TWO baseball players from my childhood are being enshrined in the Hall of Fame this weekend, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza. While Griffey was the better player by far, my personal favorite was Mike Piazza. The two players could not have been more different. Griffey aka “The Kid” was a cool, sweet swinging lefty (and I mean sweet swinging). A five-tool player and the 1st pick in the 1987 MLB amateur draft. Piazza was a catcher who hit for power, loved his rock n roll and was taken in the 162nd round (overall pick #1,390) in the 1988 MLB amateur draft, mostly as a favor by Tommy Lasorda. Two players from two very different backgrounds are headed to the HOF at the same time….and I got to watch them both. Growing up, it was always a battle with me and my brother. We couldn’t like the same players. He was a Jordan fan, I liked the Sonics (GP & Kemp all day). His favorite player was Ken Griffey. Mine was Piazza.
My brother and I finally came to agreement that Kobe was our all-time favorite.
There was something about Piazza that always stood out to me. He could have easily been a first baseman, taking an easier route and even potentially saving his knees.The Catching position is notoriously known as a defensive oriented position; Piazza’s strength was hitting. He mashed 427 home runs, won 10 Silver Slugger awards, all while batting .308 for his career. Piazza’s highest batting average in a single season was .362 (unheard of from a catcher). He hit 40 home runs in two seasons. His bat speed and opposite field power was unseen out of the position. Piazza was sometimes criticized for his defense, yet called two no-hitters (Ramon Martinez & Hideo Nomo, both with the Dodgers). Piazza was the anomaly at the catching position…while Ken Griffey Jr. was the prototype at his.
Ken Griffey Jr. was everything you could have wanted in a center fielder.
The son of a former major leaguer, Griffey Jr already knew the game. He made an immediate impact as a rookie. He had great speed on the base paths and was one of the best defensive players of all-time. He could hit for power AND for average. Griffey ended his career with 630 home runs, 1,836 runs batted in, 10 straight gold gloves (1990-1999), seven Silver Slugger awards and one MVP (1997). In his prime, there was no one better. The Prototype. There’s a reason Griffey was voted in on his first try, with the highest percentage ever, 99.3%. The fact that he wasn’t a unanimous decision is mind boggling.
Griffey is going into the Hall wearing a Mariners hat, and he should. He was drafted as a Mariner and even though he went to the Reds, Griffey came back and ended his career as a Mariner, something the fans (and everyone) really wanted. Griffey had a shot at the all-time home run record, but injuries derailed Junior’s record-breaking pace. 630 homers place The Kid sixth on the all-time list. Griffey was so talented, it seems the home run numbers are too low, as crazy as it seems. Without the injuries, I think he would have been number 1. Griffey was such a monumental talent, it’s hard picking his best plays…so I let MLB do it for me. Griffey was a STAR. So much so, he has his own signature shoe, which is still for sale today. He rocked the backwards hat, he had swag, he was the perfect superstar. The flash, the smile…he had it all. Griffey was America’s favorite baseball player. Deservedly so.
Piazza is going into the Hall wearing a Mets hat, which is still a sore spot for some. He was drafted by the Dodgers and during his time there he had some of his best statistical seasons, his best coming in 1997. Piazza ended up on the Mets because in 1998 the Dodgers refused to sign him to a big extension, trading him away and opting to make Kevin Brown the first 100M dollar man in baseball. (Side note: As a fan, I was heartbroken and furious. How could a team not sign their best player, and then waste their money?) With Piazza gone, my Dodger love faded and quickly headed to New York and I’ve been a Met fan since. Piazza’s years as a Met were more impactful than his years on the Dodgers. He hit home runs and made an immediate impact on the Mets, helping them to deep playoff runs, even reaching the World Series in 2000. His time in New York was filled with powerful home runs, amazing memories and plenty of drama. Perhaps the most impactful and memorable moment of Piazza’s career came in the 2001 regular season. September 21, 2001. Ten days after America was attacked on September 11, 2001, there was a baseball game in New York. On a very emotional night, Piazza delivered for the city of New York with some late game heroics. A city was wounded and a country was in mourning, but on that night people got a chance to cheer…even if it was just for a moment. I feel that is most people’s favorite moment, and to be honest, how can it not be? Choosing that home run makes you feel American!
My personal favorite Mike Piazza moment was when he was no longer a New York Met. In 2006, Piazza joined the San Diego Padres after the Mets decided not to bring him back. Flash forward to Wednesday August 9, 2006. The Padres are playing the Mets, and it was Piazza’s first time back at Shea Stadium in the previous game (Piazza went 1-4 in a Loss). Mets star pitcher Pedro Martinez is on the mound, and Piazza has always loved putting on a show for the fans at Shea. Fourth inning, one out, Mets lead 4-0 and Piazza comes up. On a 1-1 count he smacks a homer to right field. The fans go NUTS. Piazza even comes out for a curtain call, as an opposing player. Sixth inning, two out, Mets still lead 4-1. Pedro throws a hanging curve-ball and it gets absolutely crushed to DEEP left field for another home run, an area where Piazza is accustomed to hitting balls at Shea Stadium. The crowd goes nuts again, showing the former Met how much he meant to them.
So that brings us back to 2016, where two of the all-time greats are heading into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I’m proud to say I got to witness these two play baseball, and even though they have been retired, I miss seeing them play. It’s fitting to see them get selected to the hall at the same time. Not just because of the SI cover (above). Their career arcs are similar, both having hall of fame worthy careers, but due to injuries, leaving a little something on the table. It’s hard to think that both their careers have come and gone, like a blink of the eye.
Cheers to Ken Griffey Jr and Mike Piazza, and thank you for the memories.