Assuming Ken Griffey Jr. has no plans of returning to baseball as a manager or decision-making executive, Griffey’s Hall of Fame acceptance speech here Sunday will be his final public performance associated with a game that once came so easy to him.
Remarks won’t be as easy for Griffey to deliver as, say, facing seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, among the ace pitchers he pretty much owned. Aside from the probability 45,000 spectators will be watching him — and some shared phraseology between baseball and political-convention speeches, where the most effective of them are referred by pundits as “home runs” — swinging a bat and turning a phrase don’t have much in common.
But if the Safeco Field acceptance speech that followed Griffey’s 2013 induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame is any indication, he will recall his career with grace and poise, blending reverence for the surroundings with an occasional (and oh so necessary) shot of levity.
Andre Dawson wasn’t expected to bring the house down in Cooperstown six years ago. He reached the Hall of Fame known as the all-business pillar of any clubhouse, a veteran whose pro’s-pro reliability made him a mentor.
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“Shawon Dunston was like a little brother to me,” Dawson told the crowd, referring to the former Cubs shortstop who was 24 when Dawson, 32, signed with the team. “He liked to say that I was old enough to be his dad. Funniest man I’ve ever met, Shawon Dunston.
“Unfortunately, this is a family show, and I can’t tell you a single Shawon Dunston story right now.”
Dawson drew laughs. So did Ralph Kiner, recalling an extortion threat that made him the potential victim of a sniper’s bullet while playing left field for the Pirates.
Nothing happened, very much to the relief of Kiner’s Bucs teammate George Metkovich.
“George, that’s really nice of you to worry about me getting shot in left field,” Kiner remembered saying. “And George said, ‘Worry about you? Not you.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘What’s your number?’ I told him my number is 4. Well, he said, ‘my number is 44. What if that guy had double vision?’”
Griffey will want to share a story or two concluding with a punch line, but as the acceptance speech amounts to the last word he’ll have on his legacy, it could be wise of him to exude, well, wisdom.
Dennis Eckersley, whose 2004 Hall induction largely was steeped in his ability to reinvent himself as a closer for the Athletics, spoke with candor about how sobriety turned him into a “new man and a renewed man.”
Cal Ripken Jr., inducted in 2007, also went back to a phase of his career that didn’t make him proud. An older teammate with the Orioles, Ken Singleton, showed Ripken a tape of the shortstop throwing his helmet down after a strikeout.
“All he said was, ‘How does that look?’ ” Ripken told the audience. “And I remembered learning about a family who saved all their money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out of a game in the first inning, and their little boy cried the whole game.”
Kirby Puckett reflected on what faced him as a child growing up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, the housing project from hell. Puckett’s dreams were his ticket out of there, but his 5-foot-8 physique impeded those dreams.
“If anyone tells you that you can’t do what you want to do, or be what you want to be,” Puckett said during his 2001 induction speech. “I want you to remember the guiding principles of my life. You can be what you want to be. If you believe in yourself and you work hard, anything is possible.”
No Cooperstown speech has packed more power than Ted Williams’ acceptance in 1966. Not famous for his oratorical skill and hardly a paragon of the Civil Rights movement, Williams opened the door to inclusion at the Hall of Fame.
“The other day, Willie Mays hit his 522nd home run,” Williams said. “He has gone past me, and he’s pushing and I say ‘Go get ‘em, Willie.’ Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the nature of the game.
“I hope that one day, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will get voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”
Five years later, in 1971, the Hall admitted Paige, whose induction was followed by Gibson and Buck Leonard in 1972. Forty years later, there are 35 Hall-of-Famers representing the Negro Leagues.
Williams was not a candidate to offer a viewpoint strong enough to promote change, much accomplish less it. Neither is Griffey, but his clean-slate reputation during the steroid era gives him an opportunity as the first Hall-of-Fame inductee to suggest amnesty for those who don’t have a clean-slate reputation.
Genuinely committed to children’s causes, Griffey also could share his thoughts on how to bridge baseball’s generation gap. Kids aren’t inclined to follow the sport with the fervor of their grandfathers, and playing it has become an expensive privilege.
Griffey has earned the right to make his words both powerful and comical Sunday. He’s also earned the right to say only “thanks.” Unless he borrows a few pages from the odd, angry rant Michael Jordan delivered upon his 2009 enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame, nothing Griffey says will be used against him.
But he’s used to the stage, albeit a bit removed from it, and won’t be daunted by anticipation the audience will have for somebody who retired with 630 home runs.
Don’t be surprised if he hits another.