Ken Griffey Jr.’s heartfelt words to his family were the highlight of his Hall of Fame speech, columnist Larry Stone writes, and are sure to be the enduring memory — along with his drop-the-mic finish when he donned a cap, backward.
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — For Ken Griffey Jr., the final flow of tears came after his emotional Hall of Fame speech was finished Sunday.
He checked his cellphone and found a text his son Trey had sent him while he was still on the stage: “I love you, man.”
“I didn’t get it until after, and I started crying again when I read it,” Griffey said afterward.
It was that kind of day, one in which family bonds and the enormity of his achievement turned the normally self-assured and glib Griffey into a puddle of sentiment run amok.
Under the sweltering sun, Griffey was overcome almost immediately, getting choked up about 20 seconds into his speech. From that point, it was an ongoing struggle to keep his composure, one that he didn’t always win.
But Griffey’s hesitations and slight falters — his father, Ken Griffey Sr., called them “miscues on some quotes” and said he’d delight in ribbing him at the appropriate time — only added to the impact of his 20-minute address.
This was a speech nearly as eloquent for the pauses, the moments when Griffey was fighting for self-control, as for the words themselves. For once in his life, The Natural appeared unnatural. But all it did was make him more human.
Every legend has his breaking point, it turns out.
Throughout the buildup to his Hall of Fame induction, Griffey had scoffed at the notion he would break down on the podium — even when other Hall of Famers had warned him it was inevitable.
But on Saturday night at a private Mariners reception, Griffey gave a sneak preview of his emotional vulnerability. Addressing a crowd packed with former teammates as well as Mariners team personnel from his 13 years with the ballclub, he broke down almost immediately as he began to reflect on what his Seattle days meant to him.
On Sunday, Griffey said, it was not the presence of a near-record crowd of an estimated 50,000 at the Clark Sports Center that did him in. Griffey had played in front of crowds that big plenty of times with aplomb.
No, it was his family — particularly his three children, Trey, Taryn and Tevin — sitting front and center that was the culprit.
Listening to fellow inductee Mike Piazza laud the Griffey family in his speech, and then watching a video highlight of his own career, had already put him in a vulnerable state, Griffey admitted.
“And I think once I started looking at the kids, it made it a little tough,’’ he said. “I could look at anybody else and go, ‘All right, I’m good.’ I think those three are the only ones that can do that to me. … They mean everything to me.”
Griffey admitted he had been warned by other players not to look at his kids, but his independent streak came out.
“When you’re a kid, they always say, ‘Don’t do that, don’t do that.’ And you do it anyway,’’ he said. “If it was 50,000 people that I didn’t have anything in common with, I’d have been all right.”
But Griffey’s heartfelt tributes to family members were the highlight of the speech, and sure to be the enduring memory of it — along with Griffey’s drop-the-mic finish when he donned a Hall of Fame cap, backward. Though the address was tinged with humor, at its core it was about a man looking at his roots with pride and adoration.
He talked of his father’s decision to give up his football career to pursue baseball as a 29th-round draft pick by Cincinnati. Griffey Sr. went on to become an All-Star and key member of the great Reds teams of the 1970s.
“He made a decision to play baseball to provide for his family, because that’s what men do, and I love you for it,” Griffey said in his speech, and added of being his father’s teammate on the Mariners: “In baseball, there’s certain things you can call someone: a fossil, graybeard, grandpa, dad, pops. But I got a chance to say it and mean it.”
He called his mother, Birdie, “the strongest woman I know,” and talked about the competitions he waged with his younger brother, Craig, in all sports. No one pushed him more, he said.
“You never gave up or gave in,’’ he said to Craig. “One problem: How come when you won, all my friends knew about it, and we didn’t even have cellphones back then?”
Addressing his children, he began, “Words can’t describe how much I love you and would do anything for you.”
He told the story of sitting on the couch with a young Trey — “my little man and partner in crime” — who swung a baseball bat and hit the television.
“Mom got mad at you,’’ he said, looking at Trey, “and then got mad at me. She asked me why I was not mad. I said, ‘Girl, you can’t teach that swing.’ I got up and bought a new TV.”
He called Taryn, like Trey an athlete at the University of Arizona, “Daddy’s little girl” and joked, “From the time you were born, I knew I had to go into protect mode. I didn’t even like my teammates who had boys. … But no matter if I went 4 for 4 or 0 for 4, to hear those words when I got home, ‘Daddy,’ made my best days better and my bad days not so bad.”
Of his youngest, 14-year-old Tevin, he said, “Seeing you for the first time made my life complete. … Watching you grow up has been nothing but a pleasure.”
Finally, to his wife, Melissa, with whom Griffey (who wore uniform No. 24) will celebrate their 24th anniversary on, appropriately, Oct. 24, he said, “You’re the glue that holds this family together, and the light when it’s dark. People say you’re lucky; that’s not true. I’m the lucky one.”
Griffey added that he knew he was going to marry Melissa the first time he saw her. “Now, you took a little longer to realize I was going to be your husband. But I’m OK with that now. I love you.”
Not surprisingly, Griffey’s family loved every second of his speech.
“I’ve been proud of him ever since he started playing ball, not just today,’’ Ken Griffey Sr. said. “But I’m just a little prouder today.”
He wasn’t surprised his son got choked up. “Between the two of us, we have a sense of pride when he talks about me, or I talk about him. We kind of break up a little bit.”
Trey Griffey added, “He did great. I’m proud for him. I love him. That’s my dad. I thought it was a great speech.’’
Earlier in the week, Griffey said Trey had admonished him not to “be a punk” and cry, but the son was just as moved by his dad’s show of feelings as everyone else.
“It’s an emotional day,” he said. “He did great.”
Melissa Griffey said, “He’s a good man, good father, good husband. That’s what I look at.”
Griffey’s sentimental side wasn’t a surprise to her. She had seen it before, particularly when it comes to family.
“Totally,” she said. “That’s how you get to the heartstrings right there, the kids. Just talk about the kids, and there it is.”
At one point in his speech, after stumbling over a phrase, Griffey muttered to himself, “Slow down.” But taking all the time in the world wouldn’t have helped quell the feelings Griffey had inside, ready to burst forth.
Which is why Griffey already is looking forward to next year’s induction, on July 30, 2017, when a new class will take the same stage and fight their own emotional battles. He and Piazza will be seated behind them, along with their new fraternity members, empathizing over the battles for composure.
“Me and him will be able to relax together and watch the next guy sweat,” he said.