Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Ken Griffey Jr. shed some tears, showing he cares

WATCH: Ken Griffey Jr. reflects on Hall of Fame speech, baseball legacy

Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr. discusses his legacy following his speech Sunday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
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Seattle Mariners legend Ken Griffey Jr. discusses his legacy following his speech Sunday at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Anybody who saw Ken Griffey Jr. on Saturday night was not surprised to see him cry like a kid Sunday afternoon.

On the eve of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Mariners held a lavish gala for Griffey at a local art museum flanking Oswego Lake. When former team president Chuck Armstrong introduced Griffey to the dinner guests, he broke down before speaking a word.

The sentimental side Griffey showed in front of family, friends and a generation of Mariners employees presaged the challenge of talking to an audience of 50,000 baseball fans Sunday. If you’re nervous on the putting green, it’s a reliable indication you’ll have jitters on your first drive.

Griffey’s emotion was in contrast to his assurance, made Saturday afternoon, that he’d remain stoic in order to impress son Trey.

“My son is 22 and plays football,” Griffey had pointed out. “He told me, ‘don’t be a punk, Dad.’ 

Griffey’s tears weren’t evidence that he lacks valor. The tears were evidence of how much a man once perceived as carefree actually cares.

“Talking to 50,000 people I didn’t have anything in common with, I’d have been all right,” Griffey said 30 minutes after his speech. “But fans had come from all over.”

Three of those fans were his children Taryn and Tevin, in addition to Trey.

“The actual talking part wasn’t too bad,” said Griffey. “But I made the mistake of looking at my kids. I remember being told: ‘Don’t look at your kids, don’t look at your kids until you have to.’ Nope, not me.

“You know what they say when you’re a kid: ‘Don’t do that? Don’t do that?’ And you do it anyway?”

As Griffey was in the extreme-hankie phase of his remarks, he got a text message from Trey:

“I love you, man.”

Said Griffey: “I didn’t see the text until I finished. I started crying again.”

Griffey was not the first baseball legend to have a bawl on induction day. Mike Piazza, whose speech preceded Junior’s, also was moved to tears he didn’t fear. Piazza had appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night talk show last week and received a text from the comedian: “Real men cry at funerals and when they’re inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.”

Griffey put an emphasis on family anecdotes in his speech. Most of the baseball-related references dealt with high school and youth-league coaches. And though he talked about his close friend, former Mariners right fielder Jay Buhner — “my brother from another mother” — there was no mention of Lou Piniella nor, for that matter, anybody associated with the team’s front office during Griffey’s glory years in Seattle.

Any omissions were the consequence of his taking the Hall of Fame’s suggestion on speech length — try to keep it in the 14-15 minute range, he was told — more literally than Piazza, whose lovely but long acceptance address included words for his father (spoken in Italian) as well as quotations from Pope Francis and Teddy Roosevelt.

Griffey noted that many of the 48 Hall of Famers on hand for the ceremony were not anxious to hear him ramble on an uncomfortably hot, muggy afternoon, “and you don’t want the Hall of Famers at your back throwing stuff at you.”

The memory of Griffey that figures to prevail the longest from Sunday came after his final words, when he put on a Mariners cap backwards. It was Frank Thomas’ idea.

A member of the Hall of Fame’s 2014 class and longtime Griffey friend — “he cried all through his speech, too,” Junior said — Thomas correctly presumed the stunt would bring down the house.

That it did, culminating a momentous event more stressful than Griffey envisioned. Although he regarded every aspect of his induction weekend as the thrill of a lifetime, the relief on his face afterward was palpable.

“It was tough, but I got through it,” said Griffey, who already is looking forward to watching the 2017 ceremony with Piazza.

“Starting next year,” he said, “we’ll both be relaxing, and watching the next guys sweating.”