Dan's Dugout: Two for the Hall • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: Two for the Hall

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On the eve of their Hall of Fame induction Sunday, Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey, Jr. admitted to a little anxiety.

Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 630 home runs and was MVP in the reguilar season and the All-Star Game

Ken Griffey, Jr. hit 630 home runs and was MVP in the regular season and the All-Star Game

“I’m overwhelmed and excited at the same time,” said Griffey, who broke into the big leagues at 19 and proceeded to hit 630 home runs. “I’ve got friends and family who traveled not only from all over the USA but one of my friends came from Israel to be here. This is something that I can’t describe. The last four or fifth months have been a blur. My dad has a bigger grin than I do.”

The Griffeys are the other father-and-son to hit consecutive home runs and to win All-Star MVP awards. Piazza’s father Vince didn’t play but parlayed a friendship with Tommy Lasorda into a tryout for his son.

The Dodger drafted the young Piazza, then a first baseman, as a favor to Lasorda – but only in the 62nd round. He was the 1,390th man taken – a record not likely to fall.

“We followed the same path but in different ways,” Piazza said. “His

Mike Piazza brought his big bat to the Mets

Mike Piazza brought his big bat to the Mets

father and the tradition his family comes from, you can tell, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. For me, it was more or a less a challenge for my professional life. I had to play well. I knew I wasn’t going to have a lot of leeway to fail. That made me better. You can never be afraid to reinvent yourself.”

Griffey, like his father, was a stylish outfielder. Piazza, on the other hand, had to take a crash course in catching to speed his route to the majors. Much of that conversion occurred in the Dominican Republic, where he had to learn a new position and new language at the same time.

“Tommy got together with Ralph Avila, their Dominican scout, and arranged for me to go down there so I could learn how to catch. It was tough.

“For an American to go to a country that is extremely poor was culture shock but helped me appreciate this country and what we have here,” he said. “But I also enjoyed seeing the passion of the people. People don’t have a lot there but they’re very passionate, they love the game of baseball, and obviously they play well – judging by the number of Dominican players in the game today. I saw Pedro Martinez before he came to the States; I was amazed a guy that small could throw so hard. I caught his brother Ramon with the Dodgers. It’s a great baseball family.”

Asked whether Dominican slugger David Ortiz might join them in Cooperstown, Griffey had a quick response.

Junior Griffey has a lot to smile about

Junior Griffey has a lot to smile about

“David was sign by the Mariners so I got a chance to see him young,” Griffey said. “He wasn’t Big Papi – he was Thin Papi at that time. To watch him do things he’s done over the years, he’s become one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. If we’re up by two, it’s best to just walk him because he has a chance to put up a three-spot real quick. He’s definitely a Hall of Famer.”

Piazza agreed. “He’s one of the most charimastic players to come along in a long time,” he said. “You have to respect the process and let it play itself out.”

Both players admitted they received rookie razzing from incumbent Hall of Famers but were quick to credit those who preceded them to Cooperstown.

“Mike Schmidt thinks I was stalking him on the golf course,” Piazza admitted. “He was my boyhood idol growing up in Philadelphia. I love the guy, I grew up watching him. And I had a great time with Johnny Bench last night. There are so many guys here, so much history, it’s an amazing fraternity. I was talking with Pedro yesterday about our time in the Dominican. It’s amazing how these stories start to resurface and the details start to come out. It’s another great aspect of being here.”

According to Griffey, he got help from Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, and boyhood idol Rickey Henderson, whose No. 24 he wears in tribute.

“When I got to the big leagues, they said, ‘Hey, you’re gonna ride with me. We’re going to talk about baseball.’ They’ve been real supportive. They said, ‘What took you so damn long to get here?’ Walking to dinner, they all gave me a hug, patted me on the back, and said, ‘Welcome.’”

The former Seattle standout said his Hall of Fame ring will have a prominent place in his home.
“I’m going to put in front and center in the house,” he said. “It might

The Hall of Fame Class of 2016

The Hall of Fame Class of 2016

be on the gate when you ring the bell. It might be like the Stanley Cup. I might take it around with me or brush my hair with it. I’ll figure out something.”

The first man to go from the nation’s top draft pick to the Hall of Fame, Griffey is a definitely believer in Father Knows Best. “My dad always said if you work hard and do things right, you got rewarded,” he said. “You’re only a first-round pick once; there are more second, third, and fourth-rounders in the big leagues than there are first-round picks. You don’t take no for an answer. You got out there and do your job and try to be the best player you can be, day in and day out.”

Both men thought about Cooperstown long before they retired. “When you get to a certain point in your career,” said Griffey, “ you realize you might have a chance to be a Hall of Fame member. It was easy for me to pick a hat. It was always going to be the Mariners because of the history I have with the team.”

Piazza spent his early years in Los Angeles, then went to the Marlins and the Mets in blockbuster trades a week apart.
“I found it’s tough being in the same town with the Yankees but there are no better fans than Mets fans. They have been so amazing to me and my family. When I came to the team, they were on the way up. My first few years there were a lot of fun. We punched above our weight a little bit the first few years. To go to New York and be successful was an amazing part of my career that I’ll always remember.”

Piazza also banged a game-winning home run on Sept. 21, 2001 – the first New York game after Arab terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center.

“Obviously that’s a huge part of my history in the city,” he said. “It’s very difficult to recall when people come up and want to talk about it. It’s so special to me and something I take extremely seriously. The last time I was in New York, some guy grabbed me in an elevator, said he was at the game that night and that he had lost his cousin in Tower 1. He tried to to heal a little bit so he went out to the game and didn’t know what to expect. The fact that so many people do remember that moment, it was so much an honor for me.”

Piazza hit more career home runs than any other catcher but did not emulate the Griffey feat of winning a Most Valuable Player Award. Both men, however, were All-Star Game MVPs.

“To go in with Kenny is just truly special,” Piazza said. “We go back a long way. I’m thrilled, definitely nervous about tomorrow, but if the weather holds, I won’t have to do the short version of this speech.”

Like Griffey a native of Pennsylvania, Piazza is dividing his time between Philadelphia business ventures and an Italian soccer team he owns.

“I played for Italy in the World Baseball Classic,” he said, “and fell in love with soccer. I looked at a couple of business opportunities and decided to jump in the water, to give it a shot and see what it’s like to be a club owner. I learned the business. I don’t know whether I’m going to buy Manchester United or anything like that but the fans in Italy are extremely passionate and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s a business and we’ll see where it goes.”

He’s not ready to coach baseball, however,

Mike Piazza has always had a cordial relationship with the media

Mike Piazza has always had a cordial relationship with the media

“I have a great relationship with Jeff (Wilpon) and the Mets,” he said. “I went to spring training this year as a special instructor. But my life is a little different than most guys. I started my family a little later in my career. I have a 3-year-old son who’s here and is going to be running around tomorrow. It’s important for me to spend more time at home. If my kids were older, I might spend more time in the game. To coach baseball is a little bit more work than play.”

While Piazza played in a World Series, Griffey never got the chance.

“When I went to Cincinnati,” he recalled, “the expectations were that one guy was supposed to carry the team. I don’t regret going there but wish things had been different. We weren’t lucky enough to win a championship but there are a lot of great players who never won one.”

Piazza added, “It’s hard to win. Everything has to go perfectly. You can spend a lot of money, get the best players, then this guy gets hurt, the ball hits the base and goes the wrong way, you think it’s perfect and it’s going to work out.”

Griffey, like former Seattle teammate Randy Johnson, has become an avid photographer – an ironic avocation for someone who was wearing the wrong uniform in his first picture as a professional baseball player.

“The first time I watched a professional game from the dugout, I was 17 years old,” he said. “My father was playing for Atlanta and the BRAVES had to call the Mariners and ask if I could wear one of their uniforms and sit in the dugout. They agreed. That picture they show of me sitting in the dugout with my dad standing there looking at me was the first time I ever watched a game from the dugout.”

While his dad was playing, the Griffeys seldom saw each other. “The one misconception people have,” he said, “is that I was around the ballpark all the other time. I was at the ballpark about three times a year: the Father and Son game, the Husband and Wife game, and any time my mom said ‘You need to take these boys so I can do something.’”

Injuries intervened with Griffey’s career, especially after he joined the Reds. “I spent a little more time on the DL than I care to talk about but to wear he same uniform my father wore was something I could only dream of.”

Being on stage at Clark Sports Center Sunday will be the realization of another dream.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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