Retort: Mike Piazza and the Tools of Ignorance

Originally posted on Amazin' Avenue, the best site on the internets

Michael Joseph Piazza was the 1993 Rookie of the Year, a 12-time All-Star, a 10-time Silver Slugger, back-to-back MVP runner up in 1996-97, 2-time OPS+ leader - the best offensive catcher in the history of MLB, who wasn't known for his defensive prowess, but nonetheless led the league in putouts 4 times and assists twice. He is a future member of the MLB Hall of Fame - who had better get inducted on his first ballot - the reason I got into baseball in the first place, and is my all-time favorite baseball player (John Olerud is a somewhat distant second). He is also commonly accepted to be the second best Met of all time, and I wanted to share with you some of my memories of him; you can probably call my title mislabeled or misleading, but frankly I don't give a fuck :P.

For my introduction to Piazza, let's go back to 1997, late August, my family goes on a trip to visit my grandparents in LA. We are a little more than a month shy of my 10th birthday, and all I can remember about the trip is my Grandpa talking about the Dodgers; I remember hearing the name O'Malley a lot and plenty of others, but mostly I just focused on the stories of this great young catcher Mike Piazza. This is my Dad's Father, who bought a house in Encino with my Grandma a few years after he fought in World War II, and who had been eager to accept the Dodgers move to LA after the 1957 season; coincidentally, my Mom's father, who lived in Brooklyn all his life except during WWI, was devastated when hearing his beloved Dodgers were leaving town. Anywho, we watched or listened to every Dodger game while I was there, and I was most interested every time Piazza came to plate - I just loved watching his at-bats. By the time we were leaving to come home to NY, I was begging my parents to sign me up for little league - I was going to be a catcher.

When we got home, I was ready for more baseball, but had always been rubbed the wrong way by the Yankees, so I watched the remainder of the Mets season and became addicted by the time John Olerud hit for the cycle. That winter I got my catchers mitt and the only Piazza Dodgers gear I would ever get. Come the spring of 1998 I was letting about half of the balls whiz by me as I attempted to catch for a little league team. I also watched as many Mets games as possible, and would watch morning Sportscenter on repeat looking for Piazza highlights on off/sick days. There is one lasting Piazza on the Dodgers memory that sticks out from that year - him jumping high to receive a throw from the 1B and practically landing on a runner to block a bag and tag him out to end the inning, but what was crazy and memorable is that it happened at 3B and he was in all of his catching gear, and he had raced down the line to just beat the runner. This happened right before he got traded to the Florida Marlins. Great, I thought, my favorite player is on a hated rival. Fortunately, that didn't last long :D.

I was shooting hoops in the driveway with a buddy when my mom, of all people, came home and asked if I had heard about the Piazza trade. "Yes Mom," I said, "but I hate the Marlins." She smiled and told me, "Nooooo, he was traded again, to the Mets..." I was so excited that I couldn't play basketball anymore, all I could think of was my favorite player on my favorite team - baseball and the Mets quickly became my favorite things in the world. I don't think I missed another game that season, an exciting one for the Mets as they came close to the Wild Card, missing out by 1 game. And Piazza was a huge reason for all the success, as he hit nearly .350 and slugged over .600 as a Met. That was the first of many years that I had a birthday party with a few of my closest friends at Shea, and Piazza hit a HR for me every year he played in my birthday game, no joke. Even though we didn't win anything big that year, it is still one of the most exciting seasons I have ever been through, the first of 14 straight where I have watched as much Mets baseball, and accumulated as much Mets memorabilia, as possible.

Little did I know at the time, but the reason Piazza was available for trade was because his contract was expiring, and so the Mets might not be able to resign him. So, when the NYT ran an article about how the Mets signed him to the most lucrative deal in MLB history, at that time, I just thought it was really cool. The next two seasons brought a lot of joy, and my first real taste of heartache at the hands of the Braves and Yankees, and Piazza was always at the center of it all. Whether he was hitting bombs, or getting hit in the head by a douche, Piazza was the monster that led this team of mostly misfits as far as they got. Specific memories be damned, there wouldn't have been any worthy memories of these late 90's Mets had they not been led by Piazza's powerful bat. In those two seasons, Piazza hit .313./.379/.594 with 78 HRs, 51 2B's, 237 RBI's and 195 runs scored - he was a beast. There is no doubt those Mets wouldn't have sniffed the playoffs, let alone World Series, had Mike Piazza not been having some of the most exciting summers of baseball ever. And it is not as if he didn't have the most memorable Mets moments during those years, my favorite being this BOMB that seemed to signal the end of the Braves control over us. And even though the Mets would stink for the remainder of his contract (way to go Phillips et al), and injuries would limit his effectiveness, and he couldn't make the switch to 1B, I kept watching the Mets just so I could watch Mike Piazza, knowing he would do something great at any moment, and rarely was I disappointed by him. I was disappointed with the Mets not bringing him back, I felt he deserved as many chances as he wanted to continue (and finish) his career with the Mets, and I think he could have made a difference on our team in 2006-07 - I would much rather him pinch-hit in the playoffs over Cliff Floyd, and I would much rather him start over Paul la Duca most of those games, after playing so hard from 2001-2005.

You can rattle off dozens of amazin' memories of Piazza's greatness during his time as a Met, and I encourage you to in the comments section if you don't mind, but that is not what this piece was about - and being so young and new to baseball at the time, my memories are going to be faded compared to many of the readers here, so trying to compile a list of great Piazza moments would be a job better suited for someone else, or a community of someone else's. And this was not a piece meant to sell him as a hall of famer for those who don't believe (if this is you, you are crazy), you can go to Fangraphs or Baseball-Reference and look at his stats, they speak for himself. I do not want to consider his spot in baseball history, or determine where he would rank on the all-time catchers list, because to me he will ALWAYS be number 1, the best of all time. I wrote this to tell you about what I remember of Mike Piazza. I remember his batting routine: dig his back foot in, fix his jersey, step in with his front foot, hit the plate with his bat in his left hand, wave his bat forward as he grabbed it with his right hand before taking it back for a few swings as he got into his stance, staring down the pitcher the entire time. I remember his batting stance: calm everything, standing tall with his knees slightly bent, bat straight up, confident he could hit whatever came his way. I remember how he rarely swung at the first pitch, and how pitchers were still afraid to challenge him with that first one. I remember the way the ball jumped off his bat when he would hit a homerun, as most of his were no-doubters that got a lot of air. I remember how he would be standing up straight, body oddly contorted, face of a warrior, as if he put everything he had into lifting that ball hundreds of feet from home plate. I remember him crouching behind home plate for as many games as his body would allow, the number 31 worn proudly across his back, not afraid to give his body to block balls in the dirt or players aiming for home plate. I remember the goatee, the commercials, the long hair and then the bleached hair. I remember those years and wish I could relive those moments, because they are the ones that made me a Mets and baseball fan for life. I remember the greatest Met that I ever saw play, and I will never stop appreciating his playing time, which now seems like it was too short and too long ago. I remember thinking, if I could be like Mike...

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