Passing Judgment: Congratulations to Mike Piazza

On Sunday, September 29, 2013, Mike Piazza will officially be inducted into the New York Mets’ Hall of Fame.  While he should have been honored with an induction into the MLB Hall of Fame this year (I previously wrote about that here), that will have to wait until next year as Piazza was a victim of circumstance on a ballot filled with alleged cheaters during the steroid era.  But that doesn’t change the fact that Piazza was the greatest hitter the Mets have ever had and is truly deserving of enshrinement into the Mets’ Hall of Fame.

I have been a die-hard Mike Piazza fan since his rookie season.  Being a catcher myself, I paid close attention to catchers in MLB because I admired their abilities and I wanted to learn from them.  Even though I was a Mets fan who idolized Gary Carter years before and was in the process of becoming a fan of Todd Hundley, I was in awe of Mike Piazza’s offensive prowess with the Dodgers.  My dad even bought me a Piazza jersey while he was on the Dodgers in 1993.  He put up numbers that were incredible for any player, but the fact he was a catcher made him all the more remarkable.

Mike Piazza 1In 1998, the Mets were on the verge of becoming a playoff contender after several years of despair.  The Worst Team Money Could Buy was disbanded and the failures of Generation K were still new, but the Mets had revamped their roster but sorely needed that big bat to solidify the lineup.  Rumors began circulating that the Dodgers were going to trade Piazza because they were not going to re-sign him after he became a free agent at the end of 1998.  Sure enough, Los Angeles did deal him to the Marlins in a blockbuster trade that knocked the wind out of me and other Mets’ fans.  But the Marlins were in the middle of their own firesale after their 1997 World Series championship, so sure enough they dealt Piazza to the Mets.  I remember hearing about the trade on WFAN 660 AM when I was home from college, and I couldn’t believe it was true.  Piazza made his debut with the Mets in a game against Milwaukee and the rest was history.

Mike Piazza immediately became the face of the franchise and legitimized the Mets as contenders.  They fell short in 1998, but the seeds were planted for future success.  Granted it didn’t pan out how we all would have liked with losses in the 1999 NLCS and the 2000 World Series.  But Mike Piazza brought the Mets franchise back into relevance.

He signed a 7-year contract with the Mets after the 1998 season and committed himself to the team and the fans.  Being a catcher carries many responsibilities, and Piazza always fulfilled them despite not being blessed with the greatest throwing arm.  He received a lot of criticism over the years because of his inability to throw out potential base stealers, but that was only part of who he was as a catcher.  Pitchers loved throwing to him.  He blocked balls in the dirt extremely well and handled the pitching staff like another coach on the field.  Being a catcher myself, I paid close attention to all facets of Piazza’s game and recognized his abilities behind the plate as well as at the plate.

Over the years, Piazza blessed us with some magical moments that will forever be remembered by Mets’ fans.  But his greatest shining moment is something that the entire baseball world will never forget.  Not to get into the story again, but I was in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  That day and the events that followed deeply affected me personally.  So when baseball resumed a few days later, it meant a lot to me.  But when the Mets played the first sporting event in New York after 9-11, it was a different story.  On September 21, 2001, Mike Piazza hit a two-run homerun in the 8th inning leading to an incredible Mets win that allowed me and all other fans to celebrate something just days after the disaster. 

That is just one of Piazza’s shining moments during his tenure with the Mets.  He had plenty of others including his dramatic three-run homerun capping a 10-run 8th inning comeback against the Braves in 1999, a go-ahead 9th inning homerun against Billy Wagner during the 1998 playoff race, a go-ahead homerun against John Smoltz in the 1999 NLCS, setting the all-time record for homeruns by a catcher in 2004,  and his domination against the Yankees in all of the Subway Series games.  Speaking of the Yankees, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the infamous bat-throwing incident with Roger Clemens from the 2000 World Series.  There are plenty of opinions and perspectives on that entire fiasco.  But what I think is most important is that Piazza was cool enough and smart enough not to react in a way that would have been detrimental to his team.  People questioned his toughness for not reacting more hostilely to have a bat thrown at him, but I look at it from the other side.  If Piazza had reacted with violence, he would have been ejected from the game which would have hurt his team.  Instead, he remained calm and did not create hysteria even though he had every right to.  To me, this demonstrated an uncanny ability to process information very quickly and keep his emotions in check.  That is what a leader does.

Mike Piazza and Tom SeaverMike Piazza is the embodiment of class, talent and leadership.  He is the best hitter the Mets have ever had, and his legacy will live in forever.  I hope one day his #31 will find itself on the wall in Citi Field because it deserves to be retired.  After all, he and Tom Seaver were the two Mets who were honored to both close Shea Stadium and then open Citi Field together.  That in and of itself warrants hanging #31 next to #41.

I still proudly wear my black Piazza jersey that I got in 1999, and I will continue to do so.  From being a 62nd round draft pick as a “favor” to Tommy Lasorda to entering the Mets’ Hall of Fame, Mike Piazza should be revered and remembered for his greatness.  He finished his career with a .308 batting average along with 427 homeruns and 1,335 RBI.  Those are tremendous numbers for anyone.  But for a catcher – they are mind-blowing.  Congratulations Mike…you deserve this more than anyone and I look forward to going to Cooperstown to see your inevitable induction into baseball immortality.

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