Yesterday it was announced that Mike Piazza has been elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. In a weird way, I think this might be the last time I will genuinely get the joy out of a baseball player earning this honor.
I was 11-years-old when Piazza was traded to the Mets. At that age baseball was life. Who am I kidding? I’m about to turn 29 and not much has changed on that front. But, the fact remains that Piazza arrived at the utmost important time of my fandom. The franchise was struggling and desperately needed a shot of life. Piazza provided just that, and more.
From the moment he arrived the Mets instantly became relevant again. Those late-90’s and 2000 teams certainly weren’t the most talented. In fact, they were far from it. However, you’d be hard pressed to find a more likeable bunch. Bobby Valentine, who is quite the personality in his own right, coached a cast of characters that became my first true love.
His teammates in New York were the likes of Edgardo Alfonzo, who was a coach’s dream. He played the game the way it was meant to be and was the player, along with Edgar Martinez, that I actually tried to mimic at the plate. Robin Ventura, the sure handed veteran with pop in his bat that provided the comic relief. Rey Ordonez, whose defensive highlights are something I still watch in awe (but you couldn’t pay me to watch one of his at-bats). Al Leiter, who always looked like he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown as he sweat on the mound (similarly to Shaq on the foul line) with every single 3-2 count. John Olerud was the silent assassin who was able to somehow ride the subway to Shea Stadium every day without being recognized. Turk Wendell wearing that alligator tooth necklace and slamming down the rosin bag out of relief. Has there ever been a backup catcher who contributed more with his energy in the dugout than Todd Pratt? Names like Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, Timo Perez, Darryl Hamilton, Jay Payton, Todd Zeile, “Super” Joe McEwing, Matt Franco, Lenny Harris, Armando Benitez, Rick Reed and Bobby Jones filled out those rosters. If you aren’t getting my drift by now – these were Mike Piazza’s teams.
Piazza was a one man wrecking crew who led this rag-tag bunch. While the Mets had their share of bonafide professionals on those teams, Piazza was the lone super star. Win or lose, the burden was put on the shoulders of Piazza. And you know what? More times than not, those wins could be attributed to his heroic efforts. During his tenure with New York it felt like every time a big hit was needed, Piazza stepped up to the plate and delivered in the clutch. He had a knack for rising to the occasion like few others, if any, in franchise history.
There are a few moments that will always stand out in my mind.
- Picnic blast: Piazza’s star shined brightest when it came time for the Subway Series against the Yankees. Facing reliever Ramiro Mendoza, with the Mets trailing 6-4, Piazza took him deep with a shot to left center that I’m not sure has landed yet. The ball cleared the old picnic tents in Shea Stadium. He flipped his bat in celebration, which I never saw before or after out of him, as he knew, along with the rest of the stadium, that he hit a ball further than many believed was humanly possible. (Side note: Matt Franco hitting a walk-off single against Mariano Rivera to end that game was a great thrill of mine) Click to watch…
- Epic comeback: It’s impossible to discuss the Mets of the late-90’s-2000 without mentioning their arch nemesis, the Atlanta Braves. The Braves were the bully who had been stuffing the Mets in their locker for years without putting up much of a fight. But then Piazza arrived kind of like Linderman in ‘My Bodyguard’ (That’s a 1980 movie reference, go watch it) and gave New York a fighting chance. In a mid-summer matchup in 2000 with the Mets trailing 8-1 in the eighth inning, it appeared all hope was lost. Then, miraculously, the Mets rallied to make it an 8-8 score with Piazza up and two men on base. Wouldn’t you know it, Piazza hit an absolute laser down the left field line that was gone in the snap of a finger to complete the Mets epic comeback. If you go back and watch that highlight keep an eye on the emotion that comes out of Piazza as he makes his way down the first base line. That sums up just how much that home run meant. Click to watch…
- Lifting a city: Maybe the moment that will immortalize Mike Piazza forever in New York lore was his game winning home run post 9/11. The Mets played the first game in New York after that tragic day. It was a weird time. Nobody really knew how to think or how to go about returning to their daily lives. I remember watching that game and turning over to the news networks between innings who were still trying to grasp that horrific day. It was surreal. With the Mets trailing in the eighth inning, Piazza hit a monumental blast off the TV tower in center field that made everything feel alright in the world, at least for that moment. It was something that the city so desperately needed. That home run will mean so much more to fans than Piazza himself may ever realize. Once again Piazza stepped up and carried not only his team, but the city, when it was needed the most. Click to watch…
I know that Piazza has already expressed his desire to be enshrined wearing a Mets cap. I also know that it isn’t his decision to make. The reality is that it’s very likely the Hall of Fame decides to put him in with a blank cap, given his split time playing for both the Mets and Dodgers. There is an argument to be made for both sides and I’m not going to delve into the statistical comparison. I simply challenge any Hall of Fame voter to close their eyes and relive a Piazza moment(s) in their head off memory. I feel pretty confident in saying that they will come up none from his days in L.A. and have several vivid memorable moments of him wearing a Mets cap engrained in their heads. That should put an end to that debate, in my opinion.
As I mentioned earlier, this might be the last time I genuinely receive joy out of a player receiving this honor. I’m at an age now where players are my own age and in many cases, younger. It hasn’t changed much. Other than my frustration that I’m not in the Majors. I still admire players’ talents and have as much of an appreciation for the game as I ever have. Maybe more so now that I have a full understanding of how gifted these players truly are.
One thing that I have noticed is that you begin to root for your favorite teams and players in a different fashion as you get older. Sure, you still tune in with a keen eye and express your emotions. Although now I find myself getting far more upset with losses than I did when I was younger and somehow less excited over a big win. Funny how that works. The biggest difference? I don’t hold players in the same reverence that I did for Mike Piazza. He is the last of his kind, for me. I haven’t been to Cooperstown since I was young. I was maybe 12 at the time (I’ll have to check with my parents on that). Now, with my childhood hero set to be enshrined, I have the only reason I need to go back.