COOPERSTOWN — This will be one last sparkling Opening Day for Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. With speeches, smiles and probably tears, they will embrace their first moments as Hall of Famers, having been respectively the lowest-drafted and highest-drafted players ever elected.
Piazza, whose plaque will show him wearing a Mets cap, will reflect during the ceremony on being the ultimate longshot, having been taken by the Dodgers in the 62nd round largely as a favor to his father by his friend, manager Tommy Lasorda. Griffey will reminisce about being the son of a major league star who fulfilled the potential of being a No. 1 overall pick.
Both have wound up in the same place, honored as superstars who carried franchises and sometimes transcended the sport.
“We’ve taken the same path,” Griffey said. “We got drafted, we worked hard in the minor league system and we had an opportunity to become big league ballplayers and produce. My dad always said if you work hard and do things right you’re going to get rewarded.
“You’re only a first-round pick one year. There are more second- third- and fourth-round picks in the big leagues than there are first round picks. For me, it was work, day in and day out. You don’t take no for an answer,” said Ken Griffey’s son, who eventually played on the Mariners with his dad.
Piazza, sitting beside Griffey on a dais, wearing a matching Hall-issued white shirt, said, “It’s sort of a testament to our country and this game. You have two with the same path, but in different ways. He had unique challenges being a first-round pick, I had unique challenges being a last-round pick. There was pressure on him, there was pressure on me. Maybe nuanced in a different way but ultimately it came down to people who love you, coaches who supported you, the experiences you had in the minor leagues . . .”
This afternoon, both of them begin a new phase of their lives as they sit on a massive outdoor stage at Clark Sports Center, in front of their now-fellow Hall of Famers. Both Griffey and Piazza said that at a dinner Friday night, previous inductees warmly welcomed them and razzed them, as veterans do to rookies.
Griffey acknowledged having known many of those guys when he was a kid, when his dad played for the Reds and Yankees. Ken Jr. always looked like a can’t-miss prospect. He still was a young man in 1990, when he followed a home run by Ken Sr. with one of his own. “I couldn’t wait to shake his hand, but he made me shake everybody’s hand before he shook mine. We sat next to each other. He said, ‘You know what we just did?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we went back-to-back.’ I’m focusing on the game. He’s focusing on history. I didn’t understand that until later on, when I was 35, 36, what he was feeling,” he said.
Younger Griffey broke Tom Seaver’s record for the highest percentage in Hall voting (99.3) and is widely praised for been untainted by rumors of performance enhancing drugs during the steroid era.
Piazza, in contrast, did not win entry until his fourth try and was peppered with steroid questions as recently as last week during a pre-induction conference call. But he has strong supporters in Cooperstown this week. Ferguson Jenkins called him “a hell of a catcher, and home run hitter.” Mike Schmidt, the player Piazza idolized as a child in suburban Philadelphia, said, “I would have liked to have seen Mike get in on his first go-round. I’m sure there was some politics involved, but we won’t get into that. He’s one of the greatest catchers of all time, if not THE greatest hitting catcher. I don’t know the numbers but I know Piazza is one of the all-time greats.”
Sunday will be greatly emotional for Mets fans, who know how much Piazza meant to their team and who never have seen a position player enshrined as a Met. It will be even more heart-pounding for the man at the podium.
“I’m definitely going to cry,” Piazza said. “I’m looking for some medication that won’t make me loopy. I went on Jimmy Kimmel and he said, ‘Real men cry only at funerals — and when they get inducted into the Hall of Fame.’ So it’s cool.”