October 6, 2005

Paying Tribute to the Greatest Hitting Catcher

Print More

He is so human that sometimes, it’s painful.

He is often like a graying, old man getting out of a rocking chair when he tries to get up and throw out fleet-footed base runners at second, and has worn that forlorn look after he releases the ball – 1,301 out of 1,711 times to be exact – when the pests merrily gain those 90 feet.

He tried to be useful to the team on the diamond last year by shifting to first base, a zone associated with the least athletic players in baseball. In this failed experiment, he made Cecil Fielder and David Ortiz look like ballerinas, his style resembling a man with a beehive around his head more than anything else.

He always felt the brunt of opinion for things that never had anything to do with baseball. His beard was too ugly, he didn’t look mean enough when he shaved it off, his hair bleach looked like a bird made a nest on it, his sexuality religiously questioned by back page tabloids.

He was always analyzed in the clubhouse. Was he too quiet? Did he not talk to his teammates? Was he not emotional enough when he needed to be? Why didn’t he knock the Cy Young’s out of Roger Clemens head when he had a chance to, when the Rocket clearly deserved it?

He has a name by the way. This maligned, achy-kneed, aging catcher probably played his last game as a New York Met on Sunday. His name is Mike Piazza.

He came to the Mets in 1998 in what might have been one of the biggest steals in baseball trading history, as the Amazin’s gave the Florida Marlins the dynamic trio of Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz. Wilson is now a strikeout machine with the Washington Nationals, while Yarnall and Goetz are probably sheep farmers – meaning, out of the game.

He was an unlikely hero for the Mets. A relatively laid back, quiet player who plied his trade in sunny California for most of his life, how would he be able to handle the New York pressure which came with the role of being the Mets’ savior?

He didn’t immediately hit 50 home runs and we booed him. How couldn’t we? He was supposed to be our saint since he first came up to bat on May 23, 1998 – the guy who made us forget about Generation K, Bobby Bonilla and all of the failures which were sagging like loose change in the pockets of a hopeless Mets organization. He ignored the jeers, hit .351 in the second half of the season, mashed an estimated 480-foot bomb in the Astrodome that September, and signed a seven-year, $91 million deal in the offseason to stay with the team.

He gave fans 91 million reasons to watch the Mets and 91 million reasons not to watch them. Was he the ray of light we were looking for? The franchise player which would stack us up against that other team New York team? Or would he be just another tombstone which has been an all too common sight at Shea Stadium – the next Met who just lost every semblance of a baseball player when he came to Queens?

He came through and he gave the Mets instant credibility. He came through so many times over the past seven years that Mets fans argue about when their favorite Piazza moments were. He came through in 1999 and 2000, leading the Mets to the playoffs and the World Series, respectively. His jarring swing terrorized opposing pitchers for good reason – the future Hall-of-Famer and likely the best hitting catcher ever to play the game, drove in 655 runners and hit 220 home runs as a Met and many of them are memorable. Remember Game 6 of the NLCS at Atlanta in 1999, when he smacked a two-run homer in the seventh inning to tie the score at seven? How about when he banged a grand slam in the third inning, facing Clemens and the Yankees in that magical summer of 2000?

He was a model leader, knowing how important and crucial he was to his team. He could have been the lesser man after Clemens beaned him in the head in 2000 and then later, threw a shard of broken bat at the catcher. No one would have blamed him if Piazza charged the mound that night in a testosterone-raged rampage. But, he didn’t. And Mets fans remember that he will always be the better man (who would not get suspended) for that.

He gave us something to cheer about even for the briefest of dark moments, when he hit that game-winning two-run homer off the Braves’ Steve Karsay 10 days after September 11. He broke our hearts when he strained his groin trying to dodge a pitch in May 2003, our hopes sinking with the muscle popping “almost like a guitar string” – a note which would thus appropriately start the song of, “There’s Always Next Year.”

He took the pressure in stride and in all fairness, took it alone. He got more heat for the losses and less credit for the wins than any other Met. Skeptics might say that Derek Jeter has the same type of pressure, but Jeter always had the supporting cast. Williams, Posada, Rivera, A-Rod, etc. Unless you count Robin Ventura or Mike Hampton or Benny Agbayani, Piazza was all by himself. Alone. He was the one opposing teams feared. And he was the one who seemed to always come through in the clutch.

He had a different role this year. Now, the Mets have David Wright, Jose Reyes, Pedro Martinez. Now, the Mets have a new superstar, Carlos Beltran. As Piazza leaves, Beltran is there to try to fill cavernous hole as the franchise player – something the $119 million man has failed to do in his first year. But, even with the new faces and although he is in the twilight of his career, it would be hard to not choose Piazza to be up at the plate with the game on the line, staring 60 feet, six inches straight into the pitcher’s eyes, sitting on a fastball and unleashing one of those violent swings we have seen so many times over the last eight seasons.

He hit three groundball outs on Sunday as 47,718 in Shea Stadium, and fans like me at home, probably watched the last time one of the greatest Mets of all-time play in the white, blue and orange. He said he wished he did better in those at-bats, but the fans didn’t care, giving him a raucous ovation as he left the game – similar to the ones he received all of those times when he came through. While waving to fans, it seemed liked seven years flashed before his eyes. All of the triumphs, big hits, losing seasons, the constant criticism and analysis about his slumps, throwing ability and fielding. It had been a rollercoaster for a player who served out his long tenure – a feat rarely found in baseball today. And for a few moments as he was standing in front of the Mets dugout on Sunday, the cool, collected leader of the Mets looked up, and for the first time, his “tank was on empty.”

He is only human, after all.

Brian Tsao is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Life of Brain will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Brian Tsao
Sun Assistant Sports Editor