The year 1998 was memorable for a number of significant and memorable events. The last episode of Seinfeld was aired on NBC, the movie Titanic won 11 Academy Awards, Google was founded, and we lost the Chairman of the Board when Frank Sinatra died, just to name a few. But to Mets fans, perhaps the most important event occurred on May 23 when Mike Piazza donned the team’s uniform for the first time and played his first game as a Met against the Milwaukee Brewers.
For the next seven-and-a-half years, Piazza would become the face of the franchise and one of the most iconic and talented players in Mets history. He played over half his career as a Met and became such a part of the fabric of the team and the city that he would later write in in his autobiography that he wanted to enter the Hall of Fame with a Mets cap on his plaque.
He has been rightfully called by many as the most accomplished offensive catcher in baseball history. A 12-time All-Star and 10-time Silver Slugger Award as catcher, Piazza put up offensive numbers seldom seen from a backstop. He finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .308, 427 home runs (396 as a catcher), and 1,335 RBIs. His slugging percentage was .545, the 28th-highest in history, and his 59.4 WAR was the sixth-highest among all catchers. His home run total is the most of any catcher in major league history.
In 2016, in his fourth year of eligibility, Mike Piazza was immortalized as he joined the ranks of the all time greats when he was elected to the Hall of Fame, receiving 83% of the writers’ votes. He entered Cooperstown as the lowest drafted player ever to be enshrined in the Hall as he was drafted in the 62 round of the 1988 draft and only then as a favor to his father who was a friend of Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda. Five years later he was voted Rookie of the Year after a tremendous season that included 35 home runs.
His flair for the dramatic is well known to Mets fans. Whether its the grand slam he hit off of Roger Clemens, who he owned, or the three-run shot he hit off the Braves capping a wild 10-run 8th inning comeback against Atlanta after trailing 8-1, to lead to an 11-8 Mets win, Piazza always seemed to be at the center of Mets’ rallies. But there is one particular home run that still stands out his most famous.
The date was September 21, 2001, ten days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. During those ten days, the city stopped, tears were shed, emotions were raw, the carnage numbered in the thousands. Obviously, all sporting events were cancelled. The first game to be played was on the 21st against the Braves. That was the day Piazza became far more than a hero, he became a healer as he slugged a two-run homer to give the Mets the lead in the game they would eventually go on to win. He helped a city that, though well known for its strength and resilience, needed a lift.
The importance of that cannot be overstated. To this day, how many of us when taking the turnpike approach to the Holland Tunnel stare silently across the river and remember what once proudly stood. One home run couldn’t make us forget, but it sure put smiles on faces that hadn’t smiled in days, and a smile can heal a lot of things.
Twenty years. Who would have thought that a run of the mill 3-0 win over Milwaukee twenty years ago would be the precursor to a career with the Mets that was nothing short of legendary? Others will have different memories of Piazza, and that is fine, as he sure produced a bunch of them. Others will be cynical noting that he did not bring the Mets a championship and only had one World Series appearance in 2000. But I bet most will think fondly of the man who had a mighty swing and a equally mighty sense of the dramatic. He carried a franchise on his back as he knelt behind the plate. He is, and always will, be a baseball hero, a healer and a helper to a city that loves its baseball and its stars. Few shone brighter than Mike Piazza.