COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — In the grandest day of his professional life, Mike Piazza hit one more out of the park. He gave everything he had in an emotional speech at the Hall of Fame, thanking his family, coaches, managers and teammates, and in a special way, fans. They immediately responded with a spontaneous but familiar chant, “Let’s Go Mets!”
Piazza gave them one more thrill as he was inducted into baseball’s shrine. Judging from the reaction he received from a throng estimated at 50,000 people, the slugger hit another home run.
Tears welled in his eyes at the close of a video tribute and his voice repeatedly cracked when he ventured into deep-feeling territory. He barely could get out the words when he spoke of his father, Vince, sitting in the front after having recovered from a serious stroke. But he and the crowd hit a high note together when he reminisced about his time as catcher and cleanup batter for the Mets, whose cap he wears on his official Hall plaque.
“How can I put into words my thanks, love and appreciation for New York Mets fans? You have given me the greatest gift and have graciously taken me into your family,” he said before the familiar chant broke out. “Looking out today on the incredible sea of blue and orange brings back the greatest time of my life.”
Hall officials say the crowd tied for the second largest ever for an induction (behind the year Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn were honored). The gathering also burst out kudos for Ken Griffey Jr., who also was enshrined Sunday and who also went deep with his speech, judging from the roars and applause.
The son of a major leaguer and a former big league teen phenom, Griffey had to pause before he spoke of his love for the Mariners, the team that drafted him No. 1 overall as a 17-year-old. “I’m damned proud to be a Seattle Mariner,” he said. Referring to the other clubs that employed him, he added, “I want to thank my family, my friends, the fans, the Reds, the White Sox and the Mariners for making this kid’s dream come true.”
Then he put on a baseball cap backward, his playful trademark during his playing career.
It capped a weekend celebration that also honored Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy with the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for baseball writing and the late Graham McNamee with the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting. The Hall also held a special 15th anniversary remembrance of baseball’s role in America’s recovery after 9/11.
Piazza and the Mets were front and center in that effort, with the highlight coming when he blasted a decisive home run in the first game back at Shea Stadium after the attack. He spoke about that, too.
“Many of you give me praise for the two-run home run in the first game back on Sept. 21 to push ahead of the rival Braves. But the true praise belongs to police, firefighters, first responders, who knew they were going to die, but went forward anyway,” he said. “Jesus said there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. I consider it a privilege to have witnessed that love. I pray we never forget their sacrifice and always work to defeat such evil.”
He also quoted Pope Benedict and Theodore Roosevelt in an elegant talk that was marked by gratitude. He thanked Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda — among the Hall of Famers seated behind him — and former minor league batting instructor Reggie Smith. He praised his mom, brothers, wife and three children. He had fond memories of teammates such as Al Leiter, John Franco and Edgardo Alfonzo.
But he had to pull out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes when he gave some more of his heart to Mets fans.
“The eight years we spent together went by too fast,” he said. “The thing I miss most is making you cheer.”
Then they cheered like crazy.