Cooperstown, N.Y. — Staring out at their families and tens of thousands of fans who hung on every word, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza were inducted Sunday into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a ceremony tinged with tears all around.
The two became a piece of history on their special day. Griffey, the first pick of the 1987 amateur draft, became the highest pick ever inducted. Piazza, a 62nd-round pick the next year —No. 1,390 — is the lowest pick to enter the Hall of Fame.
Griffey played 22 big-league seasons with the Mariners, Reds and White Sox and was selected on a record 99.32 percent of ballots cast, an affirmation of sorts for his clean performance during baseball’s so-called Steroids Era.
Griffey, a 13-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner in center field, hit 630 home runs (sixth all-time), and drove in 1,836 runs. He also was the American League MVP in 1997, drove in at least 100 runs in eight seasons, and won seven Silver Slugger Awards.
Griffey, who fell just three votes shy of being the first unanimous selection, hit 417 of his 630 homers and won all 10 of his Gold Gloves with the Seattle Mariners. He played the first 11 seasons of his career with the Mariners and led them to the playoffs for the first two times in franchise history.
“Thirteen years with the Seattle Mariners, from the day I got drafted, Seattle, Washington, has been a big part of my life,” Griffey said, punctuating the end of his speech by putting a baseball cap on backward as he did throughout his career.
Dubbed “The Natural” for his effortless excellence at the plate and in center field, Griffey avoided the Hall of Fame until his special weekend because he wanted his first walk through the front doors of the stately building on Main Street to be with his kids, whom he singled out one by one in his 20-minute speech.
Griffey’s mom, Birdie, and his father, former Cincinnati Reds star Ken Sr., both cancer survivors and integral to his rise to stardom, were front and center in the first row.
“To my dad, who taught me how to play this game and to my mom, the strongest woman I know,” Junior said.
Selected in the draft by the Dodgers, Piazza struggled. He briefly quit the game while in the minor leagues, returned and persevered despite a heavy workload as he switched from first base to catcher and teammates criticized his erratic play.
“Dad always dreamed of playing in the major leagues,” said Piazza, just the second Hall of Famer depicted on his plaque wearing a Mets cap, after Tom Seaver in 1992.
“The race is over.”
Piazza played 16 years with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres and Athletics and hit 427 home runs, including a major league record 396 as a catcher. A 12-time All-Star, Piazza won 10 Silver Slugger Awards and finished in the top five of his league’s MVP voting four times.
Perhaps even more impressive, Piazza, a .308 career hitter, posted six seasons with at least 30 home runs, 100 RBIs and a .300 batting average (all other catchers in baseball history combined have posted nine such seasons).
Piazza found a home in New York when he was traded to the Mets in May 1998.
Three years later, Piazza became a hero to the hometown fans with perhaps the most notable home run of his career. His two-run shot in the eighth inning at Shea Stadium lifted the Mets to a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in the first sporting event played in New York after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“The true praise belongs to police, firefighters, first responders that knew that they were going to die, but went forward anyway,” Piazza said.
“To witness the darkest evil of the human heart … will be forever burned in my soul. But from tragedy and sorrow came bravery, love, compassion, character and eventual healing.”
Attendance was estimated at around 50,000 by the Hall of Fame, tying 1999 for second-most all time.