(Neil Miller / Sportsday Wire)
The paths of the 2016 National Baseball Hall of Fame inductees, Mets legend Mike Piazza and Mariners great Ken Griffey, Jr,, show just how unique baseball is among American sports.
Griffey. Jr., grew up around the game with his father, Ken, Sr., so it was no surprise when he went first in the 1987 MLB Draft. He is the first Number One pick to be voted into the Hall of Fame.
On the other end of the spectrum is Piazza, who was the 1,390th player taken in the 1988 Draft, the lowest-chosen player to make the Hall.
Even though they were both drafted far apart, they still went through the same path to the top, putting in hard work, taking the endless bus rides, and making due with the same meager paychecks in the minors.
On Thursday, at their introductory press conference as the Class of 2016, they both talked about their path to the major leagues.
Piazza said of what the number 1,390 means to him, “Wow. Just shows how great our sport is. You just need a chance. I was able to sneak into this game, kind of limp in, if you will. Through a lot of hard work and determination, some luck, some timing, was able to build a pretty good career. That’s something for me that, again, I’ve been very vocal about the amount of support. As Ken mentioned, his family growing up.
“My dad made a joke last night. He said, ‘Man, today he might have been arrested like with child labor laws because he forced me in that cage every single day.’ He said, ‘Man, I could have been arrested, it could have been child abuse.’ My father was so instrumental in getting me to focus. I think that’s something we struggle with today because you don’t want to be so intense, but you also want to focus kids and get them going. He was probably closer to going over the top than most parents today. Nonetheless, he was able to see it was a passion that I had, knew I was able to take it. It’s something that I responded to.
“Again, just real quick, as a kid, my dad’s unique relationship with Tommy (Lasorda), the fact not dissimilar to Kenny’s, but for me, I got to see the pennant celebration the Dodgers had against the Phillies in ’77, be in the clubhouse, things I said before. That’s pretty powerful as a kid to not only go to a big league game, but also much a pennant-winning celebration. It’s inspiring. As much as our pasts are very different, as I said, it shows how great this game is. I watched the kid Altuve, I think from Houston, he’s not a crazy big guy, but he just hustles and plays. That’s what our sport is. You look at a basketball guy, chances are you can pick him out of a crowd, a football guy. But baseball is unique in that sense, there’s many roles that we can find to have a good career,” said Piazza.
On being a Number One pick, Griffey, Jr. said, “There’s always a No. 1 pick. Each year there’s going to be a No. 1 pick. There’s going to be a first-round pick. But you got to go out and play. Once you get drafted, that number doesn’t really mean anything. You may have one more chance than everybody else, but you’ve got to go out there and play. I knew that when I got drafted. You’re a No. 1 pick. So what? You still got to go out there and play like everybody else. We’re not going to treat you any different than anybody else. From Rick Sweet being my first-year manager. He actually fined me for missing curfew. Only reason I missed curfew is I’m allergic to fish, I went to eat after a seven-hour bus ride. He doesn’t care. You missed curfew, here is a hundred. When I got to Cincinnati, I asked for my money back. He said he didn’t have it. That was good (laughter).”
Griffey, Jr., said of being inducted into the Hall, “I am very honored, humbled by this tremendous — wow. It’s something that you can only dream of. I knew I could play baseball, but I didn’t know at this level until later in my career what I was able to do.
“At age 19, it’s pretty much trying to survive day in and day out of baseball. As I got older, I think I started realizing around 35 my place in baseball. Had a little help from my father, who is somewhere around here, when we hit back-to-back home runs. Being 20, when I shook his hand, he was like, ‘You know what we did?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we went back-to-back.’ Like every other 20-year-old, it was like no big deal. He was like, ‘Yeah, we just went back-to-back. Nobody’s ever done that. Now let’s do it again.’ He understood the history of the game, being 38, 39, where I was just like, I’m ready to play every day.
“As I got older, I finally understood, you know, what I’ve accomplished and what I had a potential to be. Now it’s paid off. So I’m going to go into the weekend with a Seattle Mariners’ hat on,” said Griffey Jr., who also spent a good amount of his career as a Cincinnati Red.
Piazza said of making the Hall on his fourth try, “First and foremost, I would like to thank God for this blessing today. I mean, I’m really honored. It’s really overwhelming. Thank you to the writers for you guys voting us in. It’s so rewarding to be recognized by those who cover the sport and know the gravitas of this Hall and the history of this sport. Thank you to the Hall, distinguished members here on the dais for their incredible dedication to the history of the game. It’s truly a special club, as they mentioned. The passion and the incredible detail with which they honor the game is truly inspiring.
“Ken, what an honor it is to go in with you. I remember signing with the Dodgers in 1988. One of my first games was against the Seattle Mariners. I remember being awed by watching your athletic talent. Knew I was the complete polar opposite of you. But I knew I had one thing I could do, get the bat to the zone and hit.
“As a young catcher, I knew I had a lot of work to do. I think that speaks volumes about how wonderful this game is. You have such an amazing, diverse role system that players can find their way and really, truly make a great living at this sport. For me being a student of history, a student of the sport, it something, again, that is truly overwhelming because everybody knows it’s not easy, it’s a grind. There’s so many stories. When you get an honor like this, you truly think back from your days in the Minor Leagues, living with three guys, going to the late-night fast food, all the work and dedication that you do put in. It’s something that, again, it brings it all around in focus. It’s something that’s very special,” said Piazza.
Piazza and Griffey, Jr., spoke of the starts of their major league careers, in Albuquerque and Bakersfield and how that prepared them for what ended up being a Hall-of-Fame career.
“I think those moments, as much as they were difficult, were some of the more innocent times and the fun with the guys; Musketeers against the world.” said Piazza. “Once you get to the big leagues sometimes it’s a lot more pressure and it’s different. But those are the times that you have to kind of cut your teeth and go through those struggles, especially for me. I remember just my short story about having to run back to the backstop, and pitchers that came from good colleges. They’re like, ‘Who is this guy catching?’ He’s terrible. We need to get another guy back there. Fortunately I was able to get better and work harder and at least, as I said, improve to where I was able to be a pretty good Major League catcher.”
Griffey, Jr., said, “Wow, I just remember those bus rides. You touched it all with having roommates and things like that, people you don’t know.”, to which Piazza replied, “No money,” then Griffey, Jr., said, “Mine was 700 bucks a month”
Piazza then said, “My first contract was $850 a month. Tommy Lasorda always has a great expression. When I played in the Minor Leagues, you couldn’t even get a hot shower. He always used to say, ‘Good, I don’t want it to be comfortable here, I want you to work to get to the big leagues.’ Now you go to the Minor League stadiums, it’s great, you have baby changing rooms in the clubhouse. This is comfortable, I don’t know if I ever want to leave here…Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m happy for the players today. They’re incredible nonetheless, they’re talented. But, man, I think it’s harder in a way. We wanted to get the hell out of there. It was tough conditions sometimes.”
One of Griffey, Jr.’s most famous catches came on April 26, 1990, at Yankee Stadium. He made a leaping grab on a rocket from Jesse Barfield, robbing him of his 200th homer. On where that ranks in his career, Griffey, Jr., said, “It’s up there. I can say the catch is up there. Having a dad who played, his catch in Yankee Stadium, I think it was Marty Barrett who hit it. We argue all the time whose catch was better. I say my catch was better, or he’ll say his catch was better. I will say my dismount and stuck the landing was a little better than his. But all the practice that you do as a little kid, running up my mom’s wall, throwing the ball up against the wall, trying to make a catch like that.
“All the practice from A ball from when Donnie Reynolds was my coach in San Bernardino. Those are things that you practice. It was the very first time that I ever robbed somebody on any level. In Cincinnati we didn’t have fences. You had to hit it. If you stopped running, it was a home run. That was it. I didn’t play with fences till I got to summer ball, then eventually pro ball.
“So more or less I was laughing because it was the very first time that I’ve ever robbed somebody in all the years from being three climbing up my mom’s wall till now, it was the first time I ever robbed somebody. It was just like, ‘Oh, you can let go and laugh,’” said Griffey, Jr.