COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The Hall of Fame is a tribute to the idea that anything is possible in baseball. The only possible exception is coming up with the right words to describe seeing your son reach the greatest pinnacle in the sport while you still remember him playing his first game of catch.
In a distinct and very emotional way, the induction ceremony Sunday was Father’s Day. Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza barely could get out the words to say that they owe their now legendary careers to their dads. And their dads were humbled beyond description.
“It’s beyond being amazing. I can’t explain it. I’m an emotional person to begin with so it’s hard for me to hide the care,” said Vince Piazza, who sat in the front section of seats before the huge stage at Clark Sports Center.
There were about 50,000 people at the ceremony, but at times, each dad felt that his son was speaking directly and privately to him.
The elder Ken Griffey, who had a solid major league career that included a stint with the Yankees, said, “I’m just a happy camper right now that’s all I can say. I’m not getting into tears any more. Between the two of us, we have a sense of pride, when he talks about me and I talk about him . . . I’ve been proud ever since he’s been playing ball. Not just this day. I’m just a little prouder today.”
Just as the two players had taken vastly different routes to the same peak — Griffey Jr. was a No. 1 overall draft pick, Piazza was a 62nd-rounder — the two dads took their honored seats Sunday through different paths. Vince Piazza wanted to play major league ball but could not pursue his dream because he had a family to support. Griffey Sr. was tempted to try other sports, but chose baseball because he could turn pro right away.
“I was born five months after his senior year [of high school] and he made the decision to play baseball to provide for his family because that’s what men do,” Griffey Jr. told the crowd.
Then speaking toward his dad, he added, “I love you for that.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. The superstars are just as proud of, and grateful to, their moms. Griffey recalled how his mother used to go to all of his high school games and was his greatest advocate and critic. Piazza thanked his mother for giving him the gift of his Catholic faith.
But when it came to the baseball parts of their lives, the dads played special roles. Mike Piazza, choked up, spoke of his father as son of Italian immigrants and then said in Italian something to the effect of, “Thanks to Italy for giving the gift of my father.”
The elder Piazza was thrilled with his son’s speech, and impressed by how smoothly Griffey Jr. followed it. It gave Vince the chance to polish off one of his favorite Tommy Lasorda stories. Vince, a lifelong friend, was with the former Dodgers manager in Washington D.C. when he had to speak right after former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Lasorda wasn’t sure how to follow that act, so he explained that his speech had flown out of his car window, “And Margaret Thatcher found it.”
Seriously, he is proud of the way his son played ball and of how he has grown into a good husband and father, adding: “My God, what more could you ask for in a child?”
No dad could dream of hearing his son say from the podium at the Hall of Fame what Mike said: “We made it, Dad, the race is over. Now it’s time to smell the roses.”
Nor could Griffey Sr. have foreseen what happened on Sunday when he watched Ken Jr. in high school, unable to even get a hit whenever his dad was there to watch him. The latter said they have a special bond now, “And it’s not about baseball.”
“He taught me how to play this game and how to be a man,” Griffey Jr. said.
Griffey Sr. was talking with reporters after the speech — joking about slight critiques — when the interview was cut short. His son’s son was tugging at him, urging him to get on with being a grandpa.