"They're very kind to me," said Kaat at a reception before the dinner. "I was on the ground floor and they were trying to get someone with name recognition. Since I pitched against guys that played in the '30s, like Ted Williams, and against guys like Julio Franco that played into the 2000s, I agreed to be president, and it was just more or less in name. I started things out on the ground floor, and I didn't have a full-time broadcasting job at the time. ... They said they wanted to give me a lifetime-achievement award, but I said, 'I just kind of kick-started things. I left to go into broadcasting.'"
Kaat, less than a week away from his 73rd birthday, spoke gleefully of a career that began in 1959 and didn't wind down until '83. And then he spoke of pride in the growth of MLBPAA, an organization that he remembered as a noble idea that was hard to get started.
The MLBPAA has grown over the years and has affected the lives of former players and of countless children interested in the game, and Kaat said it had succeeded beyond his wildest hope.
"It's so rewarding to see it go from what we had with just two members to what we have now," he said. "Not just the former players, the current players, the Players' Association, Major League Baseball and the Baseball Assistance Team. We're all working together, and that's the way it should be."
Kaat, who won 283 games and 16 Gold Gloves during his distinguished career, recently learned that he has been named as a candidate on the Golden Era ballot for induction to the Hall of Fame.
His fellow honoree, Mattingly, was introduced by Gene Michael, the man who played the role of Yankees general manager during the first baseman's iconic tenure. Michael lauded Mattingly -- currently employed as manager of the Dodgers -- as one of the hardest working players in the game.
And when his turn to speak came, Mattingly said that he had always tried to play the game up to the highest standards. He said he stressed the same things to his current players, which was all the more reason that he was touched to be given an award based on the thoughts of his peers.
"Standing in front of you all tonight is an experience that's humbling," Mattingly said. "Seeing some of the faces -- some guys that I played with and some guys that I was a fan of as a kid -- it's really humbling. To see [Steve] Garvey, who may be my next boss. I'm very honored to be here."
Thome, long known as one of the game's most gregarious players, attended the event with his wife, Andrea, and said that Robinson had been one of his role models as he came up through the ranks. Thome, a 20-year veteran, said he was thrilled from the moment he heard about the award.
"Personally, for me, accepting the award and having Brooks Robinson call me was very, very special," he said. "As a third baseman, growing up, everybody heard Brooks Robinson. He's legitimately the greatest third baseman of all time. Again, it's a great thing, it's great to be here, and I think the award signifies what players should be about. And that's community service."
Thome may be best known as a five-time All-Star with 604 home runs, but he's also a world-class philanthropist who previously served as the Honorary Chair of the United Way Home Run Derby. Now, when he's not busy clubbing historic home runs at the advanced age of 41, he spends most of his free time advocating for causes like Children's Hospital of Illinois.
"This is the 16th year that we've done a huge benefit in Peoria, which is where Jim is from, for the children's hospital," said Andrea Thome. "We've raised more than $2.5 million for that cause alone. We've always made it a point to really become a part of the community in every city that he's played in. We still do things in Philadelphia; we still do things in Chicago. We try to give back."
"We try to give back to every organization that we've been to, whether it's through the community or through the local charities," added Jim. "And I must say, really, to be honest, I shouldn't be standing up there alone doing it. You're only as good as your spouse, and let's face it, they're the ones that keep us on top of what's going on. While we're playing, they have a big role to play."
One of the night's attendees, Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, was given a surprise toward the end of the evening. Hunter -- one of five current players at the event, along with Thome, Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker, Washington shortstop Ian Desmond and Minnesota outfielder Michael Cuddyer -- was given the Heart and Hustle Award, which is annually given to the player who best demonstrates a passion for the game and who best embodies the values, spirits and traditions of baseball.
"This is a great, great award," said Hunter. "For all the recipients and the honorees ... there are no losers. Everything that you're doing, these great things that you're doing, you're impacting these kid's lives. There are no losers in this. All of us are winners. I just got the award."