COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — When they were drafted nearly three decades ago, one was on everybody’s baseball radar, the other a blip at best, picked almost as an afterthought in the final round thanks to a recommendation by an important family friend.
That their baseball paths started so differently — the Seattle Mariners made Ken Griffey Jr. the first pick of the 1987 amateur draft and a year later the Dodgers selected Mike Piazza on the 62nd round with the 1,390th pick, ahead of only five other players — in the end didn’t matter one bit. Two players who wore their hats backward a lot — one for fun, the other because he had to — and left indelible imprints on the game will be rewarded Sunday with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s incredibly powerful,” said Piazza, by far the lowest draft pick in history elected to the Hall. “This whole year for me has been so euphoric. It’s such an honor.”
Dubbed “The Natural” for his effortless excellence at the plate and in center field, Griffey, the first No. 1 pick to be selected for enshrinement, hasn’t followed form since his selection in January. He’s been feted in Seattle, which likely still has a major league team because of his tenure there, served as honorary starter for NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, and played a lot of golf to avoid thinking or talking about his induction.
When he visited Cooperstown in late May for a mini-orientation, Griffey chose not to take the customary introductory tour of the Hall that’s become sort of a tradition in recent years. He did attend a series of brief meetings with Hall of Fame staff at a separate location in the village and said he wanted his first walk through the front doors of the stately building on Main Street to be with his kids.
“I wanted to share the moment with them,” Griffey said. “It was important for me to be able to do it with them and not just by myself. I just felt that I wanted to be a member of the Hall of Fame to walk in there.”
Induction day promises to be an extremely emotional moment for Griffey because his mom, Birdie, and father, former Cincinnati Reds star Ken Sr., both cancer survivors and integral to his rise to stardom, also will be part of the celebration.
Griffey played 22 big-league seasons with the Mariners, Reds and White Sox and was named on a record 99.32 percent of ballots cast, an affirmation of sorts for his squeaky-clean performance during baseball’s Steroids Era. A 13-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove Award winner, Griffey hit 630 home runs, sixth all-time, and drove in 1,836 runs.
Griffey also was named American League MVP in 1997, drove in at least 100 runs in eight seasons, and won seven Silver Slugger Awards. In the 1995 ALDS, he became just the second player in major league history to hit five home runs in a single postseason series (Reggie Jackson of the Yankees in the 1977 World Series is the other).
Like Yankees great Mickey Mantle before him, fans are left to wonder what more Griffey might have accomplished had his health not become a hindrance. From 2001-04 he averaged fewer than 80 games played per year while suffering through hamstring tears, knee problems, a dislocated shoulder, and ankle tendon ruptures.
Healthy again in 2005, Junior slugged 35 home runs and captured the NL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Two years later, he had his last standout season — 144 games, 30 homers, 93 RBIs — and earned his final All-Star Game selection. He finished his career with the White Sox and Mariners before retiring early in the 2010 season.
For Piazza, selection to the Hall is validation of an awful lot of hard work.
Taken in the draft after Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, a close friend of Piazza’s father, put in a good word, 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.
“When I first signed with the Dodgers, I knew it was going to be a very difficult path,” Piazza said. “At the time I wasn’t having any fun and decided to quit the game. I was just fortunate that I had great coaches and people looking out for me to encourage me to go back. You don’t make it to the Hall of Fame alone, you have a lot of people looking out for you along the way.”
And then it all clicked almost suddenly for Piazza, hitting 52 home runs in the minors before getting called up by the Dodgers in September 1992. He was there to stay after going 3 for 3 in his debut and was named National League Rookie of the Year the following season after hitting .318 with 35 homers and 112 RBIs.
Piazza played 16 years with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres and Athletics and hit 427 career 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 in 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.
Though the Dodgers gave him his start, Piazza found a home in New York when he was traded to the Mets in May 1998. He became a bona fide hero to the hometown fans with his walk-off homer in the first game at Shea Stadium after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The New York market was a difficult transition for me,” Piazza said. “But I knew that there was a reason I was there, and I knew there was a reason I had to see it through.”
Broadcaster Graham McNamee will be honored posthumously on Saturday with the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in baseball broadcasting, and Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy will receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing.