Piazza & Griffey: Classy Hall of Famers in Class of ‘16

(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)

They finally liked Mike.

In his fourth year of eligibility, over 83% of those eligible to vote on the Hall of Fame in the BBWAA finally decreed that Mike Piazza is worthy of being enshrined in Cooperstown. And his new “partner/teammate” in this greatest adventure is none other than arguably the greatest player of his generation, and certainly one of the greatest players of all-time, Ken Griffey, Jr.

The dichotomy of having the first pick in the 1987 Amateur Draft siding with one of the last selections in the 1988 Amateur Draft – in fact, the “lowest” selection to ever make it to the Hall, the 1,390th player taken that year (62nd round) – was striking, and nonetheless appropriate, once again underlining the power of perseverance.

“Yes, it does tell every player drafted to never give up,” Piazza proclaimed at the presser yesterday at the NY Athletic Club introducing the now 245th and 246th players to be elected, including those who competed in the Negro Leagues.

“Just shows you how great our sport is,” Piazza said. “You just need a chance. I was able to sneak into this game, kind of limp ion. Through a lot of hard work and determination, some luck, some timing, (I) was able to build a pretty good career. That’s something for me, I’ve been very vocal about, (my) amount of support.”

The catcher and the centefielder will become the 311th and 312th members with plaques on the wall, which includes managers, executives, umpires, and pioneers of the game. Piazza now becomes the 17th catcher, Griffey the 24th centerfielder – which is ironic, since he became famous for wearing No. 24, an honor he shared with a family “friend,” a fellow by the name of Willie Mays.

“I knew Willie and Rickey wore 24,” Griffey admitted at the presser, “but it wasn’t a big deal with me.” You’ll just have to picture the broad smile which punctuated that remark.

A student of the game, having grown up with his dad, Ken Griffey, Sr. – an All-Star for the Cincinnati Reds and their Big Red Machine, and later a member of the Yankees and a teammate of future hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who also wore No. 24 in New York – Junior is eternally respectful of their histories and his remarkable achievement at joining their ranks.

“I am 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. I am very honored.”

In fact, Griffey was able to reach a mark that not even Mays or Henderson was able to achieve. Over 99% of the voting class checked Griffey’s name on their ballots – 437 of 440 ballots – so with 99.3% of the vote, Griffey displaces tom Seaver as the Hall of Famer with the highest percentage of the vote. Seaver was inducted in 1992 with 98.84% of the vote – 425 of 430 votes cast.

Seaver was also the first player to be inducted with a Mets logo on his plaque cap. Mike Piazza will become the second.

The media made a big deal about the announcements that Piazza will be bronzed with a Mets logo and Griffey will become the first honoree with a Seattle Mariners logo, but we could have told you that a decade ago.

Years ago, the Hall left the choice up to the player. But after some controversies about a decade ago where there was some talk that teams could “buy” their logo onto the cap, the Hall took away that player option, but they still ask each inductee for their preferences. Years played with a particular organization play a significant role, so Piazza’s eight years as a Met beat out his seven years as a Dodger, not to mention more games (972 in NY, 726 in LA), more hits (1,028 to 896), more home runs (220-177), and more RBIs (655 – 563).

So was there really any choice?

Piazza had a higher average in LA (.331 to .296), but that was their only statistical advantage.

“As far my hat,” Piazza decreed, “I want to be very clear and say that as much as I loved coming up with the Dodgers – I will always cherish my time there – I’m going in as a New York Met.

“I had an amazing career with the Dodgers, getting to know Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, the (other) Hall of Famers (he later cited Dodger great Roy Campanella), but I eventually ended up in New York and in some shape or form became a New York Met. I truly have a special relationship here and with the fans of the Mets. I feel like the fans here truly brought me into their family every time I’ve come back.”

For Griffey, the choice was even easier, having played 13 of his 22 seasons in Seattle. He was born and raised in Cincinnati, and later played nine seasons with the Reds (and a portion of one with the White Sox), but baseball will always remember the Kid with his cap on backwards patrolling centerfield with the Mariners.

“They gave me the opportunity to play the game that I love,” said Junior.

Turns out, the backwards cap routine – which became a fashion trend that continues to this day – was a result of little Junior trying on Dad’s Reds cap when his head size didn’t quite match that of the father. To wear it at all, Junior turned it backwards so it wouldn’t cover his face, and thus his signature style was born.

The joke yesterday the press conference was that his cap should be bronzed in the backwards position on his plaque, but Griffey kidded, “Nah, forward…and then backwards.”

Mets COO Jeff Wilpon was in attendance. He was asked if there were any plans regarding Piazza’s now famous No. 31. Will it be retired? He was evasive, and so was Piazza on the same subject, but he did smilingly admit they had a conversation. Look for a Mike Piazza Day scheduled for sometime later this summer at Citi Field after Piazza is officially inducted on Sunday, July 24th. He’s already in the Mets Hall of Fame, but there’s a very good chance No. 31 will then go up on the outfield wall – hint, hint.

Turns out, Piazza started wearing No. 31 in Los Angeles thanks to some future Mets. He was originally assigned No. 25, which is not a bad number for a young slugger. And on that young Dodgers staff in 1992 were future Mets Orel Hershiser,  Roger McDowell, and Bobby Ojeda. McDowell wore 31. Ojeda was 37. When Ojeda left the following season, McDowell honored his friend by taking his number. That left 31 open, and we’ll let Mike finish the story.

“My lucky number is always in the 3s. I wore 13 in high school, but I didn’t feel comfortable wearing 13 in the big leagues, so I said, ‘Let me do 31.’ So there is a Mets connection to (wearing 31).”

As far as reviewing the stats and achievement by each player produced which led to their election, you know there are a million places where they are listed, and you might already know them by heart, but here’s a quick review:

Junior: Born Nov. 21, 1969, Denora, PA, in the same community that produced Hall of Famer Stan Musial – and on Musial’s birthday, no less. Batted and threw lefthanded, 22 seasons, 13 All-Star appearances, 10 Gold Gloves, 7 Silver Slugger Awards, AL MVP 1997, All-Star MVP 1992, .284 average, 2,781 hits, 630 home runs (No. 6 all-time), 1,836 RBIs (15th all-time), and 5,271 total bases (13th all-time).

Piazza: Born Sept. 4, 1968, Norristown, PA, in the same community that produced Hall of Famer and longtime family friend Tommy Lasorda – but not on his birthday! Batted and threw righthanded, 16 seasons, 12 All-Star appearances, 10 Silver Slugger Awards, NL Rookie of the Year 1993, All-Star MVP 1996, .308 average, 2,127 hits, 427 home runs (record 396 as a catcher), 1,335 RBIs, and as a catcher, led the league in putouts four times, and assists twice. (Take that, catching critics!)

Make plans now, boys and girls. Should be a busy weekend up in Cooperstown, July 22-24.

See you in Cooperstown.

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