By RUSS CHARPENTIER
CHATHAM - The Cape Cod Baseball League's Hall of Fame induction weekend, highlighted by yesterday's ceremony at Chatham Bars Inn, turned into a major recruiting event by Boston Red Sox fans toward free agent southpaw Eric Milton.
And that was before yesterday's ceremony.
Milton, who had a historic season with the 1996 Falmouth Commodores and who is the only pitcher to have thrown no-hitters in the Cape League and the majors, headlined a class of 10 inductees that included probable Cooperstown-bound Will Clark.
It was Milton's free agency that sparked the most interest in a ceremony at times emotional and always heartfelt, and the lobbying by Red Sox fans began Friday and was going strong during the ceremony.
"Eric, you're a free agent, yes?" deadpanned master of ceremonies Scott Wahle of WBZ-TV. "How'd you like to pitch for a world champion?"
Falmouth general manager Chuck Sturtevant pointed out that Cape League Hall of Famer Darin Erstad was on the Anaheim Angels team Milton no-hit, and another Hall of Famer, Terry Steinbach, was Milton's catcher that day. He had more for Milton.
"We inducted Darin, and he won the World Series. Two years ago we inducted Jason Varitek, and he won a World Series. We inducted Buck Showalter and he was just named manager of the year. It's your turn, Eric."
While Milton's free agency may have dominated the thoughts of the gathered baseball fans on the cold, rainy day, there was and impressive range of talent among the new members of the Hall of Fame.
Joining Milton and Clark as inductees were Roy Bruninghaus, an all star in the 1930s, '40s and '50s; Cotuit southpaw Bob Butkus, a five-time all-star in the '60s; Pat Hope, who went 11-1 with a perfect game for Hyannis in 1987; Jim Norris, a 1969 league MVP with Orleans and who played four years in the majors before injuries ended his career; Don Reed, the winningest manager in league history; Dave Staton, whose 16 homers for Brewster in 1988 are a wood bat record; and Tello Tontini, a seven-time all-star who played for Sagamore from 1946-52.
John Caneira, who went 17-5 in 1972-73 with Bourne and Chatham, was unable to attend because of a family illness.
Clark, a sweet-swinging lefty first baseman, compiled a .303 lifetime average in 16 major-league seasons, mostly with the Giants and Rangers.
"I was welcomed here with open arms," said Clark, who hit .367 for Cotuit in 1983. "That made it easy to come up here and play baseball."
Clark spoke of how the thread of the Cape League is entwined in baseball, following a story by Staton, who played in the majors in 1993-94 and who has been a California Highway Patrolman for the past seven years.
"The Giants were in a pennant race with the Braves and we (San Diego) went into cold, windy Candlestick Park," Staton said. "I had a good weekend. I remember Will Clark got to first. I don't want him to feel old, but I looked up to him when he was young. He leaned over to me and said, 'Hey, man, you're really swinging the bat. You're killing us.' "
Clark later told the audience it was what they had in common - the Cape League - that let him and players with similar backgrounds share thoughts and memories.
Staton was presented by his housemother in Brewster, Ann Sullivan, who said when she and her husband saw the 6-5, 200-pounder enter their small ranch, they wondered what was in store for the summer.
"Staying with them completely changed my life," said Staton, who told the story of coming to visit them 10 years later with a wife and young son.
Boston Red Sox vice president Dick Bresciani, a Cape League Hall of Fame member, took a lot of good-natured ribbing over the presence of Milton. Bresciani was in town to present Norris, whose two-year average of .375 for Orleans is second best in modern history.
When Bresciani finished introducing him, Norris got up and quipped, "Listening to Dick, I didn't know I was that good. Maybe I should have held out for more money when I signed with the Indians.
"I was cut from my seventh and eighth-grade team," Norris said. "And that was in a class of just 80 kids. I stand before you as something of an amazement."
Hope was introduced by Ron Holt, a former Stillwater, Okla., pitcher who covered such great Oklahoma State athletes as Barry Sanders, said Hope belongs right up there on any list.
The big right-hander, who completed all 13 of his starts for the '87 Hyannis team, a league record, was emotional in his speech. "Coming to the Cape that summer was the best experience I had pitching in my entire life," he said.
Reed's speech was peppered with memories of the special players he managed, and he said he never would have made it to the stage without those players and assistant coaches.
Tontini was introduced by Dudley Jensen, who said of the former Sagamore star, "I have never known any one person who was so universally liked." For his part, Tontini said yesterday's induction was, "one of the nicest things to ever happen to me. I will never forget it."
Bob Butkus, who went 32-8 for Cotuit and pitched a pair of no-hitters, thanked manager Jim Hubbard for giving him a chance. Hubbard presented Butkus yesterday.
"I thank Jim for letting me play for Cotuit after I flunked the tryout with Yarmouth," he said. He followed that with the reasons the Cape League is such a big step for a player.
"It was my first time away from home. It was my first time living with someone who wasn't my family. It was my first time playing with guys from other parts of the country. It helped provide the foundation for moving down the road of life."
Bruninghaus, whose Cape League career began in 1933, was warmly received by the crowd as he went over his allotted time with a lengthy reminiscence.
The people in the league - the volunteers - are what makes it special, all the inductees said. One honored yesterday was former Orleans Cardinals public address announcer Ed Mooney, who also did so much more for the organization. Former commissioner Bob Stead presented Mooney with the Fred Ebbett Lifetime Achievement Award.
(Published: November 14, 2004)