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Monday, July 25, 2016

96 Tears

After a one-year interruption, I have resumed my visits to Cooperstown, New York to attend the induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year is my 15th visit. My companion was my fellow baseball fanatic, Bob.

We spent the whole weekend soaked in baseball (and dead vice-presidents, if you check the last post). On Saturday the town was packed, the museum elbow-to-elbow, so we held off on that and just wandered around town. Bob got some autographs, mostly from ex-Mets (he's a big fan), including Cleon Jones, who hit a grand slam in the first game Bob ever went to.

Then we attended the Baseball Awards Ceremony, which used to be part of the main event but has been set aside for a different day. Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy was very funny and humble, reminding us that baseball is a hard game to play: "The 25th man on the roster is one-thousand times better than you," and his love of baseball as a child, though he was traded as a little-leaguer. The Ford Frick Award, which goes to excellence in broadcasting, was given to Graham McNamee, who was a pioneer in radio broadcasting, the voice of the World Series for many years. He died in 1942.

Also speaking was a New York City firefighter, who while picking through the rubble of the World Trade Center a few days after 9/11, found a baseball, completely intact. It was a promotional ball from a company inside the Towers, a company that fortunately didn't lose anyone during that day. The ball is now on display at the Hall. Both inductees this year, Mike Piazza, and Ken Griffey Jr., had special connections to 9/11. Piazza's most famous home run was the knock he hit in the first game in New York after the attack to beat the Atlanta Braves. Griffey was contacted by the wife of a firefighter who was lost that day, and asked him to hit a home run for her husband. He did, and is still in touch with the family.

Yesterday was the induction ceremony itself. It was sunny, a little hot, and packed, with 50,000 attendees (the record is 80,000, at the Ripken/Gwynn induction). Bob's membership perk got us a seat, rather than having to sit out on the lawn. There were 48 returning Hall of Famers.

Piazza went first, and was tearful from the get-go. He talked about his father, who was on hand. Baseball fans know that his father is a friend of former Dodger manager Tommy LaSorda, who as a favor got the Dodgers to draft Piazza in the 62nd round (they don't even have that many rounds anymore). Nothing was expected from Piazza, but he worked hard and his power got him to the big leagues. He was Rookie of the Year and eventually became the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of the big leagues. He was humble and grateful, and thanked his wife Alicia, who perhaps I only knew was the 500th Playmate in Playboy magazine history. Being a superstar has its perks.

Griffey was next, and he also wept throughout. He thanked his father, also, Ken Griffey Sr., who had a good career for a number of teams, most especially the Big Red Machine teams of the '70s. Griffey grew up around pro baseball, and was the number one pick in the draft (he is the first number draft to be inducted). He was also funny, talking about not getting mad at his son for swinging a bat at a TV, because, he told his wife, "You can't teach that swing." As he ended his speech he put on a cap backwards, which was his trademark.

Griffy was a great player. My friend Bob and I had a discussion--generally today, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, take your pick, are thought of as the greatest living ball players. When they pass, who will assume that mantle? It's got to be Griffey. He hit 630 home runs (without the taint of PEDs) and was a brilliant outfielder. The only dent is that was never in a World Series. But in ten or so years he will be considered to be the greatest living baseball player. He received 99.3 percent of the vote, the highest in Hall of Fame history.

This morning Bob and I headed back into Cooperstown for what's called the Legends of the Game Roundtable. A smaller group of fans (this wasn't free and only for members) watched as Peter Gammons asked the two men some questions and solicited some stories. Piazza, though not by name, referred to the broken-bat incident with Roger Clemens in the 2000 World Series--he said, "I'm lucky to be alive." Both spoke of the greatness of Ichiro Suzuki and how Tony Fossas was the toughest pitcher that Griffey faced.

The Roundtable is great because the players are much more relaxed; their speech his done and they're in jeans and just having a good time.

Both men were great players, completely deserving, and a credit to the game. This trip is almost always the highlight of my year. Next year--look for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and maybe Trevor Hoffman.


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