COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Tears began flowing immediately. Like, we’re talking instantly. Hall of Fame inductions always are emotional. But this one, what a weepfest.
And it was absolutely, sniff, touching.
Careers often become sentimental journeys while we’re paying scant attention, whether you’re talking baseball, teacher or auto mechanic. The thing is, so many of us don’t even stop to realize it until you look up one day and the twilight is beginning to set in.
“We made it, dad,” Mike Piazza said near the end of his 30-minute Hall of Fame induction speech Sunday. “The race is over.
“Now it’s time to smell the roses.”
Piazza was first up to the podium, and his voice began to quiver and the waterworks gushed within the first 30 seconds after he started to talk, when he spoke of the legends sitting on the stage behind him.
Ken Griffey Jr.’s breakdown came even quicker. He started off by thanking the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, who elected him with a record 99.32 percent of the vote, and he couldn’t even get through that.
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” the late American historian Jacques Barzun wrote in 1954, and while the NFL and even the NBA have conspired to muscle past baseball in popularity by some measures, even at that, nearly seven decades later, Barzun’s words still ring true.
As the hot sun blistered some 50,000 in attendance, Piazza referenced his Italian immigrant father, his Roman Catholic mother, his godfather Tommy Lasorda, Pope Benedict XVI, Jackie Robinson, President Teddy Roosevelt and 9/11.
It was Piazza’s home run in the New York Mets’ first game back following the terrorist attacks in 2001 that provided the first glimmer of normalcy and hope for a better tomorrow late that summer in New York, and it is a moment in time that still accompanies him today, wanted or not.
He often works to avoid the subject for two reasons. He does not want to seem boastful. And he recognizes that he was no hero on that emotional evening, just a guy who was fortunate enough to help pitch in and do his part.
“A day that forever changed our lives,” he said from the stage. “To witness the darkest evil of the human heart as it tore many loved ones from their families will forever be burned in my soul. But from tragedy and sorrow came bravery, compassion, character and, eventually, healing.
“Many of you give me praise for the two-run home run in the first game back on Sept. 21, 2001, that pushed us ahead of the rival Braves. But the true praise belongs to police, firefighters and first responders who knew that they were going to die but went forward anyway.
“Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for his friends. I consider it an honor and a privilege to have witnessed that love. Your families and those left behind are always in my prayers.”
He meets them today, still. It could be at a ballpark. Or at an airport. Most memorably one day in the recent past, it was on an airplane. He had placed headphones over his ears for a cross-country flight. Near the end, the man sitting next to him said something. Piazza removed his earphones and asked what it was.
“I just want to tell you,” the man said, “that I lost my brother on 9/11, and I was at that game.”
Piazza’s plaque reads in part: “Led Mets to 2000 Subway Series, and helped rally a nation one year later with his dramatic home run in the first Mets game in New York following the 9/11 attacks.”
Understand the hearts and minds of America? Piazza started Induction Day by attending an early morning Mass at St. Mary’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church on Elm Street in Cooperstown. Father John P. Rosson dispensed a special blessing to him afterward on the steps leading into the church, after which Piazza stood outside for about 15 minutes signing autographs and posing for pictures.
At a private party the night before, amid salmon sliders and barbecued beef brisket, the Mets presented him with a 2015 National League Championship ring for his work with them in spring training and with a special Hall of Fame watch.
Griffey, meanwhile, spoke of a television. It was at his home years ago, and his son, Trey, swung a bat. Crack—there went the television.
“Mom got mad at you,” Griffey said from the podium, speaking directly to Trey. “Then she asked why I wasn’t mad. I said, ‘Girl, you can’t teach that swing.’
“Then I went out and bought a new television.”
Families, hard work and taking care of others. The same elements upon which America was founded and still leans hard on today were repeatedly invoked Sunday. These are principles endemic to both blue collars and Hall of Famers.
“That’s probably the first time in a long time I’ve seen Junior come out from his security blanket and lose his composure,” said Jay Buhner, Griffey’s former Seattle teammate and longtime friend. “It was good to see. It shows you that this is a very special honor.”
Mostly, Griffey said, he lost it when he gazed out into the audience and looked at his wife, Melissa, and their three children. He knew he would. He also singled out a friend who had traveled 6,000 miles from Israel to be in attendance Sunday.
The actor Jim Caviezel, a Seattle-area native who once harbored hopes of playing in the NBA and is a friend of both Griffey and Piazza, was there, too.
He recalled playing basketball in the late 1980s with some of the old SuperSonics, like Gary Payton. John Stockton sometimes would show up, too, and a young baseball phenom named Griffey, who was just starting his Mariners career. And it was Griffey who helped steer him into acting.
“Next thing I knew, he had his foot on my chest as he went up to dunk,” Caviezel said, chuckling. “I couldn’t believe it.”
So much for hoop dreams.
Next, his acting career led him to the movie Frequency, the plot of which revolves around a son trying to travel back in time to save his father, a heroic firefighter, who lost his life in a raging blaze on Oct. 12, 1969.
The fictional movie, you might notice, takes place smack in the middle of the real-life Amazin’ Mets' run to a World Series title over Baltimore. And in the movie, key plays from that World Series serve as devices to move the plot along, and one character utters the memorable line, “I will love Ron Swoboda until the day I die.”
Caviezel met Swoboda a few years later by chance, and the former Mets outfielder asked the question you would expect: Why me in the movie?
“I told him that the writer told me because you represent everyman,” said Caviezel, who met Piazza on Opening Day in 1999 and has been a friend ever since.
Yes, whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn….
“It’s weird, it really is,” Caviezel said, standing in a field in Cooperstown, waiting for his two baseball friends to be inducted. “One thing is, life is so fast.”
Yes, it is. And it only gets faster. As in a baseball game, we all do a little better when we can breathe deeply and slow things down just a bit. Smell the roses, as Piazza told his father.
“You look at the greatest center fielders who ever played, we have a shelf life of about 12 years,” Griffey said. “We run into walls. Everything is fair for us.
“I hated to give up triples. If I didn’t get a hit, you weren’t going to get a hit. People ask me, ‘Why did you play so hard?’ Because you never want to be that guy who comes out in the seventh inning for a defensive replacement.
“Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Because that’s what made me me.”
“Easygoing nature and love of the game helped define a new era for baseball’s popularity,” reads Griffey’s plaque, and so here we are today, as ever, looking to the future while honoring the past.
Sure enough, as he ended his speech, in his signature look, he plopped a baseball cap onto his head, backward. It was another Hall of Famer, Frank Thomas, who instigated.
“He told me, ‘You’ve gotta do it, you’ve gotta do it,’” Griffey said, and score one for the Big Hurt.
It was absolutely perfect.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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