Journeys For Griffey, Piazza Culminate In Cooperstown
COOPERSTOWN—The Hall of Fame billed induction weekend as a tale of two draft picks. The class of 2016 offered a stark contrast between a No. 1 overall draft selection bearing a familiar name with a 62nd-round pick who had to learn a new position in pro ball, while also convincing people that his selection was more than a favor to a family friend.
But when Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza stood at the podium to address the estimated 50,000 fans strewn across the vast Clark Sports Center grounds, they had one thing in common. Both men were overcome with emotion by the enormity of the moment, that reality underscored by the rows of Hall of Famers—48 of them seated on the stage—who made the trip to Cooperstown for the ceremony.
Griffey and Piazza took frequent pauses during their orations to choke back tears as they thanked family, friends, instructors, mentors and entire organizations for helping shepherd them to the Hall of Fame.
Or as Piazza said in his speech: “No one goes in here alone.”
Griffey, known as The Kid early in his career, made it approximately 20 seconds into his speech before breaking down and wiping tears from his eyes.
“The thing is I made the mistake of looking down at my kids in the front row,” he said at the post-ceremony press conference. “I remember everybody saying, ‘Don’t look at your kids. Don’t look at your kids until you have to.’
“Nope, not me. You know what they say when you’re a kid? ‘Don’t do that. Don’t do that.’ What do you do? You do it anyway.”
Both Griffey, a center fielder, and Piazza, a catcher, served as standard-bearers at their positions in the 1990s, with both serving as offensive focal points for their teams by batting third more often than any other lineup position.
Piazza led off on this day, however, taking the podium first and beginning his comments with praise for Griffey, particularly Junior’s work ethic and enthusiasm.
“I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed your skills,” Piazza said. “Unfortunately, it came at my expense, when you robbed me on a ball in the gap in instructional league early in our careers. I knew at that time professional baseball was going to be very difficult.”
Piazza just had no idea exactly how difficult the game would become. The Dodgers drafted him out of Miami-Dade JC in 1988 as a favor to manager Tommy Lasorda, who had grown up with Piazza’s father in Norristown, Pa. Los Angeles didn’t envision its 62nd-round—and final—pick carrying on as a first baseman, though, so Piazza learned to play catcher, where his slow feet and poor speed would be less of a liability.
He began his crash course in catching with Dodgers instructors Johnny Roseboro and Kevin Kennedy after he signed, and the lessons continued during Dominican instructional league following the 1988 season. At Las Palmas, D.R., he gained experience behind the plate and communication skills with Spanish-speaking pitchers, including a skinny 18-year-old named Pedro Martinez.
“I returned to the States with more confidence, and the belief that I can actually do this thing,” Piazza said.
Early in his pro career, Piazza gave no indication that he would develop into a career .308 hitter in the majors with 427 home runs, including a record 396 while playing catcher. A particularly tough 1990 campaign at high Class A Vero Beach prompted him to quit baseball—until hitting coach Reggie Smith, the former all-star outfielder, demanded that he stay the course and “do exactly what the Dodgers say,” Piazza said.
“Reggie knew right away that I had something you couldn’t teach: power. And he wasted no time working with me in the cage, refining my swing and making it shorter . . . He did this with a series of drills and disciplines he learned as a player in Japan. I responded, worked, and started to get it . . .
“Reggie, thank you for (convincing me not to quit) and thank you for helping me,” Piazza said while struggling to gain composure. “You are a great hitting coach, but the biggest lesson that you taught me was how to get through the game of life and to never quit.”
Piazza went on to single out various other members of the Dodgers organization, including Dave Wallace, Joe Ferguson—who helped Piazza “catch according to my body type”—Mel Didier, Joe Amalfitano, Mark Cresse, Burt Hooton, Peter O’Malley and, finally, big league first baseman Eric Karros, who would become a mentor and close friend to Piazza.
While Piazza enjoyed his biggest seasons with the Dodgers—he won the National League Rookie of the Year award in 1993 and finished runner-up in MVP balloting in both 1996 and 1997—he chose to be enshrined in Cooperstown wearing a Mets hat. New York acquired Piazza in May 1998 in a bizarre series of trades precipitated by a contact-extension impasse the catcher had reached with Fox, the corporation that purchased the Dodgers from the O’Malley family.
“To be the only second Met to enter the Hall of Fame, following Tom Seaver, brings me great pride and joy,” said Piazza, who was the game’s highest-paid player when he re-signed with the Mets after the 1998 season for seven years and $91 million.
Piazza helped propel the Mets to the 2000 World Series, which they lost to the Yankees, and in New York he finished filling out his trophy case with five of his 10 Silver Slugger awards and seven of his 12 all-star appearances.
His mammoth home run to center field on Sept. 21, 2001, in the first game played in New York since the terror attacks 10 days earlier, still resonates with Mets fans who continue to thank him for the memory.
The most heartfelt moment of Piazza’s speech centered on his father Vince, a “son of Italian immigrants,” for whom he dedicated a passage in Italian. At the post-ceremony press conference, Piazza translated his remarks to mean, “Infinite thanks to the country of Italy for giving me the gift of my father.”
“My father’s faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Piazza said from the podium. “Thank you, dad.”
Like Piazza, Griffey collected myriad awards for his on-field excellence—13 all-star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, seven Silver Slugger awards and the 1997 American League MVP trophy—while also enjoying a second act with another organization, thus endearing him to multiple fan bases.
Griffey said that one friend named Rob travelled 6,000 miles from Israel to be in Cooperstown for induction weekend. “I stand up here humbled and overwhelmed,” said Griffey, who received a record 99.3 percent of the writers’ vote. “The last couple months have been a blur.”
While Griffey and Piazza reached the same summit, the two Hall Famers began from much different starting points. The son of Ken Griffey Sr., the speedy No. 2 hitter for the World Series-champion Reds teams of 1975 and 1976, Junior pointed to his decision to play baseball at Archbishop Moeller High in Cincinnati rather than go to spring training with his father as a turning point.
“I went in the batting cage, and I swung and missed seven or eight times,” Griffey said. “And I still remember the look on (coach Mike) Cameron’s face saying, ‘And he’s supposed to be good?’
“I said, ‘Just wait until we get outside.’ A couple weeks later we were able to go outside, and I hit the first couple balls in the trees.”
Because Griffey preferred to take batting practice on the field rather than in batting cages throughout his career, he pointed out the irony of being selected No. 1 overall in the 1987 draft by the Mariners, a team that for his tenure in Seattle played all its home games indoors at the Kingdome.
Griffey might be better known today as the son of a football star, but he said his father chose baseball largely as a practical decision. Junior was born just five months after Griffey Sr., a Reds 29th-round pick in 1969, graduated high school.
“(My dad taught me) how to work hard,” Griffey said, “how to look at yourself in the mirror each and every day and not to worry about what other people are doing.
“See, baseball didn’t come easy for him . . . And where he’s from in Donora, Pa., football is king. But . . . he made a decision to play baseball to provide for his family, because that’s what men do. And I love you for that.”
Griffey began the second half of his career in 2000 with the Reds, the organization for which his father starred, in the city where Junior grew up. But despite spending nine seasons there, he didn’t focus on his Cincinnati career on induction day. His best—and most injury-free—years were spent in Seattle.
“In 1989, I made the (Mariners) out of spring training, not sure of what kind of player I would be,” Griffey said. “But at 19, all I wanted to do was survive. Even though I had been around baseball all my life doesn’t mean that I have arrived.”
He subsequently recognized various Mariners teammates, such as Randy Johnson, Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Mickey Brantley and Darnell Coles—but he saved the biggest praise for Jay Buhner (“the greatest teammate I ever had”) and Edgar Martinez (“yes, he belongs in the Hall of Fame”).
“I’ve learned that only one team will treat you the best, and that’s your first team,” Griffey said. “I’m damn proud to be a Seattle Mariner (in the Hall of Fame).”
While Griffey credited Rickey Henderson, Ozzie Smith and Dave Winfield for showing him the ropes when he was a young player in the majors, it was a different Hall of Famer—and a direct contemporary from the 1990s—who supplied him with the last-minute idea to conclude his induction speech by donning a Hall of Fame cap in trademark backward fashion.
“It wasn’t my idea,” Griffey said. “Frank Thomas said, ‘You’ve got to do it!’ ”
Unwittingly or not, Thomas supplied the 2016 induction ceremony with an indelible image of Griffey and a fitting encore.