Peter Gammons: Griffey and Piazza defined different temperatures of cool

Hall of Fame

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y.—On Friday, when Ken Griffey and Mike Piazza dine with the members of sports’ most select and earned society, they will fully grasp what this means. They will see how Sandy Koufax, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Johnny Bench and all the rest of the men with the HOF suffix act as peers, how respectful and appreciative they are, how the flamboyant Dennis Eckersley acts as if he is a Rockwell awed kid on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or how modestly Bob Gibson weaves through the maze of the best.

There are no home run trots here, no swagger. Everyone acts like Robin Yount, head down, 3.8 or 4.0 flat to first base depending on whether the pitch was in, or away.

Griffey and Piazza came along in the ESPN TV, information era, the face of the game, intrepid, a kid scaling walls and having fun and hitting 630 home runs. Piazza was L.A. and New York, the greatest offensive catcher who ever played, a man who in one ten year stretch averaged .322 with 35 homers and 107 RBI playing his home games in pitchers’ parks.

They did not arrive here this week as surprises. Griffey was a career video game, with unforgettable catches in every park from New York to Seattle, a bad dash from first to home on an Edgar Martinez ball that took baseball in Seattle from the HO-scaled Kingdome to the great Safeco Field. Piazza was not only a beast, but he always had a sense of where he was, such as the night of the first sporting event in New York following 9/11.

Some of us were fortunate enough to watch them go, then, many years later, watch them go, and have our own sense of who they were. In Junior’s case, it was always about family. I remember doing Sunday Night conversations with him for ESPN when Trey and Taryn were very young, and they were always around, front and center. Junior and Melissa never acted or had a nanny push the kids aside. They were parents, parents whose kids mattered a lot more than 500 home runs. When he was with the Reds and training in Sarasota and Trey and Taryn were playing basketball, any night either had a game, he drove through Fort Lonesome en route to Orlando to see the game, and was on the field early the next morning. Ask him about how there were doing as teenagers, the answer was never about athletics, only their remarkable academic records.

In June, 2010, when he was essentially released by the Mariners and his career was over, he would occasionally call on the drive from Seattle to Orlando. One day, as he crossed the Georgia-Florida line, he said, “one good thing about this drive is that I’ve had time to call and order a bus.”

Bus?

“Taryn’s AAU basketball team is going to do a lot of tournaments up and down the East Coast, and now they have a bus and I’ll be the driver. I’ll drive them to wherever they have to play. I can’t wait.”

When you hear him speak Sunday at his induction, remember, that is who Junior Griffey really is. Bus driver for his daughter’s AAU basketball team.

I think about Mike Piazza and think about spring training, 2005. He already had 358 homers. He was bound for Cooperstown. But in Port St. Lucie he had a yoga instructor with him, for his flexibility and conditioning he required to stay behind the plate and catch. Piazza probably could have changed leagues, been a DH, hit more homers and make more money, but as awkward as he often looked, as much trouble as he had throwing, he would do anything to prove he could still catch, even if teammates and media members chuckled at his yoga session on the field before morning practices.

He was a wealthy kid who didn’t need baseball, he just loved it, and went to the Dominican Summer League, Mexico and anywhere he could to catch and make himself good.

Junior Griffey and Mike Piazza in many ways defined different temperatures of cool, they just never were cool about the game. That’s why they’re here, and why Friday night they will fit into that Friday night HOF dinner with Sandy and Willie, Henry and Tom Terrific, George Brett and the rest. The dinner will be in a room filled with people who are different from the rest of us, just not the other men in the room.

Comments

  1. Pete Rocket says:

    Mr. Gammons, very happy for both inductees. I thought Mike Piazza’s was the best HOF speech I have ever heard.

  2. Coach Henry says:

    Piazza was just a guy who wanted to play baseball. He didn’t care how much work is was going to take and didn’t care how many people told him he had no talent (which was just about every person he talked to until he ran into Tommy Lasorda). So to see him in Cooperstown this weekend is a real treat. Griffey on the other hand, we knew he would be here 20 years ago. The only thing we wondered was if he was going to break all the records, but injuries saw to that. Thanks for the great piece Peter!!

  3. Stanley Robinson says:

    If not for the injuries, Ken Griffey Jr. would have been a Mount Rushmore player, simple as that. Was simply the best player I have ever seen in baseball for 10 years, then started to fall apart. He was named to the All Century team for the 1900’s, very fitting. I would say he was the best baseball player of the 1990’s. But beyond all of that, I just remember how cool he was, what an example he set. He made kids want to play baseball, the right way; sprinting all over the place, diving, crashing into walls, all with a smile… he was the prototype

  4. Griffey and Piazza came along in the ESPN TV, information era, the face of the game, intrepid, a kid scaling walls and having fun and hitting 630 home runs. Piazza was L.A. and New York, the greatest offensive catcher who ever played, a man who in one ten year stretch averaged .322 with 35 homers and 107 RBI playing his home games in pitchers’ parks.

  5. Trevor Graham says:

    Griffey should have been the GOAT, he’ll have to settle for being the coolest player of all time.