Preposterously enough, I was skeptical about the Mike Piazza trade in May 1998. There was no question that Piazza was one of the best hitters in baseball, but I figured the Mets already had a good, young catcher in Todd Hundley. Was Piazza, a free agent at the end of the season, so much of an upgrade for two-thirds of a season as to justify sending all those prospects to Florida to get him? The Mets had been burned by high-profile free-agency signings a few years earlier, and there was no way they were going to make a serious push to sign Piazza, right? In a pre-LOLMets world, I thought nonetheless that the trade seemed like yet another Mets front-office blunder: a classic—if splashy—high-risk, relatively low-reward move. What a damn fool teenager I was.
Nearly 18 years(!) later, Mike Piazza, having long since secured his place as one of the most accomplished and iconic New York Mets players in the history of the franchise, and the most prolific power-hitting catcher of all time, has finally and rightfully been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Plenty of fans these days profess indifference or anger toward the Hall of Fame for various reasons, but this is an occasion to set all that aside and celebrate a truly legendary New York Met.
How do you commemorate a player about whom so much has already been written and told? Piazza was the baseball-player equivalent of a rockstar during his time in New York. He was an articulate, conservative metalhead with a gnarly mullet and a pointy fu manchu. He was the Cinderella-story guy who had ascended from an afterthought in the draft to one of the most feared hitters in Major League Baseball. He lifted the Mets to their first (and, so far, only) back-to-back playoff appearances, and he delivered moment after moment of sheer greatness. How could you not tell stories about this guy?
For my part, all I can really say is how grateful I am to have had the experience of watching Mike Piazza play baseball for the Mets for all those years. There's the old trope that says, "you dropped what you were doing to watch him play." Piazza, more than any player before or since, had that effect on me as a fan.
Watching Piazza come to the plate was like watching a samurai approach his opponent. The way he slowly stepped into the box, tapped his bat on the plate, adjusted his helmet, settled into utter stillness, glared at the pitcher—it was sheer menace. I remember him taking the first pitch most of the time, ostensibly to mark the pitcher's release point and calibrate his timing; but to a fan like me, it just looked like Piazza was simply gathering a net around his prey. Now I'm thinking about his swing, and words like "ferocious" and "violent" come to mind. It was startling to watch that swing erupt out of the coiled stillness he created. It was fury unleashed, and we got to watch—hundreds of times, as it turned out—as it sent the ball screaming into the gap or soaring over the wall, with Piazza pausing only barely at the plate to literally bare his teeth as it sailed away, as if he had banished some foul enemy to the halls of hell where it belonged.
Mike Piazza caused me—and apparently still causes me—to think thoughts like that. He inspired me to think about baseball in terms of mythologies and legends, and to tie it, a simple game, into all that is profound about tradition, the passage of time, and the bond we share with those who came before us and will come after us still. Piazza gave me, and gave all of us, moments that felt like magic. He gave us triumph that felt like our own. He lifted the hearts of a city in dire pain at the moment it needed it most.
In 2006, after Piazza's time with the Mets had come to an end, and when he came back to Shea for the first time and got a thunderous standing ovation, Willie Randolph remarked, "That's how you treat heroes." That's exactly what Piazza was. And now, rightfully so, all the generations of baseball fans to come will get to walk the halls of Cooperstown and read about Mike Piazza, one of the all-time greats. Maybe a kid in a New York Mets hat will read Piazza's plaque one day and ask about the guy whose name looks an awful lot like pizza; and his legend will take another turn through the ages.