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Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza took opposite Cooperstown paths

By
Jerry Beach, The Sports Xchange
Ken Griffey Jr. and New York Mets Mike Piazza speak to the media wearing their Hall of Fame jerseys and hats at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum class of 2016 press conference at the New York Athletic Club in New York City on January 7, 2016. Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday with the highest voting percentage ever at 99 % and Mike Piazza will join him in Cooperstown this summer. Griffey Jr. chose to go into the Hall as a Seattle Marriner and Piazza chose to enter as a New York Met. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI
Ken Griffey Jr. and New York Mets Mike Piazza speak to the media wearing their Hall of Fame jerseys and hats at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum class of 2016 press conference at the New York Athletic Club in New York City on January 7, 2016. Ken Griffey Jr. was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Wednesday with the highest voting percentage ever at 99 % and Mike Piazza will join him in Cooperstown this summer. Griffey Jr. chose to go into the Hall as a Seattle Marriner and Piazza chose to enter as a New York Met. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

No Hall of Famer ever began his career with the pomp and circumstance of Ken Griffey Jr., who was selected by the Seattle Mariners with the first overall pick in the 1987 draft and reached the major leagues for good after just 129 minor league games.

And no player bound for Cooperstown emerged from more modest roots than Mike Piazza, who was a 62nd-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers a year later and played 387 minor league games before his first promotion in 1992.

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A pair of players whose careers originated in decidedly dissimilar fashions will converge at the pinnacle of their profession Sunday afternoon, when Griffey and Piazza are officially inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

While Griffey and Piazza did not share a draft stock, they gained membership in the most exclusive club in the sport by having in common the same work ethic.

"My father has always told me there are more second, third, fourth and higher (picks) in the big leagues than the first-round pick," said Griffey, who played with his dad, also named Ken, with the Mariners in 1990 and 1991.

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Griffey debuted as a teenager in 1989 and wasted no time becoming one of the great all-around center fielders of all time. He won the Gold Glove every year during the 1990s and is just one of seven players to hit at least 40 homers in a season seven times.

"If you work hard and you do the things that you're supposed to do, you get rewarded," Griffey said. "Yes, you may get another look because of the higher round, but they're not going to hand it to you. You're going to have to do what everybody else does, and that's go out and work hard and do what you're supposed to do."

While Griffey was viewed as a can't-miss, five-tool prospect from his days as a high schooler in Ohio, even Piazza realized his entry into pro ball came largely as a favor to Tommy Lasorda, the then-Dodgers manager who was a distant relative and close friend of Piazza's father, Vince.

"I think I was just very fortunate that Tommy was there to at least give me a chance to get my foot in the door," Piazza said.

Piazza possessed plenty of raw power but limited athleticism, so Lasorda convinced Piazza -- as well as the Dodgers -- that he was a catcher. Piazza learned the position while climbing the minor league ranks over the next four seasons.

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"That's the great thing about baseball: There's so many positions and so many opportunities," Piazza said. "You don't have to be the tallest or the fastest or throw the hardest or have the best hands. You just have to have one or two above-average major league tools.

"All the cliches make sense, where catching is the fastest way to the big leagues. I was able to turn from a slow-footed first baseman into a slow-footed catcher who could hit. My opportunities increased. It was just a testament to hard work and perseverance and trying to find your niche."

Piazza ended up as perhaps the greatest hitting catcher of all-time. His .362 average in 1996 was the highest average produced by a catcher in 60 years. He finished his career with 427 homers, the most ever by a player who played primarily behind the plate.

The players with very different beginnings arrived in Cooperstown in appropriately varied fashions.

While Griffey sailed into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility with a record 99-plus percent of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, Piazza didn't reach the 75 percent threshold needed for induction until his fourth year on the ballot due to lingering but unsubstantiated suspicions of steroid use.

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And while both Griffey and Piazza were traded at the peak of their careers, Griffey will go into the Hall of Fame wearing a Mariners cap while Piazza will wear the cap of the New York Mets, for whom he played from 1998 through 2006.

However, the one thing Griffey and Piazza have in common will bond them forever.

"People talk about, 'It was a favor for Tom Lasorda,'" Griffey said of Piazza. "Well, he took an opportunity and made the most of it and showed everybody he was not just a, 'Hey, it's a favor.' He went out there and showed that he can play this game and played at the highest level. And look at what his reward is right now -- we're going to be on the same stage (Sunday) together."

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