Piazza Rides Into the Sunset

Twenty years after signing as a 62nd Round LA Dodgers draft pick, a favor by family friend Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza quietly retired yesterday as a sure fire first-ballot hall of famer. His final two seasons spent in relative anonymity in Oakland and San Diego, arguably the greatest hitting catcher ever finishes with a .308 career average, 427 homeruns, and 1335 RBI’s.

For full disclosure, I’m a Yankee fan – always have been, always will be. Still, Piazza captivated me from the day he arrived in NY in May 1998. With the Yankees beginning what became a record-setting season, the Mets stole the spotlight, pulling the trigger on the blockbuster trade with Florida on a Thursday afternoon. Piazza’s first game still stands out, a glistening Saturday afternoon at Shea against Milwaukee. Stepping in to a king’s welcome, the savior scorched a line drive to the right center field gap with his vintage swing featuring the long follow through. The ball jumped off his bat, hit so hard it took a bounce and bolted toward the wall, splitting the outfielders. An RBI double, Piazza stood on third after the throw home. Not a run of the mill double though, a prodigious gapper – thus began the Piazza era.

Signature home runs, start with the three-run blast in Houston later that year as the Mets made a stretch run for the playoffs. Then there’s the blast he basically hit out of Shea Stadium against the Yankees, of course the dramatic slam against the Braves in the first game following 9/11 to cap a miraculous eighth inning comeback. The one that got away of course, was the long fly out to center that ended the 2000 World Series, a few feet from adding to the legend.

The 12-time All-Star put the Mets back on the map during a time when the Yankees were dominating baseball, and he did it with class. Piazza carried New York’s second-team to the playoffs in 1999, and the World Series in 2000. He brought the fans back, which certainly helped get Citi Field approved and built. Unlike today’s Met stars, Piazza had a good relationship with the media, stood up to constant criticism of his defense, answered the questions after tough losses and big wins, hard to find anyone with a bad word to say.

The numbers speak for themselves. By far the most home runs for a catcher (396), he redefined the position. Only eight catchers have posted a .300 average with 30 homers and 100 RBI in a single season, Piazza did it six times. Of the others, only Roy Campanella did it more than once (3). Constantly chastised for his below average throwing arm, Piazza worked hard on his defense to become a solid catcher. Former pitchers praise his game-management and pitch selection skills, likely to be overlooked by his offensive prowess.

The 1993 NL Rookie of the Year wanted to continue playing, but remained unsigned this season. Not exactly a storybook ending to a historic career, yet more realistic and appropriate than suddenly hitting over 40 home runs as he approached age 40, like many of his contemporaries. When a player like Piazza rides into the sunset, its a good time to reflect and appreciate the fact that we watched one of the great baseball players ever, both on and off the field.

Cooperstown in five years – book it!

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