Saturday, September 29, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 2000

Part 39 of our 50-year Iconic Moment...
What is it: 2000 Topps #300, Mike Piazza

What makes it interesting: The 2000s are nice, I guess. Only slightly better than the '99s, and probably only because they switched from a gold border to a silver border. The design overall is fine. I have no complaints.

Few Mets are held in the same regard as Mike Piazza. Few Mets ever did more for the team in the time they were here.

Early in 1998, the Mets were a bland, boring team with no identity. Few fans bothered to come to Shea Stadium. Mike Piazza was playing out his contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Disenchanted with the direction of the team, he was intent on becoming a Free Agent following the season. But fate intervened in the form of a massive, 7-player trade between the Dodgers and the Marlins. Piazza was shockingly dealt to the Marlins, who were in the midst of a massive selloff. Everyone knew Piazza's time in Florida was limited, at best. Within days, trade rumors were flying. Initially, the Mets expressed no interest. But after vociferous campaigning from Fans, and Mike & the Mad Dog, the Mets got involved, and on May 22nd, 1998, swung the deal that would make the Mets relevant again.

The following day, in front of a crowd that tripled in size following the announcement of the deal, Mike Piazza made his Mets debut. He got standing ovations every time up, and when he nailed an RBI double for his first hit, the crowd erupted. And thus began the love affair.

But it would be a rocky relationship at the start. Piazza and the Mets would struggle at times, and over the course of the long Summer, fans began to turn on their new star. Often times, he would be booed when he didn't come through. When the Mets ultimately fell a game short of a playoff spot, fingers would be pointed. It seems hard to believe it now, but Piazza didn't have to stay. He could have licked his wounds and signed someplace else. He probably would have been remembered as a villain and a coward. But it didn't happen. Mike didn't want to go down like that. And so, risking the boos, Piazza stayed, signing what was a record contract at the time. And with that security, Piazza went out to change everyone's opinion, and over the following 7 seasons, he would cement his reputation as a Hero, a Leader and (all due respect to David Wright) the Greatest position player in Mets History.

The Numbers Piazza put up over those years are pretty hard to forget. Sure, they're brought up a lot, but they never get old. Piazza set a club record with 124 RBIs in 1999, while hitting 40 HRs and hitting .303. Along the way, there were the iconic moments you expected out of your biggest star. He and the Mets finally found themselves back in the Postseason in 1999, but Piazza, by that point, was running on fumes. Bruised and battered from a season in which he caught 141 games, Piazza nonetheless dragged himself out there, often at times when he probably shouldn't have been playing. Though an aching thumb forced him out of the NLDS vs Arizona (and created an iconic moment for his backup, Todd Pratt), he returned for the NLCS, where his Rasputin-like Home Run of John Smoltz in Game 6 tied the game and nearly willed the Mets one game further. But the Magic ran out that night. Drained, Piazza needed to take a 2-week drive around the south, living in anonymity just to get himself back together.

In 2000, Piazza was even better. After a slow start, Piazza started hitting and didn't let up for about 3 months, leading the Mets on a Summer Rampage through the National League. Piazza drove in a run in 15 consecutive games, among them a 3-run Home Run against the Atlanta Braves that nearly collapsed Shea Stadium with joy. Though a September Slump knocked some of the air out of his numbers, and probably cost him a much-deserved MVP award, Piazza's numbers were still gaudy, at .324, with 38 HRs and 113 RBIs. In the Playoffs, a rested and healthy Piazza was a true Badass. Though he slumped in the NLDS, he awoke in the NLCS against St. Louis, and after his 1st inning 2B plated the series' first run, John Stearns let us know that "THE MONSTER IS OUT OF THE CAGE!!" Boy, was he ever. Piazza hit .412 in the Mets 5-game victory, including a Home Run off Mike James in Game 4 that I think is still traveling. When the Mets clinched the NL Pennant, Piazza jumped around the field like a kid and led the team in a victory lap around Shea Stadium. In the World Series, Piazza did everything he could, knocking out 2 Home Runs, but it wasn't enough as the Mets fell in 5 games.

But it was in 2001 that Piazza truly became New York's Hero. We all know what happened on September 11th, and we all know what happened in the days that followed. I was at Shea Stadium on September 21st, for the first game back in New York. I saw the teams gather on the field in friendship. I watched the game with anticipation. And when Mike Piazza came up with the Mets down a run in the 8th inning and hit that Home Run, I exploded with everyone else there that evening. Though I didn't think about it at the time, once it sunk in, I knew that I'd watched Mike Piazza provide one great healing moment for New York, and one of the greatest Home Runs in Mets History. Though the Mets had a regression after their two postseason runs, Piazza still put up the numbers we came to expect from him, hitting .300 with 36 HRs and 94 RBI. Piazza had another fine season in 2002, but often in futile situations, as the pieces around him flopped and Piazza was left to carry a sinking ship.

The latter years of Piazza's Mets tenure were marked with injury and controversy, but nonetheless, Piazza managed to find ways to have some more great moments. His Home Run on May 5th, 2004 was his 352nd as a Catcher, setting an all-time record. The next night, he hit a Walkoff Home Run in the 11th inning. As age began to catch up with him, Mike's numbers regressed, but his stature among Mets fans never did. Piazza ultimately said farewell to the Mets following the 2005 season, but not before a grand sendoff on the final day of the season, culminating in Piazza receiving a 7-minute standing ovation from the fans. When he returned in 2006 as a Padre, the ovations continued, and when he hit a Home Run, the fans cheered for a curtain call.

Piazza retired in May, 2008. His numbers speak for themselves. A 12-time All Star, who made the NL squad 7 times in 8 seasons with the Mets. A career .308 hitter with 427 Home Runs and 1335 RBIs, Piazza hit .296, with 220 of those Home Runs and 655 of those RBIs with the Mets. But more than that, Piazza brought the Mets respectability again. His acquisition breathed life into the team, and set the stage for the two great seasons that followed. His Home Run on 9/21/01 helped, in some small way, to make us forget about everything that had happened in the days prior. Following his retirement, Piazza returned to Shea for one final time as part of the Shea Stadium closing ceremonies, and was greeted with the loudest of ovations. The Mets showed the esteem in which they hold Piazza by selecting him to catch the Final Pitch from the Greatest Met ever, Tom Seaver, a scene they would repeat the following April at the opening of Citi Field. Piazza remains, and will always be revered as one of the Greatest Heroes in Mets History, and without much debate. Oh, and he's up for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame next year, too.

Card back:

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