USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale breaks down the 2016 National Baseball Hall of Fame class and looks at next year’s likely inductees.
USA TODAY Sports
They went into pro ball in back-to-back years through distinctly different routes, yet they’ll reach the game’s ultimate destination – the Hall of Fame – alongside each other.
Ken Griffey Jr. was baseball royalty all along, the son of a three-time All-Star who played 19 seasons in the majors, the last two alongside him. Junior was the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, made it to the big leagues two years later as a teenager and always seemed destined for greatness.
Mike Piazza was an unwanted junior college first baseman taken by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft as a favor to his father’s longtime friend, manager Tommy Lasorda, and only on the condition he would convert to catcher.
Until Wednesday, no player drafted anywhere near that late had ever made it to the Hall of Fame. For that matter, neither had the No. 1 overall pick in any draft.
Griffey and Piazza, polar opposites in some respects, were both chosen Wednesday to enter the shrine in Cooperstown, N.Y., with Griffey receiving the highest percentage of votes ever at 99.32%, just three votes shy of unanimity. Tom Seaver held the previous record with 98.84% of the vote in 1992.
“To have the highest percentage is definitely a shock, because I don’t think that way,’’ Griffey said. “The big thing is to get into the Hall of Fame, no what you got.’’
Piazza, in his fourth year on the ballot, garnered 83% of support from voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America to become the first catcher elected since Gary Carter in 2003.
Houston Astros icon Jeff Bagwell (71.6%), leadoff hitter extraordinaire Tim Raines (69.8%) and standout closer Trevor Hoffman (67.3%) all received strong support but fell short of the 75% required for election.
“It all adds up and it crystallizes how special this game is … that you can have two guys going into the Hall, such as Ken Griffey Jr. and myself, from completely opposite ends of the spectrum,’’ Piazza said. “Athletic talent definitely helps, but it’s not the only thing that can make you successful.’’
Griffey had the whole package, and it took him only one season to become an All-Star, earning that distinction for the first of 13 times the year after his 1989 debut. He went on to become the sixth-leading home run hitter in history (630) and one of the most complete players of his generation, earning the AL MVP award in 1997 and winning 10 consecutive Gold Gloves as the Seattle Mariners’ center fielder.
In a 10-year stretch from 1991-2000, Griffey averaged 40 home runs, 113 RBI and a .976 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, before a series of injuries hampered his play during the second half of his 22-year career, after he joined his hometown Cincinnati Reds in 2000.
During his heyday in the mid-to-late ’90s, Griffey, teammate Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds were regarded as the premier position players of their era. But while the last two were later directly linked to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Griffey never aroused skepticism.
Griffey said in a conference call the influence of his father, a desire to set a good example for his kids and the fact he was at the top of the game when steroids came in vogue persuaded him not to get involved with them.
“I was already popular. It wasn’t that I needed to jump out and surprise people. And it helped having a dad there throughout all this,’’ Griffey said. “Only few need to go out there and want to play and be the best, but it wasn’t that I had to have help. If you couldn’t do it on your own, then so be it.’’
Piazza, on the other hand, was long dogged by suspicions that he evolved from non-prospect to a 12-time All-Star with the help of PEDs. Those accusations were never proven, and Piazza built a case as the best-hitting catcher of all time with an inside-out swing that generated tremendous opposite-field power.
He won 10 consecutive Silver Slugger awards with the Dodgers and New York Mets, and his 396 home runs as a catcher (427 overall) are the most of any backstop in history. A .308 career hitter, Piazza became the first catcher to compile 200 hits in a season, in 1997, and batted .300 or better nine years in a row.
He finished in the top five in NL MVP voting four times, including 2000, when he led the Mets to the World Series. After drawing 69.9% of the votes last year, Piazza figured to have a good chance to clear the threshold this time.
He turned diplomatic when asked about the steroid innuendo.
“Today is just a day I really want to celebrate my career and dwell on the positive parts of my career,’’ he said. “As a player, you put all the numbers up that you can and work as hard as you possibly can, and like an artist, you put it up there and people can be critical and people can be complimentary. I’ve been blessed that a lot of people have been very complimentary.’’
GALLERY: 2016 HALL OF FAME CLASS