I suppose I should be talking about the Mets letting all of the air out of their weekend triumphs on Tuesday in Atlanta, but I can't.
The real news of the day, for me at least, concerned the retirement of the Greatest Met of my generation, Mike Piazza.
The resumé Piazza boasts as he calls it a career speaks for itself. A .308 career batting average, 427 HRs, 1,335 RBIs are all outstanding accomplishments, considering the number of years he played, almost all of them spent catching for over 120 games a season.
But what Piazza is measured by, particularly in the hearts of Mets fans, goes far deeper than pure statistics. Deeper than being elected to the All-Star team every year (save 2003) he played for the team.
It is one day short of 10 years since the day Piazza came to the Mets, a lazy Friday afternoon in May. Just a week earlier, the Baseball world had been shaken by the Dodgers dealing Piazza to the Marlins, in a cash dump deal that sent a king's ransom to LA in exchange for Piazza and Zeile. The cash-strapped Marlins were sure to deal Piazza. The question was, when and to whom?
The Mets appeared uninterested. They had an All-Star catcher themselves, in Todd Hundley, though he was shelved for most of 1998 following elbow surgery. The Mets, undermanned and unexciting, were muddling through the early part of the season. I had recently returned home after my Freshman year of College. The first games I attended that season, a weeknight Doubleheader against the Reds, saw barely 15,000 people in attendance. Steve Phillips claim that the Mets weren't going to pursue Piazza, was met with widespread anger. On WFAN, Mad Dog Russo was heard screeching, "THESE FANS ARE SCREAMING FOR PIAZZA! YOU GOTTA BRING THIS GUY IN!!!"
That Friday, I was listening to Mike and the Mad Dog, when around 2pm, they immediately broke in with the announcement that the Mets were holding a Press Conference at 4pm. Something big had happened. Mad Dog had his interns searching frantically for information. It was around 2:20 that they broke the news. The deal had been made. Mike Piazza was coming to the Mets. Rejoyce!
I attended that night's game, and before I went in the stadium, I bought a ticket for the Saturday game. A line for tickets had already formed. The excitement was in the air before he even arrived. The scoreboard displayed a large announcement, "HE'S COMING TOMORROW!!!" Del DeMontreux even announced the trade over the PA before announcing the Starting Lineups.
And it was that Saturday, May 23rd, 1998, that he arrived. He not only brought his bat, but he brought credibility and excitement, two things that had been sorely lacking at Shea through most of the 90s. With one swing—a ringing RBI double off the right field wall—the Mets had a New Franchise, a New Face that would carry them into the 21st Century.
Sure, it was rocky early on. Piazza struggled to adjust to his new environs. His relationship with the fans was acrimonious and his clutch failures were magnified when the Mets fell a game short of a playoff berth. He could have left. He could have told the fans to screw themselves, taken a big money deal someplace else and departed New York a cowardly villain, along with the likes of Bobby Bonilla.
But he didn't. He decided to stay. He risked the boos and decided that this was where he wanted to be, for good or bad, better or worse. What happened was that Piazza became the Greatest Hero the Mets would ever see. So many times in so many situations, Mike found himself at the plate in a key moment, and so many times, he would deliver that big hit that we knew he was meant to deliver.
It began early in the 1999 season. A walkoff HR against the unhittable Trevor Hoffman. The bat flip HR off the Picnic tent against Ramiro Mendoza. A vengeful HR off Kevin Brown to beat his former Dodger teammates. With a retooled and reloaded offense around him, Piazza would match his career highs in HRs and RBIs in 1999 with 40 and 124, busting his ass for 141 grueling games that left him battered, bruised and running on fumes by season's end. Still, he persevered. Playing with a bruised thumb that forced him from the NLDS, a concussion and a strained forearm, injuries that would have had him on the bench in the regular season, it was he who would come up as the tying run in that fateful 6th game in Atlanta on October 19th, with the Mets having trailed 5-0 and 7-3, and smoke a John Smoltz fastball over the right field fence to tie the game. His stone-faced trot around the plate told you everything you needed to know. His postseason drive through the south told you everything you needed to know about how much it meant to him just to be there, to be in that key spot in the big game, and how much it hurt him to be unable to contribute at the level he wanted to.
With that in mind, a decreased workload in 2000 saw Piazza put forth one of the most dominant seasons of his career. Piazza broke from the gate like a house afire, tearing through pitchers on a frightening basis. On May 21st, he hit a pitch from Randy Johnson halfway up the Mezzanine at Shea. One streak in June saw him drive in a run for 15 straight games. It was the 13th game where Piazza would produce one of the signature moments of his Mets career. With the Mets having fought back from an 8-1 deficit against the Atlanta Braves into an 8-8 tie thanks to a 7-run 8th inning, Piazza stepped to the plate with 2 on and 2 out. Terry Mulholland made the cardinal sin of grooving one to Piazza. Piazza swung and unleashed a vicious line drive that would have sailed clear to Flushing Bay had it not caromed off the retired numbers. The sellout crowd went nuts. The normally stoic Piazza let the moment get the best of him, and wildly pumped his fist as he ran to first. The Mets went on to a 11-8 victory, which seemed to spur them on for the rest of the season, as they coasted into the Playoffs as the Wildcard for the 2nd straight year.
Although Mike struggled in the NLDS against the Giants, he worked Mark Gardner for a key walk in the 1st inning of the final game of that series. Gardner thought ball 3 was strike 3, missed badly with ball 4, and grooved his first pitch to Robin Ventura, which he promptly hit for a 2-run HR, setting up a 4-0 victory behind Bobby Jones' 1-hitter.
It was the NLCS where Piazza took center stage and became, quite literally, a monster. Playing the Cardinals in St. Louis, Piazza came up in the 1st inning of the 1st game against Darryl Kile and smacked a double to left, scoring Timo Perez with the series' first run. In the dugout, Mets coach John Stearns screamed, "THE MONSTER IS OUT OF THE CAGE!" in reference to Piazza, the Monster, needing to get that big hit and get out of the cage. Boy, was he ever out of the cage. In Game 2, Piazza blasted a long HR off Britt reames to aid the Mets to a 6-5 victory. In the 4th game, Piazza smacked a long 2B over J.D. Drew's head and off the wall in right, the 3rd consecutive double the Mets would hit in the 1st inning that night. In the 4th inning of that game, Piazza laid into a slider from Mike James and blasted it deep into the night, over the Cardinals bullpen and out of sight. In the clinching 5th game, Piazza hit a double in the 4th inning that preceded Todd Zeile's 3-run double to ice the game. And when the ball came down in Timo's glove, Piazza raced to the mound and led the team in a victory lap around Shea Stadium. He called it his greatest career accomplishment. And although the Mets fell short in the World Series, Piazza didn't disappoint, becoming the first player in World Series history to hit a HR in both Shea and Yankee Stadiums.
In 2001, Piazza again had his typical Piazza year, replete with big hits and big HRs. But it was one particular HR that would stand out far beyond any other he would ever hit. With the City and the Nation reeling following the attacks of September 11th, it was Piazza who delivered a blow that made us forget, at least for a moment, all the pain and the anxiety that followed that day. It was September 21st, 2001, yet another key game against the Atlanta Braves, and it was Piazza, batting in the 8th inning, with the Mets trailing 2-1 with a man on. And it was Piazza, playing the role of Hero once again, coming up and hitting a long, deep drive that clanged off the camera well in deep center field for a 2-run HR, that gave the Mets the lead, the victory, and helped to begin the healing process. It was, for many Mets fans, the moment when Piazza became more than just an ordinary slugger. You knew it from the tears he shed in the pregame ceremony. You knew it when he emerged from the dugout and pointed to the sky. Piazza wasn't just a Hero. He was Our Hero. He was Our Guy, and he would be forever. No matter what would happen, Piazza had cemented his place with the Mets.
The following seasons brought injuries and inconsistency for Piazza. He still put up lofty numbers for a Catcher, but the years and the strain were beginning to take their toll. He missed a large portion of the 2003 season with a groin injury, and talk began to emerge that he should consider a move to 1st Base to ease his workload and, perhaps, prolong his career. But he didn't want it. He would close in on the record for HRs by a Catcher, and it seemed right and proper that he remain behind the plate until the record was his.
It was a Wednesday night, May 5th, 2004, and I was in attendance for my first Mets game of the season with the San Francisco Giants. Piazza had tied the HR record the previous weekend, and on this night, in the 1st inning, on a 3-2 pitch from Jerome Williams, Piazza swung, and kept his date with destiny. The ball sailed deep and high and out, fittingly over the 371 mark in Right Center field, a spot where so many Piazza HRs sailed previously. All I could do was laugh. Piazza had a knack for always doing something special when I was at a game. And here, he'd done it again.
Piazza would play out every day of the 7 year contract he signed with the Mets back in 1999. And when that contract began to wind down, the fans began to stand up. It wasn't ever clear that the Mets would or would not bring him back, but the fans stood anyway. He didn't have to do anything great anymore. We would stand and cheer regardless. Our hero, Our Guy, Our Mike Piazza's career was now winding down, and it was time for us to stand and cheer in appreciation and thanks for all the years, and all the big hits and all the great moments he'd given us. I was there once again that final day, October 2nd, 2005, just as I'd been there on that first day and for so many days in between, and I stood and cheered with everyone else. Several videotaped tributes from Piazza played on Diamondvision, and during the 7th inning stretch, Fan Appreciation day became Mike Piazza Appreciation Day.
A 10-minute standing ovation gave way to fans weeping and saying goodbye. But it wasn't goodbye, it was just until we met again.
It was that following August when Piazza returned to Shea, and the ovations and cheers continued. Piazza hit 2 HRs in his 2nd game back. Following his first HR, the fans cheered so loudly that Piazza was prompted to give a curtain call from the visitor's dugout. A return with the Oakland A's in 2007 was short-circuited by an injury. He brought out the lineup card one night and again received a standing ovation. And that was it for Mike as an active player at Shea Stadium. The next time we see him, we'll perhaps be revealing his #31 on the outfield wall, in tribute to all he brought to this franchise. All the hits, all the moments and all the joy he brought us. All he meant to the team when he kept running himself out there, even during times when it appeared there was no hope left at all. He'd certainly be deserving of the honor. Who would be fit to don #31 for the Mets after all that Piazza accomplished wearing it?
And so, on Tuesday, Piazza hung 'em up. In his typical fashion, Piazza handled the situation with humility and stoicism, only releasing a statement through his agent. All the adulation and love he received from Mets fans was mutual. "...I have to say that my time with the Mets wouldn't have been the same without the greatest fans in the world," he said. "One of the hardest moments of my career, was walking off the field at Shea Stadium and saying goodbye. My relationship with you made my time in New York the happiest of my career and for that, I will always be grateful."
We Love you too, Mike. We always will. We're making our hotel reservations in Cooperstown for Hall of Fame Weekend, 2012. You'll be there. I know you will. For almost 8 seasons, I had the pleasure and the privilege of watching you carry my team on your back, and I enjoyed every moment of it. Thank you for coming, Thank you for staying, Thank you for delivering those hits when we needed them the most. You handled everything with class, dignity and grace. You knew how good you had it here. You appreciated us, and we appreciate you. Maybe Seaver was The Franchise, Maybe Hernandez brought home the Championship, but I never saw a better player or a better person wearing the Orange and Blue.