Fay: On stage at Cooperstown, Ken Griffey Jr. finally shows emotion

EDITOR'S NOTE: WCPO is looking back on Ken Griffey Jr.'s life growing up in Cincinnati, stunning success and Hall of Fame career. See all of our coverage at WCPO.com/griffey

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — I covered Ken Griffey Jr. on a daily basis for 8 1/2 years. I saw him on the verge of tears once in that time.

He blew away that record in the first 20 seconds of his Hall of Fame induction speech.

“It was 20 seconds?” he said afterward. “I thought it was more like 24 seconds.”

The speech was as sweet as his legendary swing. He melted hearts when he talked about his children Trey, Taryn and Tevin, and his wife, Melissa. He dished out “I love yous” to his mother Birdie, his father Ken Sr. and his brother Craig. 

Griffey tried to keep things light — like he always does — but his emotions got the best of him from the start.

“When I looked at the kids, it made it a little tough,” he said. “I could look at anyone else and I’m good. To see them, them smiling and starting to cry . . . Those are only three that do that to me. They mean so much so me.”

Trey texted his dad an “I love you, man” during the speech. “I didn’t get it until afterward,” Griffey said. “I started crying again.” 

Griffey was warned.

“Everybody says don’t look at your kids until you have to,” he said. “Nope, not me. You know when you’re a kid and they say don’t do something, you do it anyway. The first thing I did was look at the kids.”

For Griffey to break down that often showed how much getting into the Hall meant to him. Griffey rarely showed his emotion as a player. He was viewed as a super talent who got by mostly on that super talent.

His fellow inductee, Mike Piazza, pointed to that.

“The only thing we have in common as baseball players is two arms and two legs,” Piazza said.

But Griffey bristled a bit at the notion that he skated by on talent alone.

“You don’t get to the Hall of Fame without working hard every day,” he said.

Cincinnati was a big part of the speech, although the Reds didn’t get much more of a mention than the Chicago White Sox. Griffey made it clear he was going in as a Mariner by putting a Mariners cap on immediately after the speech — backward, of course.

The idea came from fellow Hall of Famer Frank Thomas just before the speech started. Melissa was able to locate a hat in the nick of time.

“I think it’s Tevin’s,” Griffey said.

The crowd loved the move. Seattle jerseys were the second most present in the crowd (estimated at 50,000), behind the New York Mets. Queens is a four-hour drive to the Hall of Fame; Seattle is a five-hour flight.

Griffey said your team occupies a special place in your heart. The Mariners are that.

But Griffey is a Cincinnati guy and started the speech with his Cincinnati memories.

He thanked his coaches at Moeller, Mike Cameron and Paul Smith. He got emotional there. “I want to thank them for being true coaches, honest and fair,” Griffey said. He mentioned Poppa Joe Hayden, the late Midland Redskins coach. He got emotional there, too. “He taught us more about life than baseball,” Griffey said.

Griffey went right into talking about his father, Ken Sr. He really got emotional there. “He taught me how to play this game but more important how to be a man. . . Didn’t come easy for him. He had to decide between baseball and football. I was born five months after his senior year. He made the decision to play baseball and provide for his family because that’s what men do. I love you for that.”

He went from his dad to his mom.

“To my mom, the strongest woman I know,” Griffey said. “She had to be mom and dad. She was our big fan and our biggest critic . . . I love you, mom.”

He thanked his long-time representative Cincinnati lawyer Brian Goldberg.

“You’ve been there from Day 1,” Griffey said. “There’s been some ups and downs, but I can’t think of better friend and agent to be by my side other than you.”

Griffey mentioned a long list of teammates. He got emotional there, too, particularly when talking about Barry Larkin and Jay Buhner. When Griffey mentioned the highlights of his career, he mostly talked about what teammates did.

He did allow that his plaque, which mentioned his career accomplishments, was “awesome.”

“What else can you say about it,” he said. “It captured the Denzel (Washington) “Training Day” me. When you see it for the first time, you’re looking down and ‘oh, wow.’ When the commissioner was reading it, I looked over his shoulder (and thought)  ‘I did that.’ They got all the nicknames in there other than Swingman. But other than that, I’m good.

“It’s been an unbelievable experience since I got here on Wednesday.”

Those remarks came in the post-ceremony press conference when  he got back to his less-emotional self. He did give an introspective answer to the final question. How do you want to me remembered?

“I want to be remembered as a guy who gave everything he’s got,” he said. “If you look at the greatest center  fielders who played this game, we’ve all got a shelf like of about 12 years because you run into walls. You have a different mentality than anyone else on that field has.”

Griffey slipped into present tense briefly there — like he was still running down shots to the gap.

“I hate to give up triples,” he said. “I’ll give up doubles. That happens. If I didn’t get any hits, you weren’t going to get any hits. That’s how I played. People questioned why I played that way. You never want to be the guy replaced for defense in the seventh after you hit. . . I want to be out there from the first pitch to the last. I know injuries are part of it.

“Would I do it all over again? Absolutely. Because that’s what made me me.”

He'll also be remembered as a guy who finally showed his emotions on the stage at Cooperstown.

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