony.
In their hotel suite on the banks of Otsego Lake, Gage was in the bedroom rehearsing his speech delivery one more time, while Lisa was in the living room getting ready. Gage walked out of the bedroom, and quickly realized the door had locked behind him.
Their keys didn’t work.
“My speech is in there!” Gage said.
Lisa quickly dialed the front desk, explained the situation —a soon-to-be Hall of Famer was locked out of his speech — and help was on the way.
Truth be told, Gage probably didn’t need to read that speech anymore. He’d worked with a speech coach, and read it aloud a dozen times in recent weeks, including in front of select friends, though never the whole thing to Lisa. He wanted her to hear it for the first time during the ceremony, but at the last second Saturday, offered to share it. She said no.
Just after 4:30 p.m., she heard the speech for the first time.
And later that night at Nicoletta’s, she raved about the emotion and delivery of the biggest speech of Gage’s career, as did one guest after another, including a contingent of national baseball writers.
It’s one thing to write for a paper, writing a speech — especially for thousands — is a whole different ballgame.
Baseball is Gage’s ballgame, and like hundreds of players he’s covered over 36 years, 5,000 games and at 54 stadiums, he knocked it out of the park.
“Who am I?” said Gage, a humble man knowing full well most at Doubleday Field hadn’t a clue. “Well, if you’ve loved baseball all your life, I am you. If your first memory of watching TV is a baseball game, I am you. If you couldn’t wait for the first day each spring that the new baseball cards were out, once again, I am you.
“What an honor. I am and always will be overwhelmed by it.”