By NICK LECO
June 22, 2008
A couple weeks ago, Mike Piazza announced his retirement after 16 seasons big league seasons, capping off an illustrious career in which he established himself as possibly the best-hitting catcher of all time. As a sure-fire Hall of Famer, it’s obvious Piazza left a lasting legacy on Major League Baseball. But while many will remember Piazza primarily for his days in Dodger blue, he made his biggest impact while playing in the Queens borough of New York City for the Mets.
Everyone knows the Piazza story. He was selected by the Dodgers in round 62 of the 1988 draft at the insistence of Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, who grew up with Piazza’s father. He surprised everyone by reaching the big leagues four years later and won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award in 1993 when he batted .318 with 35 home runs and 112 RBI. Despite his well-chronicled defensive limitations as a catcher, he finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times, including two second-place finishes, and made five All-Star appearances during his time in L.A. He also won the All-Star Game MVP Award in 1996.
Given the back story, it seemed natural in the mid-90’s that Piazza would be a Dodger for life. But of course, it wasn’t to be. We all remember the blockbuster trades in the summer of 1998 - first to Florida, and then to the Mets 21 days later. The trade to Florida for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Manuel Barrios and Jim Eisenreich is considered by some to be one of the Dodgers’ biggest blunders ever.
After his brief stopover in Miami, Piazza took New York by storm and never looked back, becoming an icon for Mets fans and one of the most beloved players in the team’s history. Piazza served as the Mets’ catcher - and briefly, the team’s first baseman - from 1998 to 2006. During that time he served as the face of the franchise and embraced New York like no other Met ever had. Maybe it was his working man’s ethic - his underdog’s mentality as a 62nd round draft pick - that New Yorkers identified with. Maybe it was his supreme confidence and air of coolness that made Mets fans think that no game was ever over with Piazza in the lineup. Or maybe it was just his undeniable talent as a hitter. Whatever it was, Mets fans were willing to go to war every game with Piazza as their leader - a reverence he never quite received in L.A.
Certainly, one could argue that Piazza’s best years were with the Dodgers - an argument that could become heated when the time comes to choose which hat he will be wearing on his Hall of Fame plaque. Right-smack in the prime of his career, Piazza put up numbers like no catcher ever had before during his years in L.A. And yes, injuries and age did start to catch up with him in his last few years as a Met, as he sometimes looked like a shell of his former self. But it wasn’t stats or box scores that so endeared Piazza to Mets fans; it was the great moments and sense of pride he provided to a franchise that was used to playing second fiddle to the pinstriped team across the bridge.
When he arrived from Florida, Piazza brought instant credibility to a team that had not been to the playoffs since its Dwight Gooden-Darryl Strawberry heyday in 1988. In his first full season with the Mets, Piazza led the team to the 1999 National League Championship Series against the Braves. The following year, Piazza willed his team into its Subway Series matchup against the vaunted Yankees.
No one can forget Piazza’s dominance against - and subsequent confrontations with - Roger Clemens. In June of 2000, Piazza hit a majestic grand slam off Clemens - at the time, his seventh hit in 12 at bats and third home run off Clemens. A month later, Clemens beaned Piazza in the head, knocking him unconscious and forcing him to miss the All-Star Game. The bizarre bat-throwing incident during the World Series - even if Clemens did think it was the ball, why would he throw it at Piazza as he ran to first base? - only fueled Mets fans’ ire towards Clemens and the Yankees and further established Piazza as the face of the franchise.
But perhaps Piazza’s greatest moment as a Met - a moment which seemed to define what Piazza meant to New York - occurred ten days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the first baseball game played in New York after that fateful day. In the bottom of the eighth inning Piazza rocketed a dramatic home run off Steve Karsay, providing the impetus for a comeback Mets win, but more importantly, providing a sense of pure joy and a momentary escape from the sorrow that had devastated the city and the entire nation. From that day on, Piazza’s legacy was cemented in New York. Piazza certainly had other memorable moments as a Met, like his home run to pass Carlton Fisk as the all-time leader for catchers, but none nearly as special and emotional as that one in September of 2001.
And so, as Piazza fades into retirement, the debates regarding his career and legacy will surely gain momentum - particularly the argument about which cap should appear on his plaque in Cooperstown. Even Lasorda has gotten into the act, lobbying for Piazza to go into the Hall of Fame as a Dodger.
“I would hope he would go into the Hall of Fame as a Dodger,” Lasorda, who entered the Hall in 1997, told USA Today. “We’re the one who gave him an opportunity. Here we are, from the same town (Norristown, Pa.), watching him grow up, and now we’ll be into the Hall of Fame together.”
But even in light of those comments by the man who took a chance on Piazza when no one else would, Piazza still seems to bleed Blue and Orange. Regardless of whether he goes into the Hall of Fame as a Dodger or a Met, in the eyes of Mets fans and many baseball fans in general, Piazza will always be linked with New York. In his retirement statement, Piazza closed with the following words:
“I have to say that my time with the Mets wouldn’t have been the same without the greatest fans in the world. 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.”
Nick Leco’s Cooperstown Bound? column runs every Wednesday here on National Pastime.