Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Emotion and Class at Cooperstown
Speaking of their fathers illustrated yet one more exhibit in the polar opposition through which Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza worked their way to Cooperstown Sunday afternoon. If you had to hear one more utterance about the pair as the odd couple (so which one's Oscar?), you were going to throw a shoe, a bat, or maybe Chris Sale's shredded throwback uniform at the speaker.
Griffey, the son of an all-star outfielder and one-time mainstay of the legendary Big Red Machine; Piazza, the son of a self-made millionaire in used cars and real estate. Griffey, the number one draft pick; Piazza, the lowest draft pick (62nd round; overall pick number 1,390) ever to play his way into the Hall of Fame. Griffey, the outfield gazelle with the game in his DNA; Piazza, whose signing by the Dodgers was contingent upon a favour from his father's friend Tommy Lasorda and an agreement to become a catcher. About the only thing the two would have seemed to have in common was hitting for power and lots of it.
"About the only thing we have in common," Piazza cracked before the inductions, "is two arms and two legs."
Sunday afternoon, they stood equal members of baseball's most exclusive fraternity. Not that there wasn't a little prior rookie hazing involved. It's an apparent tradition that the new Hall of Famers must sing before a gathering of incumbents a few nights before induction day. Piazza accepted drumsticks and played a little heavy metal music, before he was ordered to sing. As he opened his mouth to sing "Living on a Prayer," his wife urged the bartender to get him back on the drums. Griffey didn't wait for such a moment: he high tailed it to the gents' room.
Hardly the most unique challenge in Griffey's baseball life. When the Mariners drafted him, he walked into his parents' house and hollered, "Hey, Dad, where's Seattle?" Sunday afternoon, Griffey told the gathering, "Out of my 22 years, I've learned that only one team will treat you the best. And that's your first team. I'm very proud to be a Seattle Mariner."
Piazza couldn't say likewise about the Dodgers, whose lowballing when he sought a contract extension and whose duplicities in dealing him away (it wasn't done by their then-general manager, it was done by upper minions of FOX Broadcasting, who owned the team at the time) are said to embitter him to this day. He could talk about Lasorda and other individuals, from Jackie Robinson to the Pope and back to Theodore Roosevelt, and their meaning to him. For team, for Piazza, it's still the Mets. And their fans.
"The eight years we spent together went by way too fast," Piazza said, addressing those fans who'd made the Cooperstown trek. "The thing I miss most is making you cheer. No fans rock the house like Mets fans. You are passionate loyal, intelligent, and love this great game. To be the only second Met to enter the Hall of Fame, following Tom Seaver brings me great pride and joy."
No individual Met ever rocked the house and the city the way Piazza did in 2001, in the first New York baseball game after the 9/11 atrocity, ten days later. He squared up Atlanta reliever Steve Karsay in the bottom of the eighth, with one man on, and hit one so far over Shea Stadium's left center field fence that it almost knocked a television camera over. No Mariner was ever a threat to become a one-man highlight reel every game the way Griffey was, whether scaling fences or walls to turn extra base hits into outs or hitting baseballs into orbit.
And no two players were more anxious to thank their fathers than Griffey and Piazza.
"To my dad, who taught me how to play this game, but more importantly he taught me how to be a man," Griffey told the gathering, choking up several times in tears. "How to work hard, how to look at yourself in the mirror each and every day, and not to worry about what other people are doing. See, baseball didn't come easy for him. He was the 29th round pick and had to choose between football and baseball. And where he's from in Donora, Pennsylvania, football is king. But I was born five months after his senior year and he made a decision to play baseball to provide for his family, because that's what men do. And I love you for that."
"My father's faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into this Hall of Fame. Thank you, Dad," Piazza said. "I know he watched every game, cried when I cried, was angry when I was angry, and celebrated more than I could ever celebrate. He is a man deeply devoted to his family and after having suffered a major stroke a few years ago, is stronger willed than ever. We made it, Dad. The race is over. Now, it's time to smell the roses."
The elder Griffey and Piazza beamed like any number of home runs their sons ever hit. So did Griffey's three children, in front of whom their father could no longer suppress the emotion he formerly threatened to keep in check on the big day. So did both men's strong, survivor mothers, even as all four of their parents got almost as choked up as their sons. Piazza was no stronger than Griffey at holding back the tears. Who says there's no crying in baseball?
Piazza spoke almost as warmly of the 9/11 responders as he did of his parents. "Many of you give me praise for the two-run home run . . . But the true praise belongs to police, firefighters, first responders that knew that they were going to die but went forward anyway. I pray that we never forget their sacrifice." Griffey — who turned his hat backward puckishly at the end of his speech, reminding one and all that the Kid still lives — was the baseball favorite of a firefighter who died on 9/11 (he dedicated a 2001 homer to his memory) and handed his hat to the man's son.
Such gestures in the hours in which their is canonized often mean more than any home run, any theft of an extra base hit, any well-framed pitch. In their case, it means Piazza sold the odd couple short. Griffey and Piazza had one more thing in common Sunday afternoon. Class.