Griffey and Piazza: A unique draft connection

 In late July, thousands of people will flock to a quaint village located at the southern end of Otsego Lake in upstate New York to pay homage to a couple of former baseball players, who performed unmatched feats on the diamond and forever touched the hearts of their fans.

These two men — Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza — will together receive the greatest baseball honor that any player can have bestowed upon them; induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When this duo started their professional careers nearly three decades ago, it’s doubtful that either envisioned a scenario where they’d be standing at a podium in Cooperstown, New York with dozens of Hall of Famers flanking them and thousands of appreciative fans cheering.

Rising from the bottom
This must have been especially true for Piazza, who was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers with pick number-1390 during the 1988 Major League Baseball (MLB) Amateur Draft. That’s right; the player who’d eventually have more career home runs than any catcher in the history of the game was a sixty-second round election.

The future Hall of Famer was almost baseball’s version of Mr. Irrelevant — only five more names were called after Piazza’s during that draft. Eventually, the Norristown, Pennsylvania native went on to become a superstar with the Dodgers before cementing his Hall of Fame credentials with the New York Mets.

As a native New Yorker, I’ll always cherish one of Piazza’s 427 career home runs more than the rest. It was a game-winning shot against the Atlanta Braves on September 21, 2001.

You see, that particular homer occurred at Shea Stadium during the first major sporting event in the city of New York after the tragedy of 9/11. For those of you who haven’t seen it you can watch it here.

That long ball by Piazza temporarily lifted thousands of grieving hearts; mine included.

The Kid
Predicting Griffey’s trajectory to the Hall of Fame was a far safer bet. After all, he was the overall number-one selection in 1987 and the son of a very talented major leaguer.

“Junior” and his Dad — Ken Griffey Sr. — had the unique opportunity to be the first father-son duo to play together on the same club — the Seattle Mariners. They even hit back-to-back home runs in a game.

Griffey went on to become one of the greatest players of any generation. Not only that, he infused the game with a youthful enthusiasm that endeared him to fans of all ages.    Heck, he inspired kids — and adults — everywhere to wear their ball caps backwards.

Griffey’s star shined as much as his broad smile beamed. “The Kid” was beloved.

It may come as a surprise to some Junior fans that he also holds the distinction of being the first number-one overall draft choice to earn induction into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

What a unique draft connection between Piazza and Griffey — the lowest draft selection to enter the Hall will share the stage with the first top pick to reach Cooperstown. The fact that this is even possible is one of the many reasons I love baseball.

What about the others?
Thinking about the contrasting draft statuses of this year’s inductees inspired me to explore how other Hall of Famers fared on draft day. The results were a bit surprising; at least to me. Perhaps, you’ll feel the same way.

For those of you who were unaware, MLB held its first draft in 1965. Therefore, the following table illustrates the Hall of Fame draft selections during the last 50 years. I’ve also noted amateur free agents who reached Cooperstown since that first draft. The list is impressive to say the least.

When you look at the list, what stands out to you? Is it the fact that Bruce Sutter signed as an amateur free agent? Just to be clear, he was a twenty-first round selection of the Washington Senators in 1970, but he opted to attend college and signed with the Chicago Cubs a year later.

Maybe you’re surprised to see that one of the greatest hitters ever — Tony Gwynn — lasted until the third round, or that Nolan Ryan wasn’t an early round selection. I’m sure everyone will have their own “aha” moment when looking at the list.

I still can’t get over the fact that Griffey is the only number-one overall selection to reach the Hall of Fame and the draft position disparity that exists between him and Piazza.

Perhaps, we’ll see an overall top-pick and a last-rounder reach Cooperstown together in the future, but it won’t happen in the next decade.

Why am I so certain? Let me show you.

The next wave
Look at this list of retired ball players who have been — or will be — frequently mentioned during Hall of Fame selection conversations. Then, you may understand why I don’t anticipate a draft mismatch as wide as the Griffey/Piazza chasm anytime soon.

There are no “last-rounders” noted above. The lowest draftee is Jeff Kent — a round-20 selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989. If Kent happens to reach Cooperstown in the next few years, he’ll be the third lowest draft selection to earn enshrinement behind John Smoltz (round-22) and Piazza.

On the flip-side, there is only one overall top-pick on the horizon worthy of enshrinement consideration — Chipper Jones who was the number-one overall selection of the Atlanta Braves in 1990.

Who’s next?
If you look at the over-30 set, you’ll find several strong candidates for induction. But, the lowest draft choice on my list is Albert Pujols — selected by the St. Louis Cardinals with the number-402 pick in 1999.

Active Potential Hall of Famers (Age-30 and over)
1st 2nd 13th Amateur FA
Alex Rodriguez * Carlos Beltran Albert Pujols Adrian Beltre
 Adrian Gonzalez * Miguel Cabrera
 Joe Mauer * Ichiro Suzuki
Justin Verlander David Ortiz
 Josh Donaldson Robinson Cano
Felix Hernandez
* Overall first round selection

Of all these players, only one was an overall top-pick and he’s the least likely to be enshrined — New York Yankees designated hitter Alex Rodriguez.

Although other potential Hall of Famers have admitted to PED use in one way or another, only Rodriguez has faced discipline by MLB. “A-Rod” missed the entire 2014 season due to suspension after his involvement in the Biogenesis PED scandal.

There’s no way to know who’ll bloom into a full-fledged Hall of Famer by the end of their career. As we’ve already seen, the majority of drafted players in Cooperstown were found in the first two rounds. But, we’ve also seen late round gems found throughout the draft’s 50-year history.

Ironically, more players drafted in the twentieth round or later have gained entry into the baseball Hall of Fame than overall number-ones. The likelihood of another top-pick joining Griffey — and possibly Jones — in the Hall anytime soon is cloudy, at best.

What about the other Halls?
Some of you may be wondering how top picks from other sports have fared at reaching their respective Hall of Fame. The answer is much better than baseball players.

Nine top draft choices from the National Football League and American Football League have been enshrined in Canton, while the National Basketball Association has seen 11 overall number-ones reach the basketball Hall of Fame since the MLB draft began.

Finally
On this date in 1987, Ken Griffey Jr. was selected with the number-one overall pick by an organization that had never experienced a winning season. About a year later, Mike Piazza was chosen by one of the most glamorous teams in the sport with one of the last remaining draft choices. It’s a unique draft distinction.

In the end though, the throngs that make the journey to that quaint village located at the southern end of Otsego Lake in upstate New York won’t care one bit about where these men were drafted nearly 30 years. They just want to cheer for their beloved stars one last time.

That devotion is another reason to love baseball.

 

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