Inductees praise family, fans on emotional day in front of second-largest Cooperstown crowd
By Barry M. Bloom
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- To punctuate close to an hour of combined speeches by this year's pair of inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Ken Griffey Jr. turned around his cap to end the Sunday proceedings.
Mike Piazza spoke to his Italian immigrant father, Vince, in his native language, thanking him and Italy for giving him his dad.
There were more than 50,000 people sprawled out on the lawns far and away beyond the tented stage behind the Clark Sports Center decked out in Mets blue and Mariners teal, tying the second-largest turnout in induction history.
And there were enough tears from the participants to easily fill a bucket.
"The actual thing about talking in front of 50,000 wasn't bad," said Griffey, the son of Ken Griffey Sr., a two-time World Series winner with the Reds in 1975-76. "The thing is I made the mistake of looking down at my kids in the front row. I remember everybody saying, 'Don't look at your kids, don't look at your kids until you have to.'
"Nope, not me. You know what they say when you're a kid? 'Don't do that, don't do that.' What do you do? You do it anyway."
Griffey also said it wasn't his idea to don a cap in the style that was his signature during a 22-year career when he hit 630 homers for the Mariners, Reds and White Sox. He gave the credit (or blame) to now Hall of Fame contemporary Frank Thomas.
Thomas had the inspiration when the group arrived at the grounds just before the ceremony began. Griffey acquiesced and said he had to get a Hall of Fame fitted model that belonged to one of his sons.
"That really wasn't my idea," said Junior, the first No. 1 Draft pick ever inducted into the Hall. "That was from a guy who happened to play for Chicago and Oakland and cried the entire time through his speech. So him being a veteran of the Hall of Fame, I took his veteran leadership and decided to do it."
As far as Piazza was concerned, he paced his speech accordingly and decided to leave loving thoughts to his family for last.
Piazza praised Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda, the man who urged the Dodgers to pick him in the 62nd round -- 1,390th overall -- in the 1988 Draft when he managed that ballclub. He sent his best wishes to Bobby Valentine, a Lasorda acolyte, who managed the Mets into a five-game loss to the Yankees in the 2000 Subway World Series.
Piazza, who is the lowest-drafted player enshrined in Cooperstown, said he was moved by the fact that the current baseball team from Phoenixville High School -- where the right-handed slugger played as a teen -- made the four-hour trek from Pennsylvania for the festivities.
"As a kid you don't think much of it," he added. "But when you get older you reconnect. He was a big fan of [Joe] DiMaggio. I was obviously paying my respects to Yogi [Berra] today. He was on my mind as well. One thing I'm very proud of is the great Italian-American ballplayers and Hall of Famers that are here."
Griffey, of course, came from a different place and time. His father was a 29th-round selection by the Reds in the 1969 Draft and went on to play 19 seasons. His was a baseball family and that fact alone gave Griffey a foot up with his new team of Hall of Famers as far as any hazing might be concerned.
"I had time to do some research and I have some information about these guys that they probably don't want out," he said with a glint in his eyes.
Griffey's speech was heavily directed toward his family and many of the Mariners, whom he played with during his initial iteration from 1989-99. Griffey returned to Seattle to finish his career in 2009-10.
Edgar Martinez, the Mariners' current hitting coach and a top designated hitter during the Griffey era, took the day off from the ballpark and was in the audience. Griffey gave him a shout out for election to the Hall. Martinez remains on the Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot.
The Mariners had a huge contingent of past and present executives at the ceremony and staged a private party for Griffey at the Fenimore Art Museum in town on Saturday night. Mets owners Fred Wilpon and his son, Jeff, were also at the festivities to honor Piazza.
Griffey said he didn't get to spend too much time with his father this weekend.
"This is the first time I saw him today," Griffey said. "He's been ripping and running around town just like everybody else in my family. When I saw him is when I got on the stage. We had a chance to talk [on the phone]. He just said, 'Just go out, have fun and enjoy yourself. I'm here for you.' And then he hung up. A typical dad thing."
The crowd was not so atypical. It matched the 1999 induction of Robin Yount, George Brett and Nolan Ryan, but fell far short of the 80,000 that flooded the town for the 2007 deliverance of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn.
Each induction has its own tone and flavor. Last year, there was a decided Dominican feel to the throng of 45,000 as Pedro Martinez was among the four inductees. Montreal natives once waded out on these same fields, waving the white and red Canadian flag the years when Gary Carter and Andre Dawson were the only members of the now-defunct Expos to be inducted.
But an element of all this is certain. It's one thing to play in front of a crowd of 50,000 and quite another to look out from the stage on that kind of assemblage and have to address it.
"It was absolutely nerve-wracking," Piazza said. "It's not easy, but as a player you have to find a way to focus and get into your game mode. I was joking with Ken a little bit before we got on stage: 'Come on, we've got this, we've got this.' We were talking like we were going out to play. But nothing can prepare you for the emotions that you feel."