For one more night, Mike Piazza was The Man. Ten years after his last game as a Met and six days after his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Piazza was center stage as the Mets retired his number 31 in a ceremony before the game tonight.
When I think of Piazza, I don’t just think of a guy who put up good numbers, but a guy who carried a team and the hopes of the fans. Unlike most power hitters, he didn’t produce those impressive offensive stats from first base or the comfort of left or right field where one could possibly sneak a few puffs of a cigarette. No, Piazza spent half of every game on his knees behind home plate getting beaten and battered, but still managing to bat .308 for his career and crack 427 home runs.
I remember when Bernie Williams almost left the Yankees for the Red Sox in free agency in the winter of 1998 before ultimately staying in the Bronx when he asked the Yankees to match the Red Sox offer. Bernie was a great player but if he left for Boston, he’d have had the pressure of being The Man instead of one of the guys for the Yankees. No one could blame him for it.
In that same winter of 1998, Mike Piazza signed a long-term deal to stay with the Mets. With the big money came the pressure of carrying the Mets to the dream of a championship. He played well for the Mets in the years ahead. His 2000 Mets made it to the World Series but lost to fortune’s favorites, the New York Yankees, so like another New York superstar, basketball’s Patrick Ewing, the ultimate prize of a championship would remain elusive despite years of daily toil.
But if the cruel October winds knocked down Piazza’s deep drive to left center short of a game-tying home run for the final out of the 2000 World Series, his home run on September 21, 2001 that won the first game played in New York City after the attacks of September 11, forever inspires anyone who remembers how it gave so many a reason to cheer about life again.
I remember hearing that home run call on the radio from of all places, the crawl space of my home (I wasn’t a hermit or in hiding; our home didn’t have a basement and those storage boxes had to go somewhere). Before he hit the home run, I wondered whether baseball or maybe anything else, could ever be enjoyable again. After he hit that home run, like many others, I cheered with tears in my eyes, and began to realize that perhaps we could enjoy life again.
So congratulations, Mike Piazza, on making the Hall of Fame and having your number retired. You deserve it. Also, as I write this from the Citi Field press box, the Mets are trailing 7-2 in the eighth inning in need of a boost, and I have a feeling the 42,207 fans at the game wish you were back in the line up.