This Sunday two of the greatest players of the 1990s and 2000s will honored in Cooperstown as Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza become the 311th and 312th members inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Some years there are borderline inductees. There is nothing borderline about either Griffey or Piazza. Not in the voting — Griffey received an all-time high 99.3% of the vote in his first time on the ballot — and certainly not on the merits. Indeed, these two were two of the greatest players to ever step on a baseball field.
Griffey was, for a good time in the 1990s, considered the best player in the game by the public at large. And he had a good argument for it. He was a perennial Gold Glove winner and the MVP in 1997, though any of his seasons between, say, 1993 and 1999 wouldn’t have caused anyone to bat an eye if you told them that the man who posted them won the award. He had an even 1.000 OPS in those seven seasons and averaged 44 homers a year. That’s not just a Hall of Fame peak, that’s an inner-circle Hall of Fame peak.
He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds before the 2000 season and, from that point on, his story changed. He was hurt a lot. He was bypassed by several others as the best hitter in the game. And, with the exception of one late-career cameo appearance on the 2008 Chicago White Sox, he never saw the postseason again. Still, his years in Cincinnati were good, even if they paled compared to his peak. In his eight full seasons there he put up a line of .273/.363/.524, which is nothing at all to sneeze at, even if his 1990s performance made it seem like something of a disappointment at the time.
In some ways, however, the timing of his relative decline helped burnish the narrative about his career. Most of those who eclipsed Griffey — Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez chief among them — became the poster children for PEDs. Griffey, meanwhile, was never ensnared in such controversy and many used his decline and his injuries as an example of the price a great player pays for choosing not to cheat. There are a lot of contradictions and assumed facts in that narrative, of course. Oftentimes, when convenient, a player suffering many injuries is cited as evidence that he did take PEDs. And, of course, we do not know every player who did and did not take them. Those assumptions, however, and the particular politics of PEDs among baseball writers and Hall of Fame voters have an awful lot to do with Griffey’s 99.3% vote total.
Piazza was never credibly accused of taking PEDs yet the assumption by some that he did kept him on the ballot a few more years than he should’ve been. When you put that stuff aside, however, all you can see is one of the greatest catchers of all time.
His story is well-known by now: a 62nd round draft choice no one thought would do much who, inexplicably, burst onto the scene hitting way above .300 with prodigious power. That’s some myth-making too, of course. Many did see a lot in Piazza, including Ted Williams, who saw him when he was a teenager and said he’d be a star. The biggest reason Piazza went in the 62nd round was that, when he was scouted, he was playing first base. Poorly. And, since he is right-handed, that profiled even worse. Scouting reports at the time said, as a hitter only, he was a 7th round pick. If anyone had seen him as decent catcher then he’d probably go higher than even that. As such, that “he came out of NOWHERE” narrative was not really accurate. Early in his career that narrative helped his image as a hard-worker. Later in his career and in his first couple of times on the ballot that narrative fueled PED innuendo.
Expectations aside, his performance was his performance and it was spectacular. A line of .308/.377/.545 and 427 homers would have, in fact, carried the career of a poor-fielding first baseman, but Piazza stuck behind the plate while putting up MVP numbers in the batters box for virtually his entire career. The list of his actual peers include Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and . . . well, no one else. At least not really. There are a lot of things still left to sort out about the Hall of Fame voting for players in the 1990s and 2000s, but Piazza being on the outside looking in was one of the most perverse things going.
Beyond those two, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy will be on the stage to accept the 2016 J. G. Taylor Spink Award, given to baseball writers. Graham McNamee will be honored as the Ford C. Frick Award winner for broadcasting. Barring a seance he will not be making any speeches given that he died 74 years ago.
The ceremony will be held on a big lawn a mile south of the Hall of Fame. If you’re in the neighborhood, admission is free and lawn chairs and blankets and things are welcome. If you’re not in the neighborhood, the festivities will be broadcast live on MLB Network and will be shown via webcast at http://www.baseballhall.org.