I was surprised when I saw the invitation from the Baseball Hall of Fame to attend their press conference introducing Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. as their newest members-elect. By my way of thinking, the ranking goes something like this:
The MLB Network
New York Times
Local print media
New Jersey Jewish News
But I was sure going to take advantage of the opportunity. I emailed back the credential request and was personally approved within minutes.
The event was held yesterday at the New York Athletic Club and the dress requirements, of all things, were quite explicit:
“STRICTLY PROHIBITED: Denim (of any color), pants that resemble jeans (of any color), tennis shoes, t-shirts, flip flops, untucked shirts, spandex, cargo pants, capris, culottes, open midriffs, halter tops and leggings.”
So much for individual expression. Oh well, small price to pay.
The NYAC — site of the annual Heisman Trophy ceremony — reminded me of the ritzy men’s clubs of a bygone era. Old wood, quiet ambiance. All that was missing was the attendant offering cigars and whiskey. I felt like a kid on his first day at a new school where everyone else had known each other for years. Would I fit in? Is there a hierarchy? Where do I sit? In the back? Up front?
I ran into some familiar landsmen there, such as Bruce Beck of WNBC-TV and Marc Ernay, sports director of 1010 WINS, and Marty Appel, former NY Yankees PR director and still a major presence in the baseball scene, so that was a touch reassuring.
The procedure was incredibly well-organized. Shortly before the appointed hour of 3 p.m., a hush fell over the 100+ journalists, photographers, and camera people (the only sound was the clicking of shutters). Piazza and Griffey entered, accompanied by Jeff Idelson and Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall’s president and chair of the board of directors, respectively, and Jack O’Connell, secretary of the Baseball Writers of America, whose job it is to tally the votes. After introductions, Idelson and Clark helped the Griffey and Piazza on with their ceremonial Hall of Fame jerseys and caps. In perhaps the most anticipated news, Griffey announced his plaque would have him wearing a Seattle Mariners cap, while Piazza chose to go with the Mets, a popular decision given the environment.
There were the usual expressions of humility, appreciation, and gratitude. Griffey’s father (right) was in the audience (in fact he was sitting right in front of me). The most touching comments recalled the two players’ experiences in the minors. Even though Griffey was the No. 1 draft pick in 1987 and Piazza was selected by the Dodgers as basically a favor (62nd round in 1988), it was the same slog for both: low wages, long uncomfortable bus rides, bad food. Griffey said he had to work just as hard as everyone else; there was no special treatment and nothing was guaranteed for him.
Here’s what they said, as per the transcript of the conference:
Q. You both came in from opposite ends of the draft obviously. Reflect what happened after that, starting your pro careers, in Albuquerque, Bakersfield, how that prepared you for what ended up being a Hall-of-Fame career.
MIKE PIAZZA: I think those moments, as much as they were difficult, were some of the more innocent times and the fun with the guys; Musketeers against the world. Once you get to the big leagues sometimes it’s a lot more pressure and it’s different.
But those are the times that you have to kind of cut your teeth and go through those struggles, especially for me. I remember just my short story about having to run back to the backstop, and pitchers that came from good colleges. They’re like, ‘Who is this guy catching?’ He’s terrible. We need to get another guy back there.
Fortunately I was able to get better and work harder and at least, as I said, improve to where I was able to be a pretty good Major League catcher.
KEN GRIFFEY, JR.: Wow, I just remember those bus rides. You touched it all with having roommates and things like that, people you don’t know.
PIAZZA: No money.
GRIFFEY, JR.: Mine was 700 bucks a month.
PIAZZA: My first contract was $850 a month. Tommy Lasorda always has a great expression. When I played in the Minor Leagues, you couldn’t even get a hot shower. He always used to say, ‘Good, I don’t want it to be comfortable here, I want you to work to get to the big leagues.’
Now you go to the Minor League stadiums, it’s great, you have baby changing rooms in the clubhouse. This is comfortable, I don’t know if I ever want to leave here.
GRIFFEY, JR.: It’s changed.
PIAZZA: Yeah, it’s crazy. I’m happy for the players today. They’re incredible nonetheless, they’re talented. But, man, I think it’s harder in a way. We wanted to get the hell out of there. It was tough conditions sometimes.
GRIFFEY, JR.: Playing in ballparks.
PIAZZA: Bad lights, bugs. That’s part of the fun about this. It puts everything in panorama from the start to the beginning.
GRIFFEY, JR.: There’s always a No. 1 pick. Each year there’s going to be a No. 1 pick. There’s going to be a first-round pick. But you got to go out and play. Once you get drafted, that number doesn’t really mean anything. You may have one more chance than everybody else, but you’ve got to go out there and play.
I knew that when I got drafted. You’re a No. 1 pick. So what? You still got to go out there and play like everybody else. We’re not going to treat you any different than anybody else. From Rick Sweet being my first-year manager. He actually fined me for missing curfew. Only reason I missed curfew is I’m allergic to fish, I went to eat after a seven-hour bus ride. He doesn’t care. You missed curfew, here is a hundred. When I got to Cincinnati, I asked for my money back. He said he didn’t have it. That was good (laughter).
But when you have guys who have been in the Major Leagues and now they’re coaching, they’re riding the bus along with you, they’ve got 10, 15 years in the big leagues, you sort of listen to them. They’re teaching you how to be a pro from A ball. It’s not like high school. It’s not like college. These guys are teaching you what it’s going to take to get to the next level. Then you have another coach that’s going to try to get you to the next level.
They’re not going to sugarcoat things. They’re going to treat you like young men. You better do the right thing or they’re going to get you out of there.
I’ve watched plenty of players throughout my career get released and stuff like that. I was like, ‘He could play.’
But they said, ‘We don’t deal with attitudes like that.’
Like I said, doesn’t matter when you get drafted, you still got to go out and perform. We’re still playing on the same field.
PIAZZA: Everyone matures differently, too. I remember watching him play. The pressures that he had were different than mine in a sense that obviously expectations were high. For him, everybody was watching. For me, nobody was. I had to kind of cut my teeth and do a different route.
For me, I’ve seen so many guys that were a lot more talented than me that didn’t make it because it’s not easy. It’s a tough road. Guys get injured. Life is sometimes not what happens but how you deal with it. This game is a true test. The conditions we mentioned really separate the guys that can play and the guys that can’t.
I wonder if anyone else asked that in the breakout session that followed. I almost felt badly for Griffey: most of the attention went to Piazza, who played for the local team.
Time ran out before I could ask Piazza a question: “Players often say they know when they hit the ball that it’s going out. What were your thoughts when you hit your homer in the first game back after 9/11?” (I must admit, I thought it would be neat to see that on the transcript.)
Since I behaved so well, I hope they invite me back next year.