NEW YORK -- All roads do not lead to Cooperstown. There is no highway that makes the trip a quick and easy one -- no, we're not counting nearby Routes 88 and 90 -- nor is there a starting point that automatically gives one player an advantage over another.
For Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, the paths could not have been any different. They both started their professional careers in the Northwest League, made stops in the California League, participated in at least 12 All-Star Games apiece, hit a ton of homers, and that's about where the similarities end. But as of Wednesday's announcement, the destination is the same.
Griffey (with a record 99.3 percent of the vote) and Piazza (83 percent) will enter Cooperstown as the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2016 come July 24 after receiving the requisite 75 percent from the Baseball Writers' Association of America in this year's balloting process. As such, Griffey will become the first-ever first overall Draft pick (1987) to enter the Hall while Piazza, who was selected 1,390th overall as a 62nd-rounder in 1988, is the lowest-ever Draft pick to earn the game's highest honor.
At Thursday's Hall of Fame press conference in New York, Piazza noted how early the two stars' paths had crossed and how different those paths looked at the time.
"I remember signing with the Dodgers in 1988, and one of my first games in the instructional league was against the Seattle Mariners," he said. "I remember being awed by watching [Griffey's] athletic talent. Knew I was the complete polar opposite of you. But I knew I had one thing I could do, get the bat to the zone and hit. As a young catcher, I knew I had a lot of work to do."
The son of three-time All-Star Ken Griffey Sr., Griffey's pedigree was well-known in the baseball community when he entered the Draft as a 17-year-old out of Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati. With the first pick in the 1987 Draft, the Mariners considered a wide swath of players, but decided on the five-tool center fielder at the behest of area scout Tom Mooney and scouting director Roger Jongewaard. That first summer after signing for $160,000, Griffey was sent to Class A Short Season Bellingham in Washington, about two hours north of his future home in Seattle. It was there that the player tabbed as the game's next shining star learned about the equality that comes from being a Minor Leaguer, regardless of hype or Draft pick.
"There's always a No.1 pick," he said. "Each year there's going to be a No. 1 pick. There's going to be a first-round pick [in your system]. 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.'"
So play he did.
The left-handed slugger produced a .313/.445/.604 line with 14 homers, 42 strikeouts and 44 walks in 54 games with Bellingham in 1987 against Northwest League competition that was on average almost four years older than him. But there were still bumps in the road. At Thursday's presser, he said Bellingham manager Rick Sweet fined him $100 that summer for breaking curfew -- "I went to eat after a seven-hour bus ride, Griffey said -- and on a more serious note, he told The Seattle Times in 1992 that he attempted suicideduring that first offseason due to off-the-field issues by taking 277 aspirin. "No matter how bad it seems at the time, work your way through it," he told the newspaper. "Who knows how your life is going to turn out?"
Griffey recovered in plenty of time to head to Class A Advanced San Bernardino to start his first full season in 1988. It would end up being his only full official season in the Minors. Then 18, the center fielder slashed .338/.431/.575 with 11 homers in 58 games with the Spirit before moving up to Double-A Vermont, where he hit .279 with a pair of homers in a 17-game spell. While his numbers looked like that of a top teenage prospect, Griffey admitted he still faced a learning curve at the lower levels.
"It's not like high school. It's not like college," he said. "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."
Griffey did plenty of right things during his brief stay in the Mariners system, and after the following Spring Training, Seattle decided he was already set for his Major League debut come Opening Day, April 3, 1989. He wouldn't play another game in the Minors until his final one -- a one-game rehab stint with Triple-A Tacoma on Aug. 13, 1995. He was too busy hitting 630 career Major League homers, collecting 10 Gold Gloves and winning the 1997 American League MVP award.
By comparison, Piazza had much more to learn and grow during his four-year stay in the Minors.
As a 19-year-old, Piazza went enitrely unnoticed as a first baseman at Miami-Dade Junior College and wasn't particularly on anyone's radar entering the 1988 Draft. Except for Tommy Lasorda, Piazza's father Vince's childhood friend who happened to be the manager of the Dodgers. As a service to the skipper, Los Angeles took Piazza in the 62nd round -- their final pick of that year's Draft.
"Just shows how great our sport is," Piazza said of being such a low pick. "You just need a chance. I was able to sneak into this game, kind of limp in, if you will. Through a lot of hard work and determination, some luck, some timing, was able to build a pretty good career. That's something for me that, again, I've been very vocal about the amount of support [I received]."
In order to increase his value, the Dodgers moved the right-handed slugger behind the plate, but at first, not everyone agreed with the move.
"I remember just my short story about having to run back to the backstop," Piazza said, "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."
In a perfect story about the power of player development, it took years for that to happen, however. Offensively, Piazza was a so-so batter in his first full season in 1990 and hit .250 with six homers and a .670 OPS at Class A Advanced Vero Beach.
"I think those moments, as much as they were difficult, were some of the more innocent times and the fun with the guys," he said. "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."
The Dodgers held him back at the level in 1991, and that's when the breakout came. At age 22, the backstop slashed .277/.344/.540 with 29 homers and 80 RBIs in 117 games with the Dodgers' new Class A Advanced affiliate in Bakersfield. His newfound hitting stroke took him to Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A Albuquerque in 1992, and it was between those two spots he hit .350/.413/.587 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs, proving that he was no California League offensive fluke. He made his Major League debut on Sept. 1, 1992, going 3-for-3 with a double and a walk, and entering the 1993 campaign, Baseball America ranked the 62nd-rounder as the game's No. 38 prospect.
But even with his success he never got comfortable, and according to a friend, that was by design.
"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.'"
Having climbed the Minor League ladder and the prospect rankings, Piazza stuck in the Majors in 1993 and earned National League Rookie of the Year honors, thanks to a .318/.370/.561 line with 35 homers and 112 RBIs. He'd finish his career with 427 homers, most all-time by a catcher, over 16 seasons with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres and A's.
Pretty good for a player drafted after 1,389 of his peers in 1988. But on Thursday, he turned to a player taken_ before _everyone else in his class and thought about the different paths they've taken to the same sweet destination that is Cooperstown.
"The pressures that he had were different than mine in a sense that obviously expectations were high," Piazza said. "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. "
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.