They came from different planets in the baseball universe. Ken Griffey Jr. is the son of a major leaguer, the first overall pick in the 1987 draft, destined for stardom from the first time he unleashed that gorgeous left-handed swing. Mike Piazza was an unknown junior college first baseman who wasn’t selected until the 62nd round of the next year’s draft – a round that no longer exists because it so seldom produced big leaguers.
On Wednesday, each was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the only two members of the Class of 2016.
Griffey, a generational talent who wore his cap backward and his smile wide, was named on 437 of the 440 ballots returned by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America – a record 99.3 percent of the vote – and became the first top draft pick ever elected. Piazza, who became a catcher in the minors and ended up slugging more home runs than anyone who played the position, received 83 percent of the vote when 75 percent was necessary for election, and in July will become the lowest draft pick ever inducted – 1,390th.
“It all adds up and it just really crystallizes how special this game is, in a sense,” Piazza said Wednesday night on a conference call with reporters. “It’s unlike any other sport that you can have two guys go into the Hall such as Ken Griffey Jr. and myself from completely opposite ends of the spectrum.”
The election of Griffey, whose 630 homers with the Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds put him sixth all-time, was such a lock in his first time on the ballot that there was some thought he could become the first unanimous choice in Hall history. Instead, he topped the old mark of 98.8 percent, held by pitcher Tom Seaver.
“I can’t be upset,” Griffey said on a separate conference call. “It’s just an honor to be elected, and to have the highest percentage is definitely a shock.”
The election of Piazza, up for the fourth time, wasn’t a sure thing – in part because he was such a prodigious slugger in an age when performance-enhancing drugs raged through baseball. Griffey, whose swing seemed so pure its silhouette could be used as MLB’s logo – baseball’s Jerry West – was never touched by rumors of PED use. Piazza, who hit a record 396 of his 427 home runs as a catcher, was dogged by them.
In 2002, Piazza admitted taking androstenedione, a steroid, early in his career – but before it was banned by baseball, which did not yet have a drug testing program. He maintained that he was clean thereafter, and he was not named in the Mitchell Report, baseball’s 2007 investigation into the use of PEDs in the sport, or linked in any concrete way to drugs. He was asked about the inclusion of PED users in the Hall.
“At the end of the day, the fans understand that there’s no flawless institution,” Piazza said. “It’s a human condition that we all make mistakes. . . . We all need to understand that the game is heeled and that they’ve addressed the issue and we’re moving on.”
Some of those with direct ties to PEDs are now moving on from Hall consideration. Slugger Mark McGwire, 10th on the all-time home run list, received just 12.3 percent of the vote in his 10th and final year on the ballot.
But there was some movement for Barry Bonds, the all-time home-run king, and Roger Clemens, who won a record seven Cy Young awards. Clemens, whose name is scattered through the Mitchell Report, gained 45.2 percent of the vote. Bonds, tied to the BALCO steroid scandal from the early part of this century, climbed to 44.3 percent. Each has six years remaining to get to 75 percent.
“They were Hall of Famers before all this stuff started,” Griffey said on MLB Network.
Neither Bonds nor Clemens had topped 38 percent of the vote previously. Their incremental gain could be in part because of an electorate that was significantly altered from recent years. Though voting was still conducted by the Baseball Writers Association of America, and voters must have been members of that organization for 10 consecutive years, the Hall last summer whittled the number of eligible voters by eliminating those people who hadn’t actively covered the game in the past decade. Last year, before the change, 549 ballots were turned in, nearly 25 percent more than this year.
Though only Griffey and Piazza were elected, two players reached the cusp. Jeff Bagwell, the power-hitting first baseman who became an icon in Houston with the Astros, fell just 15 votes shy of gaining election. And Tim Raines, the speedy outfielder who played most of his career with the Montreal Expos, received his highest percentage with 69.8. Raines is on the ballot for just one more year.
Trevor Hoffman, the longtime closer for the San Diego Padres who ranks second on the all-time saves list, ranked just behind Raines in his first appearance on the ballot.
But with due respect to Piazza, Wednesday was mostly about Griffey. He was mononymous, known only as “Junior” or “The Kid,” and after following his father – 19-year major leaguer Ken Griffey Sr. – to ballparks throughout his career, he made it cool to have fun. That signature cap-worn-backward was so much a part of him that National League MVP Bryce Harper tweeted Wednesday night, “Juniors [sic] ball cap has to be backwards on his plaque right?”
For a guy who glided into the Hall the way he glided into the gap, it would fit.