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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Winning > Losing

No, I’m not being cute. Too tired for that. I’m acknowledging that we’ve reached a familiar point in the progression of a lost season, though this familiar point isn’t the big reveal.

The big reveal is that the games you’re watching are expository bric-a-brac, part of the lead-in to the real story, which you just realized isn’t being written this year. You’re in the Smudge, skimming the agate type, watching the stuff folks want to fast-forward through to get to the point where the action starts. Only there isn’t a fast-forward button. You just gotta wait.

That’s the big reveal, and it’s behind us. This is what comes after. And this is the point that always arrives as part of that falling action: the night when you stop fighting and just let baseball be baseball. You watch (when you aren’t doing something else) and cheer when things go well (though sadly that’s a little muted) and groan when things go badly (though that’s a little muted too, which you think is a kindness until you realize that actually it’s the saddest part).

There’s still some drama ahead, of course. There will be trades and moaning about trades and call-ups and stupid small-sample-size arguments about call-ups and a few exciting finishes. But it’s all lowercase from now until sometime next spring.

And so our world has shrunk to this: winning > losing. Simple as that.

So. Jacob deGrom was good, as he has been for a long stretch that’s been a balm for weary Mets souls. The Mets whacked Mike Leake around but good, the kind of outburst that often follows fallow periods of woe and is simultaneously pleasing and annoying, because when it happens it looks so easy and we have to remind ourselves that it’s anything but. We got a reminder that the Cardinals aren’t good, then one that the Mets aren’t good — they commenced to play stupid defensively, forcing deGrom from the game before his usual seven innings were recorded. At that point the game became more interesting though less entertaining, but Addison Reed put down the uprising (during which you could feel the appraisals in distant front offices) and the Mets had won.

They won. That will suffice for now. It’s no longer particularly important, but it feels better to watch.

Disabuse Your Illusion

And the summer went so quickly this year.
—Joe Raposo, “There Used To Be A Ballpark

Michael Wacha was on the verge of a complete game shutout, 24/27ths of the way there Tuesday night. Having observed him and his opposition in varying degrees of action and inaction for eight innings, I calculated as nil the chance the spirit of Steve Henderson would inhabit the batters he was about to face. Thus, I rooted for Wacha to, as Eric Carmen would have advised, go all the way. You see so few complete game shutouts these days that we are compelled to identify them by their full name, à la “single-admission doubleheader”. There was a time when shutouts were assumed to be complete games. Wacha suddenly going nine innings without getting relief help or giving up a run wasn’t going to stem the tide of bullpen by force of habit, but it did seem like a blow struck for baseball like it oughta be. Or used ta be. Or, at the very least, something you hardly see anymore.

That Wacha was approaching his and every starting pitcher’s goal at the expense of the Mets barely bothered me. In 2016, it would have been a problem. In 2015, it would have been a major inconvenience. But it’s not 2016 and it’s not 2015. It’s some year when the Mets are not quite in late July and they’re nowhere near a playoff race. That lingering sense that one solid hot streak might propel them into contention vanished in advance of the ninth inning Tuesday night. Maybe it disappeared Monday. Maybe it evaporated Sunday. Probably it never existed at all this year. A pair of wins out of the All-Star gate breathed a gasp or two of life into the delusional illusion that maybe…maybe the Mets could pick up ground, maybe a few injuries would heal, maybe the best trades made would be the ones that never were, maybe I should check how the Rockies are doing, seeing as how if we win and they lose, we’ll be only…

But, nah. That’s over. That’s done. Those are instincts attached to previous seasons, perhaps seasons to come, surely not this one. This one is done except for games and stuff. The stuff will take care of itself. The games get played regardless of circumstances. The Mets’ circumstances are a little unfamiliar after two summers spent legitimately chasing fall. They’re not even in sync with the pre-2015 standards of a team not expected to go anywhere, so you relished the baby steps toward progress when you encountered them. 2015’s immediate predecessors produced a trail strewn with banana peels. That was OK, though. We were used to slipping. Learning to get up and figuring out how to avoid further hazards was part of the process, we were pretty sure.

In 2017, the only forward Met motion involves days on the calendar. Days until the non-waiver trade deadline. Days until the most obvious of callups. Days until the waiver trade deadline. Days until the rest of the callups. Days until it’s all over. Otherwise, the days loom as hollow as the leftover chocolate Easter bunny you probably shouldn’t have taken a bite of all these months later. No chewy center. No delicious caramel filling. Just innings of space and a taste that is decidedly off.

For a night, the void the Mets have left in their aspirations’ wake was taken up by Wacha and the Cardinals. Matt Carpenter (4-for-5, 2 2B) whacked everything in sight. Wacha mowed down every Met in his field of vision. They should have been Ralph’s guests on Kiner’s Korner. That’s how much Carpenter and Wacha starred in Tuesday’s game. Rafael Montero pitched for the Mets for six innings, constructing one of his better outings. Of course the bar he cleared was so low that somebody would have to have created a slew of coal miner jobs in order to dig it up. The defense behind Rafael aggressively expressed its support for open borders. No ball hit by a Cardinal batter would be stopped from going wherever it liked. Yet even had his fielders built a beautiful wall, Montero still would have been outpitched by Wacha and whupped up on by Carpenter.

The Mets fell behind by a run in the first, then four in the second, then the score stayed in place until one of Montero’s successors — does it really matter who? — gave up a fifth run. It was unearned, having been manufactured via another Met miscue. Lucas Duda didn’t catch a foul pop. He also didn’t intensify demand for a Lucas Duda trade on the open market.

Eventually, Wacha got to the ninth, gave up a leadoff single to Michael Conforto and allowed Conforto to reach second on a wild pitch, yet Mike Matheny let him be. Go ahead, his manager said sans trip to the mound: go the route, go the distance, go all the way; it’s your game, kid. So it was. The next three Mets were retired, preventing Conforto from crossing the plate. When Wacha struck out Jay Bruce for his 27th out and the Mets hadn’t scored a run, I felt my right hand curl involuntarily into a fist. It was for light pumping, not bashing in anything. I was generically satisfied a starting pitcher had completed an old-fashioned three-hit shutout. That it was unfortunately achieved against the Mets didn’t faze me. I’m a few too many losses past the point of fazing with this team.

A better night of baseball than this one is coming Monday to the Varsity Letters series in Manhattan, where I’ll be one of the authors reading from and talking about his work, in my case, Piazza: Catcher Slugger, Icon, Star. The event takes place at Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. Details are here. I hope to see you there.

Life in the Smudge

The Mets don’t actually travel the earth with a black cloud over their heads, but it sure does seem that way sometimes.

From Zack Wheeler to Hansel Robles to Yoenis Cespedes, Monday night’s game was one stomach punch after the other, almost as if baseball was trying to point out the folly of continuing to subject ourselves to unpleasantness.

Wheeler, a perennial work in progress, looked good early, but his collapse in the sixth had been preceded by a fifth inning that was all warning lights: with two out he walked three, made two horrendous pitches (in terms of selection and location) to Jedd Gyorko and only escaped when Gyorko slammed a low line drive that Asdrubral Cabrera caught at his shoetops.

That seemed to use up all of Wheeler’s luck — in the sixth Yadier Molina was the beneficiary of an infield single that Jose Reyes probably didn’t need to turn into a do-or-die play, new tormenter Paul DeJong homered for a Cardinals lead, and three batters later Adam Wainwright drove Wheeler from the game with a run-scoring double. I could write a bunch of stuff about Wheeler still being young, coming back from injury, etc. It would all be true and be nothing you haven’t read before, so let’s not.

You’re also probably aware that Hansel Robles gives up way too many home runs, which is what got him dispatched to Las Vegas a while back. Robles returned to replace Chasen Bradford, and let the record show that he did manage to throw one pitch without a disastrous outcome.

Then Robles threw a second pitch to Tommy Pham, and that was effectively the end of the ballgame. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but the pitch Robles offered up in Flushing came down in Whitestone.

The funniest part, if you can force yourself to laugh: after Pham connected, Robles pointed skyward, as if he’d induced a pop-up. Considering the trajectory, who was he alerting? The customers in the 400 level? Airline pilots? Cherubim and seraphim who might be rudely interrupted while thronging the air? It was remarkable, in a way.

The Mets fought back, sort of, via a Lucas Duda homer and a farcical Reyes trip around the bases in which newcomer Magneuris Sierra seemed in real danger of inflicting permanent harm on himself with a baseball, which isn’t how one should field it. But they were turned aside when Michael Conforto’s RBI single intersected the glove of Tyler Lyons at the approximate speed of a cruise missile. Conforto had about the unhappiest day one could imagine that included a homer and a nice catch in center — if not for some buzzard’s luck he might have been 3-for-4 with three RBIs and a possible postgame crown.

That a postgame crown was possible had more to do with the Cardinals than the Mets — like us, the 2017 Cards are plodding through the wreckage of a season undone by injuries, porous defense and crap relief. So let the record state that the Mets had a chance in the ninth, with two onthe bases loaded, one out and Cespedes up as the tyingwinning run … and with a 3-0 count.

If there’s a scenario above that one on the wish list, I’d sure like to know what it is. Cespedes, instead of zeroing in on a ball he could drive, tried to pull a high fastball, which was doing the pitcher’s work for him. He rolled it to the shortstop for a game-ending double play.

Once again, I suppose I could go on about injuries and pressure to be The Man (in this case, The Man fled the clubhouse to avoid The Media), or how that’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re slumping. But it’s reached the point where it doesn’t particularly matter. The season is lost and this fizzled incarnation of the Mets will soon be broken up for parts. Memory will smear these games into a vague, faintly distasteful blur, the smudge between Noah Syndergaard grabbing his lat and Amed Rosario being called up, or whatever event signals the next incarnation of the Mets has come into focus.

Time for Your Beating

The picture to take away from Sunday’s 13-4 drubbing at the hands of the Rockies was Steven Matz trudging across a suddenly hostile mound looking like he’d been told to move a hundred bags of concrete from one place to another for no satisfactory reason.

Well, unless you tuned in a little bit late, in which case you had no picture of Matz to take away at all.

Matz was excused further duty after giving up nine hits and seven runs, all earned, in what officially goes down as one inning but counted in baseball parlance as “one inning plus.” Which is an odd bit of baseball vocabulary, since that plus is always a minus — “one inning plus the ineffectual stuff you did at the beginning of the next inning.” Or, to be more specific, the line of agate that needed to be added to Sunday’s box score: “Matz pitched to 4 batters in the 2nd.”

Pitched to four batters and retired none: the sequence was double, single, three-run homer, single, someone who isn’t you will pitch now. And that capped a sequence in which Matz pitched to 10 guys and allowed nine of them to reach base, retiring only the opposing pitcher. Those results are about as bad as they can get for someone occupying a major-league mound.

Still, while what Matz endured was indubitably a fearful and pitiable beating, it’s not like it was unprecedented or even uncommon for the team as a whole — for any team. This is yet another of baseball’s wonderful attributes, though generally not the one that leaps to mind when it’s your team rolled into a ball and waiting for it to be over.

Football fans can dream of an undefeated season, or at least a two- or three-month stretch in which defeat will be for other people. If you’re a baseball fan, half a week without a loss puts a certain strut in your step; a week of unalloyed victory means everybody’s starting to talk about you. No matter what team you are — the ’27 Yankees, the ’86 Mets, the suddenly unstoppable ’17 Dodgers — a loss is always lurking in the near-future, and sooner or later you’re going to not just lose but also get mashed. Half an hour in defeat will be assured, yet there will be three hours of unpleasantness yet to go, and the clubhouse hero will be the reliever who remained stoic while taking the largest portion of that unpleasantness — with a participant trophy for you, the fan, provided you hung around to bear witness the whole thing.

Too many such beatings and even a loyal fan will wind up woebegone, then absent. But the occasional beating is clarifying, grounding and a useful reminder that you never know — and you’d never want to.

‘Hey, Seth Lugo Just Hit a Home Run!’

Putting aside every other familiar point of contention — that the DH is an affront to nature and has been since its implementation by a misguided league in 1973; that whatever offense the DH generates for your team has to be balanced by how much offense your pitchers will surrender to the other team’s DH; that games go on long enough as it is; that the turning over of a lineup after the pitcher bats (give or take a Maddon, a La Russa or an episodically desperate Collins) is an essential element of the rhythm of baseball; that Yoenis Cespedes’s legs would find a way to aggravate portions of themselves even if all he was asked to do on occasion was hit; that the DH remains an affront to nature, growing only more distasteful since the beginning of this sentence well over a hundred words ago — let us consider the burst of adrenaline that explodes throughout our various internal thoroughfares and tributaries when a pitcher hits a home run. The world in which we root would be a much duller place without the chance of it happening once or twice in a great while. Over and over, the exception to pitcher-hitting futility gloriously proves the delicious rule.

Since the advent of Interleague play in 1997, during which the Mets of the National League occasionally grace with their elegant presence an otherwise unremarkable American League ballpark, Mets acting as designated hitters have hit 35 home runs. In that same span, through Saturday night, Mets pitchers have hit 18 home runs. This season, via scheduling fairly typical of the current era, includes 10 games that will have the Mets visiting AL teams, meaning their other 152 contests will be played under NL or “baseball” parameters. Met pitchers are guaranteed to bat, certainly in the early portions of games, more than 15 times as often as Met DHs. They definitely won’t homer 15 times as often.

Met batters serve as DHs infrequently in the course of a year: two three-game series, two two-game series. Met pitchers bat in all the rest of the games. Met DHs, players shoehorned into a position that doesn’t exist in their regular routine, have homered almost twice per season in extremely limited duty across two decades. Met pitchers have provided less than one home run a year during the same roughly 20-year period despite coming to the plate practically daily.

There is little question that someone who bats by trade will hit for more power than someone who pitches by trade and bats primarily because he has to. It’s likely an average designated hitter will produce more home runs in a week than a pitching staff will in a year, maybe two years.

Yet do you remember anything specific about a Mets DH homering since 1997? Are you even aware the Mets have three home runs from DHs in 2017?

Conversely, do you ever forget what it feels like to watch a pitcher homer?

Did you thrill to Seth Lugo on Saturday night going surprisingly deep off Chris Rusin of the Rockies, raising the Mets’ lead to 8-0 in the third inning of their eventual 9-3 triumph at Citi Field?

Did you clap or whoop measurably harder for Seth than you did when bulwark Jay Bruce homered with two on in the first to put the Mets out in front — or when sizzling Jose Reyes topped off the Mets’ scoring with a solo blast in the eighth?

Did you call out to your nearest loved one, “Hey, Seth Lugo just hit a home run!”?

Did you get an enormous kick from watching Lugo’s teammates theatrically effect a cold-shoulder mode, pretending that what you and they saw was no big deal?

Did you laugh out loud at how the pitcher immediately picked up on the Roosevelt Avenue freezeout, exchanged phantom high-fives with nobody and flipped his helmet to himself?

Did you add another round of applause when you got a load of the Mets unfreezing so they could properly and fraternally crowd about him in giddy embrace?

Were you all, wow, the pitcher just homered, that is so awesome when it happens?

I’ll go out on a limb constructed of the bats Mets pitchers have used to homer since 1997 and answer no, you don’t forget the feeling associated with a pitcher pounding a pitch; and yes to all of the above emotions. We say it time and again when it happens: there is nothing like a pitcher hitting a home run.

There is nothing inherently memorable about a designated hitter hitting a home run. If the Mets are mandated (or, technically, compelled by peer pressure) to use one and the Met DH homers, swell, it’s a run or more, depending on how many if any Mets are on base when the ball is hit. It can be memorable if the game situation presents itself as such. That’s luck of the draw. In 2008, a Met DH drew powerfully well. DH Carlos Delgado homered twice, once with the bases loaded, as part of his team-record nine-RBI afternoon at Yankee Stadium. The Mets won, 15-6, on their final trip in to that renovated facility. Definitely a memorable occasion. The record Delgado set still stands. The fact that he did it as a DH is something I don’t remember. Carlos was a slugger who usually did his slugging from first base. The volume of power he displayed that day was impressive, but the element of surprise embedded within Carlos Delgado driving a ball past a fence was nil. And there’s no overwhelming reason he couldn’t have done the same thing had he been playing his customary first base.

Matt Franco hit the first designated hitter home run in Mets history, at Camden Yards on August 29, 1997. I was there. I remember the game. I remember Franco going yard (or Yards). I don’t remember him DH’ing. Homering, yes; giving affront to nature, no. Bernard Gilkey repeated the designated feat the next day, another game I attended. I remember Gilkey having a big game. I wasn’t aware until Baseball Reference’s Play Index clued me in that he was DH’ing.

Mike Piazza hit nine home runs as a Mets DH, far more than any other Mets DH. As I’ve mentioned once or twice, I recently wrote a book about Piazza. I spent months researching and refamiliarizing myself with most everything Piazza did as a Met. I didn’t remember anything about his DH’ing except that he occasionally did it to give him a breather from catching. Piazza remains an intensely memorable figure, I think you’d agree. Nine home runs are nine home runs. One of them could have been a classic. None of them happened to be. Thus, even Mike Piazza was just another player connecting mightily with a pitch when he DH’d.

We never say that about a pitcher. We didn’t say it about Seth Lugo on Saturday night, we didn’t say it about Jacob deGrom on Father’s Day, we didn’t say anything of the sort about Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey or St. Bartolo Colon the last couple of years during this most recent of golden ages for Met pitchers slugging. Every instance in which they took one of their counterparts to the party deck or beyond was a moment for intense celebration. Even had the Mets gone on to not win those games — which has not been the case when one of their pitchers has homered dating back to 1996 — it still would have been an interlude for aberrational exultation. You need those in the course of a season. You want those in the course of a season. Should you be so lucky to get eight over the course of three seasons, as the Mets have since 2015, you cherish them and you thank your baseball stars you experienced them.

In far, far fewer at-bats than their pitchers have received, Mets filling the role of designated hitter have homered six times since 2015. And they were…you can’t name them, can you? I couldn’t without looking them up. There was Daniel Murphy at Tampa Bay in 2015, Cespedes on consecutive days in Cleveland in 2016 (shortly after he did something to his hip, which is something he just did again, oy) and Curtis Granderson and Bruce while the Mets were in Texas this year. Bruce, who has 24 home runs altogether, knocked two out of whatever the ballpark in Arlington is called these days on June 7. It was splendid that he helped the Mets win then, just as it was splendid that he helped the Mets beat the Rockies on Saturday night. Jay’s a power-hitting outfielder. Hitting home runs and, hopefully, contributing to victories are what he does. It’s satisfying as heck when he lives up to his job description. It’s nothing unusual, though.

Seth Lugo homering? That’s unusual. That’s memorable. That’s visceral. That is so awesome when it happens.

One of a Kind (Runs Affair)

That creature you thought you saw rumbling across the landscape at Citi Field late Friday night…it wasn’t your imagination. It was that most elusive of baseball figures, the Unicorn Score.

The New York Mets posted what was for them an unprecedented final, beating the Colorado Rockies, 14-2. Thanks to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool and my selectively insatiable curiosity, we know that in the 8,864 official regular-season Mets games that preceded Friday’s (and, for that matter, the 89 games the Mets have played in the postseason), winning 14-2 had never happened. There had been wins by 14-0 twice, 14-1 four times, three each of a 14-3 and 14-4 nature, five 14-5s, a lone 14-6 and a pair of 14s doubling a duo of 7s, yet somehow in all the possible digital scenarios wrought when the Mets blow out opponents, it could never before be accurately reported, “The Mets won, 14-2.”

It can be now. We have a 14-2 Unicorn, our twenty-third Unicorn Score overall, our first since 17-0 galloped by last September.

For those of us who populate the Mets statistical underground, this was a huge get. Take another gander at all those wins directly or fairly proximate to 14-2, and you’ll understand why we’re beside ourselves with numerical joy. In the realm of anomalous results, it was unfathomable that this franchise could notch a 13-12 nailbiter in its second year, a legendary 19-1 romp in its third and toss in a 16-13 all-nighter before it turned twenty-five, yet keep stepping around a seemingly more attainable tally far into its sixth decade. All told, once you count two 14-11 wins (one of them at Coors Field) and two 14-9 wins (both famously at Coors Field), the Mets had previously prevailed 24 times while totaling precisely 14 runs, but somehow in 55½ seasons missed landing on the exact winning score of 14-2.

13-2 was achieved five times, 15-2 three times. 14-2 not at all. In its obscure way, it was as mystifying as not having had a no-hitter until 2012 or a three-homer game at home until 2015. How do you win 14-1 four times and 14-5 five times but 14-2 never?

You don’t, not anymore, not when the Mets properly space fourteen singles, three doubles, two homers (from T.J. Rivera and Michael Conforto) and seven walks; Jacob deGrom tames Colorado in his usual if uncertified All-Star style (eight innings, four hits, one walk, eleven strikeouts — plus Jake singled twice on his own well-supported cause’s behalf); and video replay review works as it’s intended to, which is to say it prevents a third Colorado run and preserves the chance for a 14-2 Unicorn to see light.

The play of the game, brought to you by narrowly defined hindsight, occurred in the top of the sixth, deGrom nursing, as it were, a 9-2 lead. (The Mets have won 32 games by a final of 9-2, though none since April 3, 2011, constituting the longest current winning-score drought encompassing only single-digits; yeah, I keep pretty close track of this stuff.) With one out and DJ LeMahieu on third, Gerardo Parra lifted a fly ball to medium-deep left field. Yoenis Cespedes — en route to collecting four hits and, hopefully, rejoining the living — fired a throw to Travis d’Arnaud as LeMahieu took off. It was Cespedes’s arm at its strongest but not quite its most accurate. D’Arnaud gathered Yo’s bullet in on the second hop, just to the left of the plate before shifting his mitt quickly to tag the runner’s trail foot before the lead one could touch home. Umpire Mike Everitt said safe, but Terry Collins and his people saw different and challenged. Once the play appeared on the expansive screen beyond the outfield fence, everybody knew the call was going to be reversed. The Mets walked off the field before Chelsea would confirm the third out had indeed been registered, which as showing up umps goes, is way more effective than a manager kicking dirt ever was.

I don’t think the Mets defense was being rude to Everitt. They knew they had to hurry back to the dugout, grab their bats and start putting five more runs on the board to reach the unreachable stat. Three in the seventh, two in the eighth and Josh Edgin loading the bases in the ninth with two out before flying Pat Valaika to center made it so. It had happened — Mets 14 Other Team 2.

The blips that will make a fan happy. After four days of break-enforced nothingness, I would have settled for a baseball game of any shape or size. To get not just a win, but a win of contextually historic proportions, well, that’s a “welcome back” that will have you feeling warm all over, maybe afflicted by the slightest touch of the second-half fever. Noting the Mets picked up ground on the Rockies and moved to within 9½ Citi blocks of the second Wild Card might be a delusional framing device, I grant you, but until Friday night, I could only imagine a 14-2 Unicorn Score.

You don’t have to imagine what it was like to be at Shea Stadium during the New York blackout of 1977. Patrick Sauer tracked down a half-dozen individuals with rich memories of that darkest of nights and wrote an engaging article about it, which you can and should read here. One of his eyewitnesses (if you can be an eyewitness to pitch blackness) is my brother-in-law, former Shea Stadium vendor Mr. Stem, as we know and love him internally. Due respect to the others in the story, his is the most entertaining account of the bunch.

The End and Everything After

Everything reaches an end, even the 2017 All-Star break, which, according to my ballological clock, is the longest in recorded history. True, it’s been the same length as last year’s All-Star break and the year before’s and all the years since they made it four looooooooong days instead of the previously interminable three days, but our failure to get any younger has made us increasingly impatient. In the immortal words of Jimmy Cannon, “Baseball, gentlemen! Baseball!”

Mike’s gonna carry us to the resumption of baseball, just like he carried us between 1998 and 2005.

Until 7:10 tonight (or after, if you don’t get around to reading it until later; this stuff is evergreen), I’m altering that admonition to “Piazza, gentlemen — and ladies! Piazza!” I have a little more Mike to share with you, about how his career reached an end but also how his legacy went about unfurling. Unlike previously proffered Deleted Scenes that were trimmed for space so my book would fit just right, these anecdotes and observations are better described as outtakes, passages intended to give the Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star story I was telling additional texture. What threads them coherently is they are from the portion of the Piazza journey when he was making the turn from erstwhile Mets player to eternal Mets legend. We pick him up just as he’s finished being reminded how much he’s loved at Shea Stadium, no matter what uniform he’s wearing, and we follow him as the number he wore on his Mets uniform is ready to be affixed high above Citi Field.

I hope you’ll enjoy this string of Mike memories, and I hope to see you, literally or virtually, at the following venues that will soon temporarily transform into Area 31:

• Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan) for Gelf Magazine’s Varsity Letters sports reading series, Monday, July 24, 7 PM. I’ll be joined by fellow baseball authors Ron Kaplan, Jay Jaffe and Mark Feinsand and, ideally, you. Details here.

Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine (110 N. Park Ave. in Rockville Centre, L.I.), Friday, July 28, 7 PM. Wonderful place, wonderful vibe, we’ll have a wonderful time. Details here.

• The Hotchkiss Library (10 Upper Main St. in Sharon, Conn.), Friday August 4, 6 PM for the library’s annual Sharon Summer Book Signing. This is a fundraiser for the library, so they do sell tickets. Thirty or so authors representing an array of genres will be on hand. As Bob Murphy would have suggested, if you’re in the area, come on by. Details here.

• The Baseball by the Book podcast, hosted by veteran baseball writer Justin McGuire. It’s a good, in-depth conversation about what made the title character of my tale the icon and star the cover says he is. Listen to it here or find it on iTunes.

Orange & Blue Thing, “a weekly show about Mets baseball and other stuff fans might care about,” Thursday, July 20, 6 PM. OBT is hosted by Darren Meenan of The 7 Line and fine SNY writer Brian Erni, and it’s an Amazin’ amount of fun. If you can’t tune in as it airs live on The 7 Line’s Facebook page, it is readily accessible in audio form via Soundcloud and iTunes.

A CODA TO A REUNION
With the conclusion of San Diego’s August 2006 visit to Shea and the triumphant return it marked for their No. 33, the Padres moved on to Houston, the Mets to Washington, business to usual. By the next Shea homestand, Mets fans were cheering a new acquisition, reliever Guillermo Mota. Mota was kind of a low-rent Roger Clemens in the narrative of recent years. As a Dodger, he had hit Piazza in consecutive Spring Trainings, the second time fully raising Mike’s ire to the point where he charged the mound and then the visitors’ clubhouse at Port St. Lucie in search of revenge. If Mota was anathema to Mike, then he was a four-letter word to Mets fans…until Mota was a Met and, well, if he could record a big out in the seventh and get the game to Aaron Heilman in the eighth and closer Billy Wagner in the ninth, maybe this Guillermo’s a good dude.

The Mets won their division in 2006, the Padres theirs. If each succeeded in their respective LDS dates, Mike would come back to Shea under much more fraught circumstances. He’d be the enemy standing in the way of the home team trying to win a World Series for the first time in twenty years. The Mets kept up their end, sweeping the Dodgers, but Piazza’s Padres fell to the Cardinals. Thus was averted a hypothetical battle for the soul of the Mets fan on the level of what might’ve been when Tom Seaver was on the Red Sox’ disabled list in 1986. As it was, the Cardinals did the Mets in, too, beating them in seven games for the pennant, and going on to win the World Series over the Detroit Tigers in five. Among the Redbirds earning a ring was Preston Wilson, the main chip the Mets traded for Piazza eight years earlier. Proud stepdad Mookie cheered him on while wearing a wool cap bearing an STL insignia. The only game St. Louis lost was started by the same man who started the All-Star Game for the American League in July: Kenny Rogers.

Kenny walked three over eight innings, none with the bases loaded.

MAKING THE APPARENT OFFICIAL
Piazza hadn’t announced he was retiring after the 2007 season ended. He didn’t know he was retiring. Pulling off a Ted Williams or Todd Zeile moment — one last swing for a home run, then hanging ’em up — is too poetic to be common. It’s hard enough for a player to simply go out on his own terms. John Franco and his 424 saves, the most by a lefty in MLB history, were released by Houston in early July of 2005. Al Leiter had caught one last bolt of lightning in a bottle that season when he was shipped from the Marlins to his original team, the Yankees, and helped them to the playoffs (where they lost in the first round). He went to camp in Tampa in the spring of ’06 but never made it to Opening Day. By his own volition, he faced one batter in a game that didn’t count, got him out and, as orchestrated in accordance with Joe Torre, left the mound. It wasn’t the same as getting that last out that never came against Luis Sojo, but after 162 wins spread out across nineteen major league seasons, it was closure enough. Edgardo Alfonzo, on the other hand, was still seeking ballplaying opportunities as 2008 edged into view. Burdened by a bad back, Fonzie was never the force with the Giants he’d been with the Mets, yet he kept playing, bouncing from San Francisco to Anaheim to Toronto to a stint at Triple-A Norfolk (without a callup to the Mets) to, in 2007, Central Islip, N.Y., home of the Atlantic League’s Long Island Ducks, a club partly owned by Bud Harrelson. The glue of those 1999 and 2000 Mets was geographically not far from Shea Stadium, yet a world away.

Mike Piazza and his 427 home runs, 396 of which were hit when he was in the game as a catcher, were neither here nor there when ’08 rolled around. He got nibbles, but no firm offers, and eventually decided he wasn’t any longer in the mood to catch or throw or hit. There was no ceremony at home plate, no microphone, no visible act of separation between his ballplaying self and the rest of life that awaited him at the age of thirty-nine.

But there was, at his agent’s suggestion, a press release. Issued on May 20, 2008, it made official what his absence in box scores had already made apparent: Piazza wasn’t playing anymore. The statement was expansive and gracious, thanking an array of owners, executives, managers and teammates he’d known along the way. His Metsian gratitude was expressed to Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday; Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine; Art Howe and Willie Randolph; Franco and Leiter; longtime clubhouse manager Charlie Samuels (whom Mike’s dad once presented with a Lexus as a reward for shedding a hundred pounds); and, most touchingly and tellingly, the fans.

Mike had kind words for the folks in Miami, San Diego and Oakland. He lumped Los Angeles in with those short-term ports. But he saved the most for last: “I have to say that my time wouldn’t have been the same without the greatest fans in the world. One of the hardest moments of my career was walking off the field at Shea Stadium and saying goodbye. My relationship with you made my time in New York the happiest of my career and for that, I will always be grateful.”

THE LAST DAYS OF SHEA STADIUM
The first year Mike Piazza didn’t play baseball was the last year Shea Stadium hosted it. After forty-five seasons, the Mets were moving. Their new place would be steps away from the old one, going up in the parking lot since 2006. It would be called Citi Field to honor the sacred heritage of selling naming rights to the highest bidder, and it promised all the nooks, crannies and amenities a modern ballpark was expected to feature. Symmetrical Shea had none of those. It was 338 feet down the lines, 410 to center and lousy with leaks. Juxtaposed with the closing of renovated Yankee Stadium (hailed as a vintage 1923 facility, overlooking that it was essentially remade in 1976), the reaction from the outside was a shrug. Goodbye multipurpose stadium from the ’60s, don’t let progress hit you on your way out to the valley of ashes.

Ah, but inside Shea, from those who filled tens of thousands of seats thousands of times, the mood was different. Shea was home. Shea was 1969 and 1973 and 1986 and, not incidentally, 1999 and 2000. Shea was a bunch of other years, too, seasons when generations of kids fell in love with the team that played there and the sport at which they occasionally excelled and all the clatter they themselves could contribute to. Mets management seemed to recognize that for all the aggressive salesmanship they were devoting to peddling “world-class” Citi Field, there was a genuine attachment among their public to Shea Stadium. Also, there was probably a pretty penny to be made by exploiting it.

Thus, 2008 became the year of Shea Goodbye. What wasn’t nailed down was sold. What was nailed down had its nails pried loose and sold. It was how ballparks left this mortal coil in the Twenty-First Century, so it wasn’t as if the Mets invented morbid commerce. Just about everything that wasn’t nailed down was going to be demolished anyway (except for the delightfully dilapidated Home Run Apple, which ownership was ready to toss in the dumpster before a public outcry saved it as a curio for the new park).

But between authenticating and auctioning, the Mets did include some honest-to-goodness commemoration of their past. Numbers were peeled off the outfield wall to signify how many home games were left, the privilege of revealing those digits usually given to old Mets or dignitaries with a bona fide Shea background — Ralph Kiner, groundskeeper Pete Flynn, organist Jane Jarvis — though sometimes it was delegated to a representative of the automotive manufacturer that sponsored the exercise. A ballot went online with seventy-five great moments that had transpired at Shea since 1964. Fans were asked to vote, and the Top Ten would be presented during the final homestand.

The winner, in an absolute non-surprise, was the Mookie/Buckner play from 1986. Two slots behind it, as if to prove older fans weren’t all that hip to computers, was the winning of the 1969 World Series by the honest-to-goodness Miracle Mets. What could be bigger than the franchise’s first and most storied championship if not quite as big as the ball that squirted as if on demand between a visiting first baseman’s legs?

Mike Piazza’s home run on September 21, 2001. It was voted the second-greatest moment in Shea Stadium history. That long fly ball didn’t win a championship or make one possible. It also didn’t rebuild any skyscrapers or save any lives. But the hope it represented amid the darkest of New York nights won an permanent home in the hearts of millions.

Perhaps that, to invoke a particularly hopeful lyric from Fiddler on the Roof, was a miracle, too.

On the final day of Shea Stadium, soggy Sunday, September 28, 2008, the Mets had a chance to add an addendum to the ballpark’s greatest moments. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the NL Wild Card. If they won, they would, at the very least, earn a berth in a one-game playoff as their 1999 ancestors did. If the Mets won and the Brewers lost, they’d go directly to the postseason. Instead, Milwaukee won, the Mets fell to Florida and, as was the case on the final day of 2007, the Mets were eliminated.

It would have been a horrible way to end the ballpark’s life. Somehow, the Mets wiped away the anger and angst of the blown playoff spot by rolling out the classiest of farewells, Sheaing Goodbye like they meant it after the dismal loss. Player after player from the veritable cornfield of Mets baseball emerged from beyond the fence, wearing the jersey that represented his period. A few from 1964, the year the joint opened. A slew from 1969, when the grounds grew sacrosanct. A plethora from the ’70s and ’80s. Not as many from the ’90s or ’00s, the latter of which were still going on. Some of these guys you remembered coming back for Old Timers Day, which was a Shea tradition until it wasn’t. Some of these guys hadn’t been back in a Mets jersey since they stopped playing. Robin Ventura was making his first appearance since walloping that grand slam for the Dodgers in 2004. Fonzie shed his Duckness and was a Met again for the first time since 2002. Doc Gooden, for whom post-baseball life had not been a straight line since he threw his last pitch in 2000, came out fourth-from-last to a cathartic group hug of 50,000 or so. He was succeeded into the spotlight by Willie Mays, whose two years as a Met player and six as a Met coach (never mind his Polo Grounds roots as a New York Giant) had been plunged down the memory hole. They were retrieved for this occasion and Willie was once more greeted as a Met.

How do you follow Willie Mays? Who could possibly have the presence to hold his own in the footsteps of the Say Hey Kid?

Mike Piazza came out after Mays. It was not a letdown. Mike was making his first Met appearance in retirement on the last day a Met could do that at Shea Stadium. His timing was spot on. The crowd roared as if he was digging in against Clontz or Clemens. Piazza represented certified history of the highest order, yet he was recent enough to know intimately. Nobody upstages Willie Mays on a ballfield, but Mike Piazza surely held his own.

The only Met who could follow Mike Piazza was Tom Seaver. The hope — and it was really more an assumption — was that Piazza would follow Seaver, his NY plaque joining Tom’s upstate, his 31 permanently marked on the wall next door beside 41. Those rituals would come later. They weren’t guaranteed, but they had to happen. In the meantime, there was Seaver taking the last walk in from the outfield. Of course it was Seaver. Being “‘The Man’ in New York,” as Wright called Piazza, is one thing. Being The Franchise at Shea was its own thing.

Once you’ve introduced forty-three Mets, what do you do with them? The Mets asked each of them, now ringing the infield, to touch home plate. The last two to do so were Piazza, then Seaver. Master of Ceremonies Howie Rose informed the fans these two would form a battery for the final pitch Shea would ever see. Tom, “the Hall of Fame pitcher,” took to the mound, Mike, “a soon-to-be Hall of Fame catcher” crouched behind the plate. Seaver found one more competitive pitch in his right arm after all. Piazza dug it out of the dirt. They then took the long walk together, all 410 feet of it, out to center field, then just beyond it, closing the gates behind them.

In the end, Shea Stadium belonged to Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza and everybody who watched them.

THE FIRST YEARS OF CITI FIELD
The tableau was recreated on a smaller scale when it came time to say hello to Citi Field, a smaller ballpark, on April 13, 2009. Just Seaver and Piazza, this time without the heaviness that hung over Shea. Shea was no longer visible. Now it was the parking lot to the new place. The Mets intended to christen this home the way they went out of their old one, Seaver to Piazza one more time, a first pitch rather than a final fling.

It was a proper acknowledgement of Met history, and pretty much the only one at Citi Field for the first several months of its existence. Neither Seaver nor Piazza had achieved Met greatness at Citi, and Mets management seemed devoted to the notion of a clean slate. From the outside, the building resembled (almost eerily) Ebbets Field. Inside, as soon as you stepped in the front entrance, you were in the Jackie Robinson Rotunda. Take the escalator up and the first exclusive space whose sign greeted you was the Ebbets Club.

Mets fans who didn’t want Mike Piazza to go into the Hall of Fame as a Dodger had to wonder why their ballpark was intent on obscuring the Mets. The answer to the question of why there was so much homage to Brooklyn in Queens but relatively little sign of the team that was slated to play eighty-one games a year there could be found in the background of the chairman and chief executive officer. Fred Wilpon grew up in Brooklyn loving the Dodgers. His dream was to recreate what was lost…which was great, to a certain extent. You can’t love Mets history without at least appreciating from whence the Mets sprung.

Wilpon and Citi Field certainly had the Dodger part covered. But there was nothing explicit to signify the Giants also played in New York (at the Polo Grounds, where the Mets were born) and left for California alongside the Dodgers in 1957, thereby necessitating the Mets. And there was almost nothing about the Mets, who’d been around since 1962. The old Apple was shoved down into the Bullpen Plaza, a veritable basement most fans never passed through. VIP entrances dedicated to Stengel, Hodges and Seaver were off limits to fans holding less than very important tickets. The Mets Hall of Fame — which hadn’t inducted a new member since Tommie Agee in 2002 — had been hidden from public view at Shea, but at least there was some evidence of it if you happened to wander into the lobby of the Diamond Club. At Citi Field, there was not yet a Hall of Fame, and the clubs that weren’t named for Ebbets were named for sponsors.

To be fair (which few were in the mood to be, given how dreadful the Mets turned out to be in 2009), it was only the beginning, and the Mets did hear their faithful’s cry for some evidence that the Mets were of some interest to the people who ran the Mets. In August, a few murals went up. Out in the left field concourse, two ran the height of a wall. One was Casey Stengel holding court, circa 1962. The other was Mike Piazza celebrating having just taken Trevor Hoffman deep in 1999.

Not bad for a start. Eventually, the Mets filled in more and more of their cramped quarters with Metsiana. In 2010, a sparkling if compact museum was carved out of retail space off the Rotunda and included fresh new plaques for each member of the New York Mets Hall of Fame. It was announced four overdue honorees would be inducted into its confines in August: Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Davey Johnson and Frank Cashen. A Mets Alumni Association was formed, with Seaver as its figurehead. The Shea Apple was given a place of prominence in the main plaza, right down the stairs from the 7 train. The nameless walkway beyond right-center field was dubbed the Shea Bridge, as the Mets dared to speak the name of Citi Field’s predecessor a year after practically pretending it never existed. One Saturday night when the Mets were on the road, the Billy Joel concert film The Last Play at Shea was run on CitiVision, and Shea Stadium got bigger cheers than any player had received all season. The Ebbets Club became the Champions Club, themed to 1969 and 1986 instead of 1955. Banners representing a panoply of Mets were hung from lamp posts, spanning Marvelous Marv Throneberry to Jason Bay, the big free agent prize of the most recent offseason.

The Mets were still overmatched on the field, but they were beginning to look pretty conscientious off it.

With considerably less fanfare than they devoted to the fortieth anniversary of the 1969 Mets in 2009 — which was highlighted by Nolan Ryan’s first Queens homecoming, thirty-eight years after he was traded for Jim Fregosi — a small gathering of the 2000 National League champions was organized. Prior to the opening of the Citi Field round of the Subway Series, the Mets brought back a half-dozen alumni from their most recent World Series club: Franco and Fonzie, who lived locally and tended to come around a lot, and four guys who’d been off the radar since their services had been deemed expendable: Rick Reed, Turk Wendell, Benny Agbayani and, in a bit of a shocker, Mike Hampton, pariah to fans since he split for Colorado, but undeniably the only NLCS MVP in team history. Ten years was long enough to let bygones take their natural evolutionary course.

MISSING NUMBERS
It was hard to top a number retirement like Seaver’s in 1988, both in terms of who wore the number and how he expressed his gratitude, so maybe that’s why the Mets never made a move to retire another player’s number over the next twenty-eight years. They had worthy candidates. Gary Carter’s 8. Keith Hernandez’s 17. Doc Gooden’s 16. Darryl Strawberry’s 18. Add up the numbers attached to each of those Metropolitan icons and they equaled a championship in 1986, yet none of the tentpole players from the most overpowering team in Mets history was ushered to join Tom on the wall. A reason could be deduced for the exclusion of each of them, or maybe they just all cancelled one another out. Still, you’d figure 108 wins and a rousing World Series victory would yield at least one set of digits for the ages. Their manager, Davey Johnson, No. 5 a generation before a Davey named Wright made 5 his, was also bypassed. Johnson leapfrogged Hodges as all-time manager when the 40th Anniversary team became the 50th Anniversary team, but 5 never received the treatment 14 and 37 had.

“I don’t live in the past,” Johnson shrugged when asked about it in 2016, though what he and his team accomplished in 1986 continued to live on as the most recent world championship in its franchise’s possession.

Willie Mays, the most astounding of New York Giants, brought 24 back to town with him from San Francisco for two years as a player and six more as a coach. Perhaps the greatest ballplayer ever gave maybe the most moving farewell address of any baseball man this side of Lou Gehrig, saying “goodbye to America” as a Met in 1973. Willie went into the Hall of Fame while employed by the Mets, and by the time he drifted west to rejoin the Giants, his number was almost permanently removed from circulation. It was given to a minor league callup named Kelvin Torve by accident in 1990 and then immediately revoked once it was realized what had been done. It was loaned out to Rickey Henderson during his stay because Rickey Henderson, 24 in prior uniforms, was an eyelash removed from immortal status already, and besides, Rickey asked Willie if it was OK. When Henderson left Flushing, 24 got put away, but not put on display. It could stand as the missing link to the Mets’ heritage, the way Robinson’s 42 serves that additional purpose for the family’s Dodger lineage, but nobody has acted to make that connection official.

GETTING A GRIP ON HISTORY
Before Piazza’s number would find sanctuary in retirement, the jersey he wore on his most memorable night found itself in the midst of controversy. In March of 2016, No. 31 from September 21, 2001, was found to have landed up for auction, an item like many others that can be bought as “game-used” merchandise…but an item like no other considering the game it was worn in and the home run that was hit while it was being worn. The Mets didn’t send it to the auction house, but, reportedly, had sold it to the collector who did. This was as close to a sacred garment as a baseball jersey could be, connected to the moment that began, in popular thinking, to heal New York at its lowest moment. The Mets let it get away, laundering it via their official memorabilia arm as they routinely peddle a slew of uniforms and tchotchkes. The buyer let them display it for a while in their museum, but eventually took it back and (as was his right) put it up for sale. Piazza expressed dismay and the Mets expressed regret. In April, a Wall Street group agreed to pay $365,000 for the jersey with the intent of rotating it for display among the Mets museum, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and the 9/11 Memorial Museum downtown.

That PR misstep aside, good vibes surrounded the defending National League champs as 2016 got underway. The Mets looked ahead at the possibility of repeating their pennant win and maybe going a littler further in the midst of looking back with uncommon gusto. In May, the organization conducted its first nostalgia night of the season, welcoming back the 1986 Mets on the thirtieth anniversary of their having conquered the world. No numbers had been retired on their behalf, but that almost made sense in as much as the affection of the fans for that year of a lifetime was still very much active. Even the showing of the “Let’s Go Mets” video that attested to those Mets having had the teamwork to make the dream work was greeted with mad love by a sellout crowd. The ’86 Mets were introduced in ’16 in a sort of chronological order, as emcee Rose weaved a narrative that took the club from April to October, culminating in Jesse Orosco coming out to recreate the final pitch of the World Series, throwing it to D.J. Carter, son of Gary. At that moment, the spirit of No. 8 couldn’t have been more alive and well.

There was an appetite for this sort of remembrance among Mets fans, even if the Mets brain trust inevitably seemed slow in accepting a taste for tradition exists among followers of a team whose tradition isn’t the most glorious within the five boroughs. The Mets produced a spiffy 50th Anniversary logo in 2012 and made a few celebratory gestures, but didn’t bother to gather as many living 1962 Mets as they could. They skipped all but the most cursory observance of the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Mets, giving out only a deck of playing cards as homage to the year You Gotta Believe entered the Mets lexicon. Such reluctance to embrace their own history tends to leave them open to appearing clueless when stories like Piazza’s 9/21 jersey being sold break. In June, the Daily News made great hay of suddenly noticing there was no statue of Seaver outside Citi Field and even eliciting a quote from Tom’s wife Nancy that she was “embarrassed’ for them.

Tom was more of a diplomat for the team he still technically served as an ambassador. “I’m not dead yet,” he told the newspaper, lobbying, as long as he was on the subject, for a Hodges statue. With Tom out in California continuing to deal with the ongoing effects of Lyme disease, he wasn’t visiting Queens all that often. Travel was said to be tough on him, so as much as he cherished Hall of Fame weekend, he wouldn’t be at Cooperstown in July when Mike was inducted. Nor, it turned out, would he see 31 join 41 in Flushing.

Piazza had sporting concerns separate from how the Mets were playing and who else they might be honoring. Mike bought himself a soccer team in Italy, A.C. Reggiana 1919. They were what was known as a third-tier club, but many said the same about the Mets prior to Piazza’s involvement with them, and that worked out well. Yet as Mike took to being on the other side of player-owner negotiations, he was, with a ceremonial summer at hand, about to get a reminder of what it was like to have been the guy wearing the uniform.

With due respect to his passion for Italian soccer, the sensation was guaranteed to give him the kick of a lifetime.

PERENNIAL PUNCH LINE
Not on the roster at the time of the retirement of Piazza’s 31, but on the payroll, as the joke annually goes, was Mike’s 1999 teammate, Bobby Bonilla, retired from playing since 2001. The deferred payments of a million bucks-plus Steve Phillips arranged so he could jettison Bobby Bo in advance of 2000 had been made every July since 2011 and were slated to be doled out annually until 2035. The non-news dependably spawned a stream of giggles at the Mets’ expense (especially when they aren’t contending) as well as some diligent contrarian explanations that no, really, it was a good deal for all concerned if you examine it closely. Maybe, but the idea that Bobby Bonilla, 53, was still drawing seven figures couldn’t help but come off as kind of a hoot…though admittedly the laughs came easier in 2016 with the 2015 NL pennant flying proudly above the right field porch

A WORD ON WAR
The only note of dissonance for retiring 31, really, came from a visit to the Mets’ franchise page on the indispensable Baseball Reference.

The “All-Time Top 20 by WAR” greets you there. That’s Wins Above Replacement, a statistical shorthand intended to encapsulate everything about a player’s performance, offensively and defensively. When Baseball Reference calculated every WAR for every Met in his time as a Met (through the 2016 season), nobody emerged as more of a WARrior than Seaver. No. 41 had a 79.1 in his dozen Met seasons, a spectacular pace. Wright, after parts of thirteen seasons, was second, with 49.9. David was followed by Gooden, Jerry Koosman, Strawberry, Carlos Beltran, Alfonzo…

Where was Piazza? No. 31 was No. 13 on this list, his WAR listed as midway between 24 and 25, a little behind Hernandez, a little ahead of Howard Johnson. Longer longevity in a Mets uniform helped many of the Mets ranked higher than Mike. More time meant more WAR. Piazza also took a hit from his declining years coming in New York and was debited for his defense, an element of his game he threw himself into so he could make it to the major leagues and hit a ton. WAR is a handy tool, a nutshell communiqué of how good a player is or was. The 24.5 Piazza put up as a Met over eight seasons tells you he was pretty darn good.

But the 31 the Mets opted to put up told you so much more. It reminded you that for eight seasons — even the later, less imposing ones — you always looked forward to Mike coming to bat, and if you weren’t blown away by the results every time, you were rarely far from satisfaction. That 31 was going to look perfectly appropriate next to 41 told you all you needed to know.

2004: A First Base Odyssey

Until it falls apart (and I know from experience it will, for this is the second one I’ve had), I carry with me to ballgames a promotional day sports bag that has the motto CATCH THE ENERGY printed above the script Mets logo. How vintage does that make it? Vintage enough so that it also features an ad on a side panel urging people to use the phone book.

Both are tipoffs that this is a pretty old bag. It’s from 2004, when handfuls of fingers still roamed the Yellow Pages and the Mets were going to run their way to respectability, a heckuva goal after the 66-95 debacle of 2003. That was what the “Energy” was about: youth, athleticism, a shift away from expensive sluggers, one of whom was going to be infrequently asked to “Catch”. Mike Piazza was entering the second-to-last season of his seven-year contract. He’d start it as a catcher. He’d wind up ninety feet away on a fairly regular basis before it was over.

I didn’t get to spend as much time on this phase of No. 31’s story in my book Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star as I would’ve liked, in deference to space considerations. So I’ll visit it here, as you can below.

You can also come see me in a couple of places in the weeks ahead:

• Monday night, July 24, I’ll be one of the speakers at Varsity Letters’ next baseball program. The venue is Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. The bill is Ron Kaplan, author of Hank Greenberg in 1938; Jay Jaffe, The Cooperstown Casebook; Mark Feinsand, The New York Yankees Fans’ Bucket List; and me. Doors open at 7 PM, the ball talk begins at 7:30, the admission is free, the other salient details are here.

• Friday night, July 28, I’ll be all about Mike and the Mets at Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine, 110 N. Park Ave. in Rockville Centre on Long Island. It’s a beautiful setting for a discussion of a beautiful player. Learn more about it here.

• Right now (or as soon as you read this exclusive deleted scene), you can have a listen to Justin McGuire and me going deep like Piazza on Piazza on Justin’s wonderful Baseball by the Book podcast. You can check it out here or find it on iTunes.

***

A little in advance of Opening Day 2004, the Mets hustled Timo Perez off to the White Sox and shipped Roger Cedeño to the Cardinals. There went two more Mets who remembered what it was like to win something as Mets. But back came an erstwhile National League champion, Todd Zeile, signing as a free agent for one more go-around with the franchise that he helped to the World Series. Zeile had played for eleven different clubs, but the Mets had been his only ticket to ride.

The Mets weren’t pointing toward another Fall Classic in the spring of ’04. After the 66–95 debacle of 2003, a handful of upgrades were attempted. Mike Cameron, the center fielder who replaced Ken Griffey in Seattle, was brought on board, as was Kaz Matsui, reportedly a terrific shortstop in Japan. Jose Reyes, despite a splashy debut, was shifted to second. His progress there would be delayed after a hamstring strain put him on the shelf for a few months. There had been talk the Mets would lure superstar right fielder Vladimir Guerrero from Montreal, but it was just talk. Vlad went to Anaheim, so the Mets scrounged together two ex-Yankee retreads, Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia, and declared them a platoon. To Wilpon’s thinking, there’d be enough talent to make the Mets, at the very least, respectable enough to play “meaningful games in September.” It was a term that eluded precise definition and baffled his players.

“What does that mean?” Cameron asked.
“I don’t understand,” Reyes admitted.
“Well,” Cliff Floyd rationalized, “I guess you’ve got start somewhere.”

Mike was more accustomed to trotting around first than standing in proximity to it for nine innings.

The perhaps meaningful Mets began their season at Turner Field with Mike Piazza on the cover of the schedule and behind the plate, though in the second game of the year, he moved to first in the latter stages of a blowout loss. His first start at first base occurred far off the mainland. The MLB-owned Expos, who couldn’t draw flies at Olympic Stadium and no longer bothered pretending to try, were playing a portion of their home slate in San Juan. As their days in Montreal inevitably dwindled to a precious few (the franchise had briefly been earmarked for contraction heading into 2002), some 10,000 fans in Puerto Rico on April 11 became the first to watch Piazza trot to a position other than catcher to begin a game in the major leagues. He lasted until the eighth, when he was removed in a double-switch. Mike’s first home start at first — and first full game there — came on April 14 at Shea in a loss to the Braves.

As first base morphed from big deal to nothing unusual, some catching business remained. Mike had drawn closer and closer to the backstop home run record, having passed Yogi Berra (306) and Johnny Bench (327) in 2002. Only Carlton Fisk (351) had gone deep more often as a catcher than Piazza, who entered 2004 with 347 and knocked three beyond the reach of any fielder in the first week of the season before shedding the tools of alleged ignorance. Mike sat on 350 until late April when, in a game he was catching in old haunt at Dodger Stadium, he blasted one out off his former batterymate Hideo Nomo.

On May 5, eight days after tying Fisk, the Mets were home to play the Giants. Mike, the starting catcher, batted in the bottom of the first against the same Jerome Williams he strafed upon his return from injury the previous August. On a three-one pitch, Mike golfed at a low, outside delivery and sent it traveling to right-center, “off the big board at Shea,” as MSG announcer Ted Robinson put it, to become “the greatest home run-hitting catcher in the history of the game.” One could debate what it means to hit a home run “as a catcher” versus anything else, but part-time first baseman Piazza acknowledged after the 8–2 Mets victory that these 352 of his 363 home runs overall were “a little more significant because of the physical demands of the position.” The next night, he took on those demands for another eleven innings, then stepped to the plate against Dustan Mohr and hit a two-out home run to end another Mets win.

What really stood out to him, Mike said upon establishment of his record, was being mentioned in the elite company of the catchers he passed. To show their appreciation for his having surpassed all of them as sluggers, the Mets invited Piazza’s now-eternal peers to Shea for a night of recognition. Before the game of June 18, Mike was surrounded by the best of the best: Fisk and Bench, two-thirds of Tom Seaver’s “basic catchers” triad, per the Franchise’s Hall of Fame speech; Berra; Gary Carter, who was finally inducted in Cooperstown the summer before, albeit as an Expo; and, thanks to this being an Interleague contest against the Tigers, Detroit coach Lance Parrish and their current catcher, Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez — the second receiver, after Fisk, to be known popularly as Pudge — was essentially Piazza’s American League counterpart, though more readily recognized for defense than Mike ever was. But he, like the rest of the honorees, could hit his share out.

Parrish had just missed 300 home runs as a catcher; he retired with 299, one more than Carter. Rodriguez was at 234, coming up fast on the late Roy Campanella, who finished with 239. “This is a special occasion for all us catchers,” Fisk said. “We, as catchers, can fully appreciate going behind the plate every day and putting the numbers Mike has on the board.” For his trouble, the son of a car dealer was presented with home plate from May 5, framed, and an ostentatiously yellow Chevy Super Sport Roadster…plus his second start behind the plate since May 22.

Piazza’s first home run as a reasonably adequate first baseman — nobody was under any illusion Mike was stationed there for anything but his bat — was rather delicious, considering the context. With one on and two out in the bottom of the ninth at Minute Maid Park on May 16, Piazza stroked the home run that allowed the Mets to tie the Astros and send the game to extra innings. The sweet spot of all that wasn’t that Piazza hit it off ex-Met Octavio Dotel. It was who he robbed of the win by turning it into a no-decision. Roger Clemens, who had left the Yankees to presumably finish his career for his hometown team in Houston, had started for the Astros that Sunday and was in line to raise his National League record to 8–0. Piazza prevented that. Phillips, his successor as catcher, hit the game-winning home run in the thirteenth to make it that much better.

Though Mike was pulling back from regular catching duties, the All-Star ballot still listed him at his traditional position and the electorate voted for him out of some combination of admiration and habit. The game was in Houston and his starting pitcher was none other than Clemens. Talk about an awkward pairing. The catcher said all the right things about this strangest of bedfellowing. “We’re both professional,” Mike insisted. “We both have a job to do.” Yet the pitcher had as dim an All-Star experience as could have been conceived. Clemens gave up six runs in one inning of work and the National League lost, 9–4, ceding home field advantage for the World Series, a gimmick Bud Selig dreamt up the year before to infuse the Midsummer Classic with additional meaning. In 2002, the last time Piazza had played in one of these things, the managers ran out of pitchers and the game was declared a tie.

The quest for September Met meaningfulness appeared on track for a while. The Mets played well in May and June and crept to within a game of first place in early July. Though Clemens was gone to Texas, their three-game sweep of the Shea half of the Subway Series over the Independence Day weekend was veritable manna to Mets fans. It was the first time the Mets had taken a three-game set from the Yankees since the two had begun playing semi-regularly in 1997. And after a slew of first-round picks fizzled or flamed out, the team that couldn’t draft straight at last produced a hint of good things to come with a supplemental pick from 2001. David Wright, 21, plucked with the choice the Mets received as compensation for Mike Hampton signing with Colorado, was called up to the big club in late July and installed at third base. Matsui wasn’t having a very good go of it at short, but Reyes had returned from injury and was starting regularly at second.

The Mets began to fade a bit in the East, so before the chance to compete in September completely disappeared, Jim Duquette pulled the trigger on a couple of deadline deals, bringing in two established pitchers to shore up the rotation: the Pirates’ Kris Benson, who started what was known to Mets fans as “the Melvin Mora Game” at the end of 1999 (Mora was now entrenched as an All-Star third baseman for Baltimore; Mike Bordick was retired), and the Devil Rays’ Victor Zambrano. Benson cost the Mets Ty Wigginton, who had been nudged aside from third base by Wright’s promotion, along with minor league outfielder Jose Bautista, who had just been obtained from Kansas City amid the torrent of trades blanketing MLB at the end of July. Zambrano was acquired for Scott Kazmir, the Mets’ top draft pick from 2002. He was considered a comer, but so was every pitcher the Mets had drafted for more than a decade, and none had exactly come on and stuck around since Bobby Jones.

Wright, en route to fourteen home runs in the first sixty-nine games of his career, proved he fit right away, but the new arms couldn’t hold the Mets aloft in either the division (which of course went to Atlanta) or Wild Card race (pulled out by Clemens’s Astros). Zambrano’s elbow acted up in the middle of August and he was done for the year. Bob Murphy died at the beginning of the month, necessitating a second memorial patch on the Mets uniforms. One had already been sewn on in remembrance of Tug McGraw, who passed away in January. The Mets hung around .500 until thoroughly disintegrating, losing sixteen of seventeen en route to a 71–91 record and fourth-place finish, twenty-five games behind, as ever, the Braves. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel” was Floyd’s honest appraisal, and nobody demanded an apology. All meaning attached to September and everything directly after would have to be spiritual.

***

The last game, at Shea on Sunday, October 3, encompassed enough cosmic significance for any Mets fan seeking safe passage into winter. The Mets were playing the Montreal Expos for the last time. MLB had just announced the team that brought baseball to Canada in 1969 would move in 2005 to Washington, DC. The Expos’ first opponent thirty-five seasons earlier? The Mets, at Shea. They’d since shared Rusty Staub, Gary Carter and, through Saturday night, 596 box scores. Montreal had won 298, New York 298. The championship of the St. Lawrence Seaway Series would go down to the wire.

Coming around and going around in Game 162 as well was Todd Zeile. Mostly a bench player in his second term as a Met, he was playing in his final game, having decided to retire at the end of the year. The end of the year was here. At the beginning of his career as a Cardinal, Zeile was a catcher. So he would be again this day, despite having not caught at all, save for a recent tune-up in Pittsburgh, since 1990, his second year in the bigs. As his pal Piazza could attest, there’s something about that mask, chest protector and pair of shin guards that stays with a fella.

Accommodating Todd’s going-away soirée was Art Howe, in his last game as Met manager. He was fired in mid-September once word leaked he’d be let go at season’s end with two years remaining on his contract, but in Metsian fashion, he was asked if he wanted to stay and finish out the schedule, and he consented. Fred Wilpon more or less retracted his endorsement from two years earlier: “I saw strength and courage and conviction when I met Art Howe and I said, ‘Let’s Go.’ I take full responsibility that the results weren’t there.” Nevertheless, Wilpon said the dismissal was Jim Duquette’s decision, and it would be up to the GM to choose Howe’s successor…or it might have been until Wilpon and his son, Jeff, reached out to grab Omar Minaya, Montreal’s general manager who didn’t figure to follow the Expos to Washington. Minaya had spent several years working for the Mets and was considered a top-notch talent evaluator. It wasn’t clear what Duquette’s role would be under the new regime or, for that matter, how much sway he held within the current setup. Trading Kazmir wasn’t necessarily his idea, and now that the young lefty was looking good for Tampa Bay, nothing about the deal that sent him away looked good in New York.

Buried deep down in Howe’s bullpen was John Franco, officially the captain of the Mets, but reliever non grata for the preceding month. The closer who had appeared in (694) and saved (276) more games than any Met pitcher was going to be a free agent. He’d given his hometown team fifteen seasons, including one devoted to rehabilitating his elbow. They’d dedicated Days to his three-hundredth and four-hundredth saves. Now, without explicitly labeling it as such, the Mets were making October 3, 2004, Franco’s last day.

It was impossible to not look backward. Zeile got a tribute video. Franco got a tribute video. The Expos got a tribute video. Howe got nothing of the sort, but he’d get paid for the next two years. It was also impossible to not peer ahead a bit. Wright was at third as he’d been every day since July 29. Reyes was back at short, with Matsui moving to second. David, Jose and Kaz shaped up as three-quarters of the around-the-horn alignment for 2005. Piazza’s sixty-sixth start at first, against forty-nine behind the plate, did not seem of a piece with any kind of youth movement a month after his thirty-sixth birthday.

Nevertheless, Mike batted cleanup and collected a hit and a walk, though did not add to his twenty home runs or fifty-four runs batted in. First base was designed to keep him in the lineup all year, but his bat responded only sporadically. On the final day, he and it receded into the background.

In a Ted Williamsesque twist John Updike would have adored, Zeile — Toddy Ballgame, if you will — hit the last pitch he ever saw for a three-run homer. Before Shea fans could bid this thirty-nine year-old kid adieu, he went back behind the plate and made his very final act on the field catching a pop-up to end the top of the eighth. The pitch was thrown by Franco, completing his one-third of an inning and 695th outing as a Met.

Wright homered and drove in three runs. Reyes stole three bases and scored twice. With Zeile having tipped his cap and Piazza having been replaced after five, the last half-inning of 2004 was caught by Joe Hietpas, a Double-A catcher the Mets had been carrying since September 14. Joe was insurance for a catching corps that had been dealing with a wave of aches and pains, yet never got into a game. With a season and a franchise about to wave its permanent goodbyes, Howe gave him a chance to nod hello.

When the Montreal Expos came into this world on April 8, 1969, Tom Seaver was pitching to Jerry Grote and striking out Maury Wills, the Rickey Henderson of his time, in this very ballpark. The Expos won the game, 11–10, the Mets won the World Series a little more than six months later. Nos Amours, as they were known to the fans who adored them in Quebec — dozens of whom who were now lovingly clumped behind the third base dugout — would say au revoir amidst a mélange of defensive substitutions. Hietpas was catching, Bartolome Fortunato pitching, and former Met farmhand Endy Chavez grounding to second baseman Jeff Keppinger, who tossed to Craig Brazell at first to record as final an out as could be. Bilingual baseball as practiced in the Great White North was retired, 4–3 on your scorecard. The finals: Mets 8 Expos 1; Mets 299 Expos 298.

Montreal was done. Howe was done. Zeile was officially retired. Franco signed with Houston, Al Leiter with Florida. By the next time the Mets played ball for real, Jason Phillips, Vance Wilson and Super Joe McEwing would all be with other organizations, and the Mets, as had become their custom, would be sorting through another bundle of new players.

Heading into the last year of his contract, all that remained of what would be remembered as the Mike Piazza Mets was Mike Piazza.

***

Trades happen to almost every player. Sometimes it’s because they’re worth trading for, sometimes because trading them is worthwhile. Alex Rodriguez, on whom the Texas Rangers lavished a ten-year, $252 million deal in 2001, was by early 2004 no longer judged the superstar who would lead them to the promised land. In February, they sent him to the Yankees, who instantly became prohibitive favorites to return to the World Series. Less than six months later, the Red Sox, who’d attempted to land A-Rod themselves, concluded they needed to shake up their roster and traded Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d long been considered on the same level as Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Boston without Nomah was as unthinkable as New England without chowdah, yet within three months, the region embraced the World Series trophy, its Sox having obliterated a three-oh ALCS deficit versus the Yankees on the way, no less.

It was hardly a new phenomenon to realize a player who you couldn’t possibly picture being traded was being traded. The Mets traded Tom Seaver, the Dodgers (and the Marlins) traded Mike Piazza. After 2004, the possibility existed that the Mets could trade Piazza. Mike was the core of those turn-of-the-century teams Mets fans fell in love with, but time marched on and those teams were gone. In the previous three seasons, the Mets had finished last, last and next-to-last. Piazza had done all he could, but as Ralph Kiner — who was traded twice — was fond of quoting Branch Rickey, a team that finishes last with you can finish last without you.

Minaya, charged with elevating the Mets from basement proximity, talked to other general managers about Piazza. It was standard due diligence committed in the name of an extraordinary player who had entered the diminishing-returns portion of his career. The Mets owed Piazza $13 million for 2005. In the age of A-Rod, that was no longer close to being the most anybody was being paid to play ball, but on the cusp of his fourteenth major league season, it was fair to say Mike Piazza was no longer a $13 million ballplayer. Long-term pacts are called “long” for a reason.

As shocking as the idea of the Mets sending Mike Piazza away was on the surface, his status as the main Met wasn’t what it once was. Some would never stop revering him, but others had shorter memories. Mike attended a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in November of 2003. His image appeared on the video screen. It was booed and, low blow of low blows, greeted with chants of “Roger Clemens! Roger Clemens!” Presumably there was a healthy Venn diagram of Yankees and Rangers fans, but still…the guy who hit the home run after 9/11 jeered on ostensibly neutral turf in New York? Talk about legends on thin ice.

A year later, Mike was willing to think about a change of scenery and the Mets looked into it, but in an offseason of change, they kept their longest-running player in tow. Whether he was any longer their highest-profile star was open to interpretation.

With the Wilpons’ blessing, Minaya went big. One winter after Jim Duquette paid homage to defense and athleticism — the marketing slogan for 2004 was “Catch the Energy” — Minaya attacked the free agent market with gusto for both talent and glitter. You couldn’t bring in somebody with a bigger name than Pedro Martinez, and Minaya succeeded in that unlikely quest. Martinez had helped pitch the Red Sox to their long-sought world championship, and Minaya was willing to give him the fourth year his old team wasn’t. Pedro might not be the same pitcher by 2008, but the goal was getting back into the game in 2005, and the Mets were convinced he could pitch them to prominence. His checkered history with Piazza as a teammate in L.A. and foe who plunked him at Fenway certainly didn’t impede their enthusiasm to land him.

No player was more of a get in the free agent market than Carlos Beltran, whose timing couldn’t have been better. A terrific all-around young player who’d continued progressing into his prime, it was clear Beltran was going to be too pricey for his first team, the Royals, so Kansas City dealt him to Houston. Not only did he aid the Astros in their capture of the 2004 Wild Card, he went completely nuts in the NLDS versus the Braves and NLCS against the Cardinals. Houston didn’t win the pennant, but Beltran won October: eight home runs, fourteen runs batted in, a .435 batting average. It was going to take a long and lucrative contract to lure him.

The Mets offered one — seven years, $119 million, a no-trade clause — and Beltran took it. For the first time since Bobby Bonilla in 1992, the Mets had sought and reeled in the biggest free agent fish in the pond. Beltran, though, was younger, faster, more dynamic and less inclined to rub people the wrong way than Bonilla was when he joined the Mets. At the urging of his agent, Scott Boras, Beltran explained at his introductory press conference that the Mets who had been so flat these past few years were no longer those Mets. They were “the new Mets.” The identity gained traction. Combined with David Wright and Jose Reyes, Beltran and Martinez inspired the most hope in Mets fans since the Mets were all about Mike Piazza.

Which they weren’t anymore, a symptom of the passing seasons.

In our final installment of Piazza outtakes, coming Friday, follow the path of a retired ballplayer into certified legend.

When Recent Proves Relative

Hey now and forever, Michael Conforto, you’re an All-Star, no matter how your league got its game on, no matter that there was a decent case to be made for at least two other players from your team getting your spot. But never mind that Jacob deGrom was the most stellar Met of the first half or that Jay Bruce played more regularly and compiled more steadily. When Conforto was at his best, which was for a legitimately measurable stretch (.341/.437/.712 in his first 41 games), he was very good, and we all believe he will be very good for years to come when not injured, slumping or benched.

And he will be a Met All-Star in our memories no matter where his journey might take him, for when you’re a Met All-Star, you’re a Met All-Star all the way, from the first word of your selection to your last dying day and then some. There have been 56 All-Star teams named since the Mets were founded and 56 different Mets who have been named to them. Whether perennial, cameo, starter, reserve, injury replacement, replaced because of injury or blasé veteran who just couldn’t be bothered to travel to your umpteenth Midsummer Classic, you retain the designation for the rest of time. You are a Met All-Star. You’ll always be a little extra special in the minds of we who get starry-eyed about this stuff every July.

Met All-Star Michael Conforto got into the 2017 All-Star Game in the sixth inning, made a slightly difficult catch in the top of the seventh and singled in the bottom of the seventh before being erased on a 4-6-3 double play. With a chance to win the damn thing in the bottom of the ninth — tie score, second and third, two out, two-and-two count — Michael went down swinging against Craig Kimbrel. An All-Star fanned an All-Star, no shame therein. I look forward to the youngster getting another at-bat in a Mets uniform in another such contest coming soon to a season near us.

In the anticlimactic tenth inning of the game Tuesday, Robinson Cano of the Mariners homered off Wade Davis of the Cubs to elevate the American League to yet another victory in the series that I’m beginning to believe has been on the air for too long. I really liked the All-Star Game more when the heroes inevitably defeated the anti-heroes. I grew up used to a better plotline. The National League used to win these things reliably. You could set your calendar by it. It was as it should be, “should be” based on it being the way it was when I was 7, 12, 17 and 22, among other impressionable junctures of my baseball-loving life.

Those are long times ago now. You’d be amazed how long it’s been since the National League were habitual All-Star Game winners. I keep track of these things and I’m amazed. It’s been so long that I am no longer used to the idea of the NL winning, which really bums me out, despite the exhibition nature of this spectacle, despite the uncounting of the result where World Series hosting is concerned, despite the fact that we won’t be thinking at all about any of this by Friday. For now, it’s the All-Star break. For now, I think about it.

As my several minutes of annoyance at Conforto residing in a losing All-Star box score subsided, I thought about how long it’s been since a Met was on the other side of the agate, actively taking part in a National League win. Well, the National League hasn’t won since 2012, so you’d have to go back to 2012 and have a look-see. We look and see R.A. Dickey and David Wright — each of whom should have been starters but weren’t — helped the Senior Circuit assert its seniority. It was the first and only time R.A. got a piece of the All-Star action, but not the first or last for David, nor the first time he was an All-Star winner. In 2010, the game that broke a dismaying National League drought, Wright started at third, went 2-for-2 and could take a slice of credit for a 3-1 NL win. I’m sure he didn’t take too much, though. That’s just the way David is. Or was. No, is. Let’s say is.

In between ’10 and ’12, the National League won the 2011 game, at Chase Field. Despite the park being home to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the designated hitter (ptui!) was in effect, and the starting National League DH was Carlos Beltran, then and for a couple more weeks of the New York Mets. Beltran can thus claim to be one of the three most recent winning Mets All-Stars, alongside Dickey and Wright.

If we wish to expand the Schaefer Circle of Triumph in terms of Mets who played in All-Star Games won by the National League most recently, we’re going to have redefine recency. I mentioned a dismaying drought. Such dismay. Such a drought. Before 2010, the NL hadn’t brought home the exhibition bacon (or exhibacon™) since 1996. In between, they lost every year but one, 2002, the year of the infamous 7-7 tie. No Met who played for the National League between 1997 and 2009 could say he contributed to a win, and only Mike Piazza could say he contributed to not a loss. He was the sole Met named to the squad in 2002, starting per usual. Otherwise, during the Age of Piazza, every Met who got involved wound up, according to proprietary Smash Mouth research, with their finger and their thumb in the shape of an “L” on their forehead.

To get back to the elastic concept of recency in the context of Mets playing on winning NL teams, the most recent of Mets not named Dickey, Wright or Beltran fitting that description are Todd Hundley and Lance Johnson.

They’re not recent Mets, but they’re as recent as we can get. They are the fourth- and fifth-most recent Mets to get in on an All-Star win and, friends, it wasn’t recent. It was 1996. It was twenty-one years ago. It was in Veterans Stadium, a facility now defunct and already outmoded. There’ve been more presidential elections than Mets who’ve won All-Star games since then. Piazza of the Dodgers was the MVP and we didn’t care because we liked Hundley of the Mets way more. We didn’t have any proprietary attachment to nine other All-Stars who we’d someday care about, either. Piazza, Gary Sheffield, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel, Ricky Bottalico and T#m Gl@v!ne played for the National League; Roberto Alomar, Sandy Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Roberto Hernandez participated for the American League. We loved Johnson and we loved Hundley. Every eventual Met listed above was somebody we’d learn to love later. Or attempt to love and instead barely tolerate.

It might have been nice to have had ten additional current All-Stars on the 1996 Mets as opposed to waiting for the skills of most of them to diminish in advance of our acquiring them, but that’s another story. Todd Hundley and Lance Johnson were spectacular 1996 Mets, even if the 1996 Mets (71-91) performed decidedly otherwise. That they are the fourth- and fifth-most recent Mets to have played on a winning National League All-Star team is the story we are pursuing at the moment. If we pursue just a little further into the past, we discover the sixth-most recent Met to have played on a winning National League All-Star team is Bobby Bonilla, in 1995.

That’s Bobby Bonilla 1.0, before they paid him into perpetuity to go away ASAP.
That’s Bobby Bonilla when he was still getting paid by the Mets for playing baseball for the Mets.
That’s Bobby Bonilla when he was good enough to make an All-Star team.
That’s Bobby Bonilla when he was good enough to, like Beltran in ’11, be traded for by a playoff contender — the Orioles — not much later.

That’s what happens when your league doesn’t win All-Star Games. Bobby Bonilla as sixth-most recent anything is what happens. Perhaps a generation or two of National League managers, coaches, players and whoevers who determine roster composition should have added more and healthier Mets from ’97 through ’09 and since ’13. Perhaps it’s not the fault of all the Mets who played in All-Star Games from Bobby Jones in 1997 up to and including Conforto in 2017 (excluding the Recent Six) that they couldn’t push the NL over the midsummer hump. Maybe if Michael had been joined by Jake and Jay; maybe if Olerud, Ordoñez and Ventura had gotten their due in ’99; maybe if we’d been favored with an extra Carlos — Delgado — when we packed a pretty powerful pair.

That’s it, not enough Mets. That’s why the NL doesn’t win more of those things. I’ll say that now. Nobody will remember by Friday.

The sixth-most recent National League win was in 1994. The Mets’ representative was Bret Saberhagen. He didn’t pitch. Somewhere, Terry Collins approved. Before that, you have to rewind to 1987 for a National League win, which was when Davey Johnson managed and actually used every Met he brought with him. Thus, the seventh- through tenth-most recent Mets to play for a winning NL squad were a quartet of instinctively pleasing names (more instinctively pleasing than Bobby Bonilla): Sid Fernandez, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and Darryl Strawberry. It was Strawberry’s third All-Star win as a Met, Hernandez’s second. Carter won often as an Expo, but had to sit out the NL’s 1985 win with his troublesome knee; Darryl scored two runs in his absence, one for himself, one for Kid. That was the same game Dwight Gooden, who’d pitched the preceding Sunday, and Ron Darling, who Dick Williams apparently told he was too young if you believe Ronnie’s story, didn’t play, so no box score W for them.

Gooden’s only victorious appearance came amid his dazzling rookie season, 1984, when he struck out a side of American Leaguers in San Francisco and serviced notice to the National League that the second half of that season would be a summer of hell. Hernandez and Strawberry also got in on the ’84 glory. Jesse Orosco, unfortunately, did not. Jesse was named, but didn’t pitch. He pitched in 1983, striking out his only batter, but in the first harbinger that there was something askew in the universe, the American League won, 13-3.

Prior to ’83, it was generally a matter of Mets getting into All-Star Games to say they’d helped win All-Star Games, because that’s all the National League ever did. Good times. While your deGroms, Murphys and Harveys have had to suck up losses Conforto-style in actual recent years, Joel Youngblood proved an All-Star winner in 1981. Joel Youngblood couldn’t have fouled out faster as a pinch-hitter, but he played, the NL won, Joel is forever 1-0 as an All-Star. John Stearns is 3-0, named four times, actively part of a win three times. Lee Mazzilli famously homered and walked with the bases loaded in 1979 to personally ensure the NL beating the AL, 7-6. Mazz is the fourteenth-most recent Met to have played on a winning NL squad. His night in the spotlight occurred thirty-eight years ago, rendering “recent” relative.

The rest of the twenty-five All-Star winners, definitely less recent than Mazzilli, certainly a more common species in their time than ours, include Dave Kingman, Jon Matlack (twice), Jerry Grote (twice), Willie Mays (twice), Tug McGraw, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Koosman (twice), Cleon Jones, Ron Hunt (twice) and Duke Snider. The only Mets who played on losing NL squads prior to Orosco in 1983 were Buddy, who started at short in the anomalous 1971 AL win, and Richie Ashburn, for whom timing was everything…or at least conspiratorial against him.

Ashburn was named to the 1962 National League All-Star team because, as you know, every team must be represented, even a team deeply ensconced in tenth place. Not that Richie wasn’t on his way to the Hall of Fame following his retirement in ’62, going out in style with an average that reached .333 in late June. Even if he was going to the July 10 All-Star Game on behalf of the 23-59 Mets, Ashburn was not a wholly pity choice. The NL won that contest in Washington, 3-1, with Richie, like future DNPers Ed Kranepool (1965) and Pat Zachry (1978), not technically joining in on the fun. You may also know that between 1959 and 1962, two All-Star Games were played every summer to beef up the players’ pension fund. In ’62, the second was played on the North Side of Chicago, on July 30. That one Ashburn got into. That one the NL lost, 9-4, as if the Most Valuable Player of the worst team in baseball history needed an extra five-run defeat stitched onto his permanent record.

We’ve saved on winninge All-Star Met for last, and appropriately he is the best. Tom Seaver was named to nine All-Star teams between 1967 and 1976. That’s nine of ten for which he was eligible (he was a little off his excellent form in ’74). National League managers had the sense to pitch Tom in six of those games, including the 1970 Classic, managed by Gil Hodges, who chose him to start. The National League was 6-0 in All-Star Games in which Tom Seaver of the Mets pitched. For that matter, the National League was 2-0 in All-Star Games in which Tom Seaver pitched as something other than a Met, but we’re still in therapy grappling with those juxtapositions. Suffice it to say that when it came to winning and Starring and All that is good, nobody was more Terrific than Tom.

You also already knew that, but now you have another way of expressing it.

Piazza: The Space Between

When I wrote Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, I wanted to show what it was like to root for the Mets in the years before Mike Piazza; how different rooting for the Mets became at the height of Piazza’s powers; and what is was like saying so long but not goodbye to someone who’d come to embody the Mets for so long. It’s all in there, and I think any Mets fan who lived through those times or thinks about these sorts of things will enjoy reading it.

Mentioned only fleetingly is another portion of the Piazza experience, the part where Mike’s status diminishes over time, the denouement of his Met tenure, the years between Met megastardom (1998-2001) and ascent into Met legend (2005-eternity). If you read me here, you know I don’t really go in for fleeting mentions, which is to say I wrote a good bit about those years that have kind of gone down the Mike memory hole — after the dramatic home run of September 21, 2001, before he left New York for San Diego — but had to cut much of it for space.

Even icons experience a denouement.

It’s the All-Star break. Mike was a Mets All-Star seven times. And we’ve got all the space in the world here. So during this week, while we peer into the TV in quest of Conforto sightings, I’ll be excerpting some deleted scenes, concentrating on those beloved seasons 2002, 2003 and 2004, along with some outtakes covering later years.

Not so incidentally, I’ll be appearing at Long Island’s most beautiful book store and wine shop, Turn of the Corkscrew in Rockville Centre, Friday night, July 28, 7 PM, to talk Piazza, Mets fandom, Mets writing and whatever else comes up. I hope you’ll join me there. The Mets are in Seattle that night, so the early evening will be the perfect time for a get-together. (A couple of other exciting announcements to come in the days ahead, so keep your eyes on this space.)

***

At Shea, before October of 2001 moved on to its usual autumn theater, there were a couple of moments worth preserving, even if they weren’t on a par with Piazza’s homer off Steve Karsay. On Saturday night, October 6, Lenny Harris pinch-hit in the bottom of the sixth for Rey Ordoñez and singled. It was the 151st pinch-hit of Harris’s career, the most by anybody in major league history. The Mets treated it as no less worthy of celebration than any milestone Rickey Henderson or Barry Bonds produced over the final week. Mike led a charge from the first base dugout to swarm Lenny. Tina Turner’s “The Best” blared from the sound system. The Mets had recently lost the division a year after losing the World Series, two years after losing the pennant, three years after losing the Wild Card. There’d been enough loss in their city lately besides. Harris was a well-liked teammate and his record was certainly noteworthy, but what appeared obvious from the stands at Shea is the Mets needed to end a campaign with something to shout about.

Not that they would, technically. There was one game left, on chilly Sunday afternoon, October 7, the latest date on which the Mets had ever played a regular-season game. Moments before first pitch, President Bush addressed the nation to announce America was launching an assault on Afghanistan, retribution for harboring the terrorists who executed the September 11 attacks. After all the caps and all the flags and every well-meaning beat of healing amid a morass of unyielding pain, the truth was these games could do only so much. Now, at least for the Mets, the games were ending. As Mike said in the wake of his September 21 home run, “This isn’t life and death, this is baseball.” Given Bush’s de facto declaration of war, life and death seemed destined to continue their tango unabated for who knew how long.

With serious real-world news reverberating in their heads, the Mets limped to the finish line, losing to the Expos, 5–0, concluding their mostly forgettable until it was seared into memory third-place season at 82–80. Come the seventh-inning stretch, “God Bless America” duties were assumed by the team as a whole, with Harris and first base coach Mookie Wilson serving as leaders of the choir. “We started off slow,” Piazza admitted. “A few voices cracked in the beginning. I think we were all flat. It wasn’t that easy. But I think we finished strong.”

So the 2001 Mets turned in a mostly off-key performance. Even the severest critic couldn’t say the way they went after it wasn’t heartfelt.

***

Come 2002, team history was on the verge of rebooting if not repeating itself. A decade earlier, the Mets had tried to prop up a faltering contender with a thorough housecleaning and the importation of big, impressive names. That it backfired then didn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t rekindle Met fortunes now.

Thus, out from the 2000 pennant-winners went Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Benny Agbayani, Lenny Harris, Glendon Rusch and Rick White. Out from the 2001 late surge went a few more recent contributors: Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kevin Appier, Desi Relaford and Matt Lawton. In from the outside came Roberto Alomar, the acclaimed second baseman; Mo Vaughn, powerful first baseman; Jeromy Burnitz, who’d grown into an All-Star since Dallas Green decided he didn’t want him around; Roger Cedeño, still speedy and presumably further seasoned since his 1999 stay; starting pitchers Pedro Astacio, Jeff D’Amico and Shawn Estes; and relievers David Weathers, Mark Guthrie, Satoru Komiyama and Kane Davis.

The net Met effect was negative. Various and sundry base hits and decent outings aside, the transformation didn’t take as intended. The Mets were transformed from a team barely hanging on in the race when August began to a team that plunged precipitously out of it before August ended. Shea had less and less spark to it as the season went on. “A team of strangers,” a clubhouse observer called this collection of players. It showed in the standings. Mojo not only didn’t rise, it never seeped onto the premises…and no dogs whatsoever were let out.

Not having merited a ticker tape parade when they had their best shots at it in 1999 and 2000, there was no platform for first base coach Mookie Wilson to revise his speech from 1986 and declare that the 21st would be the Century of the Mets. After that late lunge in 2001 came up empty, whatever early momentum the franchise was carrying in that direction began to dissipate. Yet amid this Met miasma, Piazza persevered. His numbers — 33 HR, 98 RBI — were still splendid. He was elected to another All-Star Game and awarded another Silver Slugger, both honors earned. But without a playoff spot to chase, the sidebars became the main stories. Most bizarre was the topic that burned up the tabloids for a spell, namely whether Mike Piazza was gay. He said he wasn’t. No ballplayer ever said he was while he was still playing ball, but Piazza’s celebrity became a convenient vessel for speculation that arose from a fairly banal Bobby Valentine quote on the subject in general. Baseball, the manager opined when asked, was “probably ready for an openly gay player”. Next thing he knew, Piazza was telling reporters before a game in Philadelphia in May that he was straight: “The truth is I’m heterosexual and date women and that’s it. End of story.”

A more familiar subject reared its ugly head in June when Roger Clemens returned to Shea to pitch against the Mets for the first time since the 2000 World Series, meaning he’d step into the batter’s box and leave himself vulnerable to the payback for which so many who bled blue, orange and black had been salivating. It was a little late for any pitch aimed at any part of him to be delivered meaningfully, however. That World Series was over. Mike Hampton, his mound opponent of twenty months earlier who demurred from retaliation, was ensconced as a Colorado Rockie. Clemens would instead face Estes, a San Francisco Giant in 2000; his team lost to the Mets in that year’s NLDS. The feud had nothing to do with him, but when he found himself toeing the rubber at Shea facing the Yankee pitcher, he did what was more or less expected of him. He threw behind Clemens.

Way behind. He missed an enormous target. Like so much else about the 2002 Mets, it wasn’t a good look. More substantively, Estes and Piazza each homered off the Rocket and the Mets beat him soundly, 8–0, but Clemens going physically scot-free gnawed at the Metropolitan sense of self-respect.

The Mets’ play didn’t elicit much regard, not even from one of their own. Keith Hernandez, an occasional member of the cable broadcast crew, lashed out at his alma mater’s attitude in early September, writing on the MSG Network’s Web site that “the club has no heart” and “the Mets quit a long time ago.” The criticism, no matter how valid it looked to any viewer who’d kept paying attention to the floundering Mets, didn’t sit well with Piazza who fired back that Hernandez was “a voice from the grave.” The announcer retracted his statement and apologized to the players.

Piazza and Hernandez never played together but they were teammates in a sense. While the present was growing ever more difficult (the Mets feinted toward Wild Card contention in late July, trading Jay Payton to Colorado for pitching help, but ultimately went winless at home in August), the franchise celebrated its fortieth anniversary by unveiling a fan-voted All-Amazin’ Team. Keith was its first baseman, Mike its catcher. Edgardo Alfonzo and the injured John Franco, out all season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, were the only other active Mets to make the squad. Everybody elected was connected to one of the club’s four World Series teams. Though Jerry Grote and Gary Carter had rings to show from winning world championships, by 2002 it was clear no catcher took a back seat in Met history to Mike Piazza.

Then again, sometimes it was hard for the Mets to accommodate their own history in the front seat. The afternoon after the All-Amazin’ festivities, the club posthumously inducted Tommie Age into its Hall of Fame. While the honor was well-intentioned, the execution was about as bad as everything else the 2002 Mets tried. Valentine chose the pregame period to hold a team meeting, meaning no current Mets — not even their all-time catcher — were in the dugout to witness the enshrinement. Tom Seaver expressed his disenchantment over Channel 11 during the game that followed (another loss).

Valentine fired back a few weeks later, but by then, he had bigger problems brewing. A few fringe Mets were identified by Newsday as marijuana users, which provided Bobby V yet another platform from which to address the media, which didn’t come off very smoothly. The skipper denied his players could be pot-smokers because you couldn’t possibly play ball while high and, to reinforce his point, he took a drag from an imaginary joint, which made for an interesting photo opportunity. Maybe if Joe Torre had done the same, it would have come off as a teachable moment. In Valentine’s hands, the gesture made the Mets look, well, like the Mets. In 2002, that wasn’t the most inspiring of selling points. In any event, marijuana wasn’t a burning issue in baseball until this mini-scandal, but the recently negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement, agreed to in August on the eve of a strike deadline, did include a provision to implement testing for performance-enhancing drugs, referred to generically as steroids, in 2003.

The 75–86 season that nobody was high on — the first to see the Mets land in last place since 1993 — ended on a Sunday at Shea against the eternal division champion Braves. Bobby Cox sent up a rookie pitcher from Korea as a pinch-hitter. His last name was Bong. The irony wasn’t lost on anybody.

Valentine’s tenure had encompassed so much compelling baseball and an undeniable amount of success, but little of either in 2002. Fingers could be pointed and blame could apportioned, but in baseball, the manager is inevitably suspect, particularly one who rarely shies away from the media when he has something or somebody to criticize. Bobby V’s time was up. Fred Wilpon, who had bought out Nelson Doubleday in August, dismissed Valentine shortly after the final game.

***

On a mid-December weekend in 2002, the Mets broke up what was left of what was once considered the Greatest Infield Ever. Rey Ordoñez — who’d stopped winning Gold Gloves, never really developed as a hitter and responded to booing by calling Mets fans “stupid” — was sent to the Devil Rays. Alfonzo, despite his All-Amazin’ designation, was allowed to leave as a free agent, signing a four-year deal with the Giants. The “team of strangers” was about to grow even stranger.

Who were these guys? The 2003 Mets took shape as names garnered from places most Mets fans, no matter what Ordoñez thought of them, were hesitant to embrace. Mike Stanton, the ex-Yankee, was now a Met reliever. Cliff Floyd, a longtime Marlin, was now the Met left fielder. T#m Gl@v!ne…T#m Gl@v!ne…as much the personification of Brave oppression as anyone who wore a tomahawk across his chest, was now the Met staff ace. They’d join Vaughn and Alomar — plus, for a few weeks early in the season, a pre-retirement David Cone — and be managed by Art Howe, late of the Oakland A’s. Howe piloted the Athletics to three consecutive playoff appearances, yet GM Billy Beane didn’t seem particularly concerned about keeping him around. Wilpon testified that during a search process in which the Mets also considered Lou Piniella (for whom Seattle demanded compensation), Howe “lit up” the room and “blew me away.” He made Howe’s hiring official the day after the Angels defeated the Giants in a seven-game World Series.

Within this cornucopia of newcomers, Mike Piazza, thirty-four years old, remained a Met. He was still on the cover of one of the pocket schedules (Gl@v!ne was on the other), still the starting catcher, still the cleanup hitter on Opening Day when Gl@v!ne debuted at Shea in a Mets uniform. Mike went one-for-four. T#m gave up five runs in less than four innings. The Mets lost to the Cubs, 15–2.

The year never got much better. Fifth and last place became the club’s permanent home in June. Attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1997, the year before Piazza joined the team. The Mets commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the 1973 Mets in July, taking great care to honor Tug McGraw, who’d been diagnosed with brain cancer during Spring Training, but the season as a whole felt more like a tenth-anniversary homage to 1993. The 95 losses at year’s end would be the most the Mets piled up in a decade. All six Subway Series games, including one started in the Bronx by Clemens, went the unstoppable Yankees’ way (though the 2003 World Series wouldn’t; they’d lose it to the surprising Marlins in six). Turnover turned staggering. Acting as sellers instead of buyers, the Mets whisked away players by the fistful. Alomar, Burnitz and — after 160 saves overshadowed by a few too many critical leads that got away late — Armando Benitez were among those swapped for prospects. The GM trading them was not Steve Phillips, who took his share of responsibility when he was axed in June, but newly elevated assistant general manager Jim Duquette.

Piazza missed the bulk of the fun, such as it was. A horrific groin injury in which muscle tore away from bone was sustained during an at-bat May 16 at San Francisco, sidelining Mike for three months. That it occurred while Piazza was standing beside and not crouching behind the plate was ironic in light of developments the week before. Howe, who upon his hiring waved away the possibility of moving Mike to first base (“as long as he’s doing the job behind the dish, he’s going to be there”), let MSG know he was, in fact, contemplating a position switch for his superstar. What had changed from December to May was the availability of Vaughn. Mo’s arthritic knee eliminated him from the lineup, the active roster and, eventually, playing any more baseball. The Mets needed a first baseman. They had Mike Piazza.

Asking a highly decorated catcher to take on a new position late in his career wasn’t an absurd notion. Every time a clip of Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning homer from 1960 aired, the accompanying radio call from Chuck Thompson included “back to the wall goes Berra.” Yogi didn’t rush hundreds of feet from behind the plate to chase it down; he was playing left field for the Yankees. In his final three seasons with the Reds, Johnny Bench started more than 200 games at third and first. Carlton Fisk played a little first base and left field in addition to DH’ing for the White Sox. If the two All-Century catchers and the one who caught more games than any other catcher — and hit the most home runs in games he caught — could find other things to do on the diamond, then why not Piazza?

No reason, really, though it would have been nice had Howe brought it up to Mike before telling the media what was on his mind. Art told the press before he told his would-be first baseman of his position-switching plans, and that didn’t sit well with the Met of Mets. It didn’t help matters that the season was more than a month underway and nobody had asked Piazza to try his hand at first during Spring Training. He had last played it for an inning in 1993, having otherwise devoted himself to catching once it became his only conceivable path to the majors. Nevertheless, he said he told Howe and then-GM Phillips, “I’ll do whatever you think needs to be done for this organization. Obviously, my love is for this ballclub and I’ll do whatever you guys want.”

Soon, all eyes were on otherwise mundane BP activity during the Mets’ ensuing visit to Denver. Mike Piazza was taking ground balls at first base. It was a story. Then it receded, thanks to the injury in San Francisco. While Mike mended, Vance Wilson and rookie Jason Phillips caught. Phillips also showed a talent for first base. Another new face in the infield belonged to Jose Reyes, called up on the eve of his twentieth birthday to fill in at shortstop. It was supposed to be a temporary promotion, but Reyes impressed and held down the position through August, when an injury ended his season, too.

By then, Piazza — having not been selected to an All-Star Game for the first time in his career — was back with the Mets. He returned on August 13 with as much of a bang as could have been imagined. At Shea, against Barry Bonds, Edgardo Alfonzo and the Giants, Mike teed off on Jerome Williams for a two-run homer in his second at-bat…second at-bat in the game, second at-bat in three months. He singled home a run in his next at-bat and drove in two more two at-bats later. Those five RBIs turned the lights out on the visitors and, you might say, the home fans. The next afternoon, New York and much of the Northeast experienced a power outage that left the city dark and the finale of the Giant series cancelled. Perhaps Con Ed should have just plugged into the Mets’ catcher. It certainly appeared he had an ample supply in reserve.

Mike finally met first base under unusual circumstances. In late July, Bob Murphy, Mets voice since 1962, announced he would retire at season’s end. The Mets hastily arranged ceremonies in his honor for the last night of the home schedule, the final game he would call, Thursday, September 25. The occasion couldn’t have felt sadder. The Mets were concluding their second consecutive last-place season and the man who had made all the bad years sunnier by his innately hopeful nature (the Mets were never out of a game by Murph’s reckoning, they were just a few batters from bringing the tying run into the on-deck circle) was saying goodbye. During his pregame farewell, Bob retraced the franchise’s steps more than his own and closed with a farewell and amen that deserved a crowd larger than the 25,081 who paid their way in:

“I hate to say goodbye so much. I know I have no choice. It was a lot easier saying hello the first day we came to New York forty-two years ago than it saying goodbye here tonight. There’s no point in keeping you waiting any longer. Let me tell you how much I love you, let me tell you how great you have been. I’m gonna miss you, believe me I will. I’ll start missing you the minute I walk off this field. It has been such a marvelous, marvelous time. On behalf of my wife, Joye, we both say thanks to you for being so good to us, for allowing us to be a part of your life and for enjoying baseball with us. Thank you very much. Good night and God bless.”

After an appreciative standing ovation, Murphy took the elevator to the radio booth to call his final game, Mets versus Pirates. Piazza took his place behind the plate to catch Gl@v!ne. When Mike looked out toward the outfield, he could find Raul Gonzalez in left, Timo Perez in center and Cedeño in right. Around the infield, he could see Ty Wigginton at third, Jorge Velandia at short, Joe McEwing at second and Mike Glavine at first.

Mike Glavine? Yes, he was related to T#m, and his presence on the roster and in the lineup after nine years in the minor leagues attested at least as much as the Piazza-Lasorda connection ever did to the benefit of knowing somebody somewhere. With this oddball assortment having taken the field, Bob and Gary Cohen called what was unfolding as an otherwise typical 2003 Mets loss. In the top of the ninth, however, it became highly noteworthy. Moving over to play first, replacing Tony Clark, who had already replaced Glavine, was Mike Piazza.

Here came what all the fuss had been about: a liner and two grounders. Three putouts sans incident for the newest Met first baseman. In the bottom of the ninth, Mike would go down as the victim in the final strikeout Bob Murphy would ever call, taking a third strike from Julian Tavarez. Wigginton then grounded to second, ending Murph’s forty-two seasons with a 3–1 defeat and sending the Mets to Miami to play out the remaining frayed edges of their string. Mike caught the first game, the one that allowed the Marlins to clinch the National League Wild Card, then sat out the last two, ending the year with only eleven home runs in sixty-eight games. Further stabs at first base would have to wait until next season.

In our next installment, it’s the year of “meaningful games,” departing teammates and the brink of another era.