A fine stay; a solemn goodbye

It was June 20, 2000. I was sitting with two of my friends and my friend Matt’s dad in field level seats at Shea Stadium, just to the right of home plate. The Braves had been mercilessly pounding the Mets 8-1 until New York rallied with a series of walks and singles to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth.

Then, Mike Piazza walked towards the plate.

With Edgardo Alfonzo’s game-tying single to left field, the crowd roared with new life. Now, as Piazza’s name buzzed through the loudspeakers, the Shea faithful stood and cheered in utter euphoria.

With two men on base, two out, Piazza faced veteran relief pitcher Terry Mulholland, the third Brave’s pitcher of the inning. Piazza viciously turned on a ball to left field and sidestepped down the foul line for just a second or two- that’s just how long it took for his line-drive three run home run to clear Shea’s left field fence. The crowd, especially my friends and I, burst into pandemonium.

As Piazza finished his home-run trot and the scoreboards flashed 11-8 (what would prove to be the final score), we were reminded that Piazza was not only an iconic figure for us, but for the Mets and the whole of New York.

Piazza is the first Met since Tom Seaver to be a shoe-in first- ballot Hall of Famer. Rarely have the Mets had such a talent, never have they had someone so important.

Now it seems as if Piazza and the Mets will part ways, as his seven-year contract is up and his numbers have faded over his last few injury-plagued seasons.

Why is Piazza an icon?

Well, there’s his Cinderella story in Los Angeles, where Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 major-league draft, mainly as a favor to his brother’s godfather, former Dodger’s skipper Tommy Lasorda.

Just five years later, Piazza would unanimously win the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year Award, hitting .318 and setting Dodger rookie records with 35 home runs and 112 RBIs, making him the first rookie since 1950 to hit .300, collect 30 homers, and 100 runs batted in.

There’s also his 1997 season, unarguably the best offensive season had by any catcher, as Piazza posted career highs batting .362 with a .638 slugging percentage, 40 home runs, 124 RBIs, 201 hits, and 355 total bases. Or there’s his career .311 batting average, his 397 home runs, and his 1,223 RBIs.

Or there’s his heroic home runs, like the one he hit in 1999 off of John Smoltz in game six of the National League Championship Series.

Piazza, beat up as ever from a string of home-plate collisions, various injuries, and not enough off days, barely edged one out of the right field fence at Turner Field in Atlanta to tie the game, though the Mets would later lose the game and the series on a bases loaded walk to Andruw Jones.

In the first game back at Shea since Sept. 11, 2001, Piazza drove a majestic game winning home run deep into center field, lifting the Mets to a victory and the city up from its depression. This is the moment that Piazza solidified himself as not just a baseball icon, but a New York icon, and a timeless figure in New York history. For that moment, for those few hours, New York celebrated when there were so many reasons to sob.

But more important, for me, than his rise to fame, or the fact that he holds the record for most career home runs by a catcher, or his ability to spray the ball to all fields, or his 12 all-star selections, are his intangibles.

The way he warms up before every game, jogging stoically with his catcher’s helmet on forwards, stretching slowly and deliberately while giving his Hollywood smirk, wink, and wave to his adoring fans.

The way he steps out of the dugout into the on-deck circle, calmly waving his weighted bat back and forth as if nothing fazes him, until slowly strutting to home plate, his trademark heavy metal/hard rock blaring over the loudspeakers, his name met with nothing but cheers.

The way he stands in the batter’s box, calm as can be, almost always taking first pitch as if he’s always in the driver’s seat- this before unleashing on a pitch to right field, watching the ball clear the fence, holding his bat in the air, leaning on his back leg with a painful grimace, and then of course, that trot.

That trot we see on singles just like we see on home runs- it’s always been his, it’s always been textbook Piazza.

Those are the things I’ll remember even more than the moments that made him famous.

There is so much more that has made this man great, like his throwing woes that remind us that he is human, or his abilities to block the plate and call a game that give him that blue-collar appeal.

The intricacies and nuances of Piazza are infinite both in number and value; his time with us is not. As the Mets and Piazza part ways, I am only filled with regret and thankfulness.

I regret not cherishing his time in New York enough, not attending more games, not fully appreciating his talent and place in baseball history.

I am thankful that he came; I’ll regret it when he leaves. Thanks, Mike.