Exactly one month ago, my wife and I attended a Sunday matinee performance of the New York City Ballet (knocking out the last several innings of the Eric Cooper fiasco, but whaddaya gonna do sometimes?). As we waited for the curtain to rise, I heard two women sitting behind us engaged in intense ballet talk. Their attention turned to a dancer named Jock Soto.
“I can't believe we're never going to see him again after next week,” one said to the other. I swear she was practically choking back tears when she said it.
In the sense that ballet aficionados who know little of baseball may be at least familiar with the names of the superstars of the sport, I'm a baseball fan with the tiniest possible thimbleful of knowledge of the ballet. But I've heard of Jock Soto. For a long time, Jock Soto was the Mike Piazza of the New York City Ballet.
He was good, this Jock. He just retired at the age of 40. That's what the woman behind us was going on so passionately about. His farewell performance was June 19. The Playbill we were handed on June 12 contained a long article about him.
Jock Soto was with the NYCB for a quarter-century. He'd been a principal dancer there since 1995. That's like having been the cleanup hitter on a lot of lineup cards. His specialty, I read, was catching. If you've never been anywhere near Lincoln Center, you can still figure out why that's important. Male dancers in the ballet spend a lot of time catching female dancers.
Astrida Woods wrote that “in the world of ballet, no one knows how to handle a woman better than principal dancer Jock Soto…when it comes to partnering, Mr. Soto has no equal. Ballerinas fearlessly fling themselves into his arms.” Resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon weighed in with a scouting report. “If twelve women jumped from the tenth floor of a burning building,” he said, “Jock would catch them all.”
Wendy Whelan, the dancer he's caught more than any other over the past few years, added her amen to Jock's overall game: “He always delivers.”
That's more than I think I was ever planning on talking about ballet in this space, but you've probably figured out I'm not here to go on about dance. I'm more interested in our own Jock Soto.
After the performance began, I considered the emotion those ladies expressed regarding their Mr. Soto. Naturally, that led me to ponder our Mr. Piazza as he nears the finale of his long run as a New York cultural institution. Serious ballet fans knew enough to understand they were reaching the end of an era and appreciated the man who defined that time for them. Are Mets fans that aware of what has come and what is going and what will be gone where Mike Piazza is concerned?
Granted, Mike has announced no retirement or given the slightest hint that he is on a farewell tour. But this is the seventh year of a seven-year contract and the payee at this point is accepting money for what he accomplished in the first two or three years. I don't sign the checks, but I'd say he was priceless in 1999 and 2000 and 2001.
I know, I know — he's not so valuable anymore. I've no idea what Jock Soto's dancing average was while he was preparing to hang 'em up. Chances are he was en pointe more than Mike's been on base in 2005. And as for catching skills, let's just say if I were a ballerina trying to escape a blazing inferno, I'd leap and aim squarely for Ramon Castro.
But so what? Seriously, so what? The Mets fans of the present see the Mike Piazza of the present and grimace at best, call for his removal at worst. Cripes, people, do you see what I see out there? This man was a municipal treasure from the moment he got here on May 23, 1998 and a municipal treasure doesn't get kicked to the curb.
Do you remember his first hit as a Met? It was an opposite-field double off Jeff Juden of the Brewers.
“What did it look like?” Chuck asked me by phone.
“It was like his ball accelerated,” I said, slightly bewildered at what I'd just reported.
“What do you mean?”
“He hit it to right and then it just sped up and took off toward the wall. I've never seen anything like it.”
How did we reward Mike for coming to the Mets? By razzing him when he grounded into double plays. Mike played through '98 in a daze. Plucked out of his comfort zone in Southern California, laundered through Miami like a kilo from Colombia and deposited at Bill Shea's playpen in a blink. We've heard a lot about you, Mr. Piazza. Lead us to the Promised Land right away. And don't make any mistakes.
Mistakes, he made a few. But they weren't worth boo versus what he brought to the Mets. He piled a band of Baergas, McRaes and Huskeys on his back and dragged them to within one game of the post-season. I've always looked back at '98 as a crushing collapse. Maybe it was really a rousing near-miss considering the company their principal dancer was keeping. They weren't exactly a one-man team, but there was no doubt who the Mets had become, especially in that four-game, steel-cage death match at the Astrodome in September, the one punctuated by Piazza's three-run bomb off Billy Wagner in the ninth. Todd Hundley won it in the eleventh, which was necessary (thanks to Greg McMichael giving the lead run right back) and swell, but the Mets were all about Mike by then. No doubt.
I don't have the tick-tock at my fingertips, but I'm almost certain the Mets entered that ninth inning with Mike due up fifth. We were down 2-0. Having accomplished zip against Mike Hampton and facing the prospect of Wagner, it was all I or any of us could hold onto for hope. Just get Mike up…just get Mike up…
They got Mike up. And he hit a three-run homer. It was one of those moments that would become a signature of The Age of Piazza. If there was something we absolutely needed, Mike would get it for us. That is why on that night, as our catcher circled the bases in Houston, I exclaimed to the heavens above…
“MIKE PIAZZA IS THE GREATEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED!!!”
At the last home game of the 1998 season, the second of five consecutive losses that assured there would be no playoffs in Queens, Mike came up late with the Mets trailing. I remember thinking this could be Mike Piazza's last home at-bat. I planned to stand and give him a rousing ovation. I might have stood and I might have applauded, but it wasn't rousing. Most of Shea was somber that night. We were about to lose two straight to the Expos. Three beatdowns remained pending in Atlanta, all of which would serve to seal our doom. So Mike's potential goodbye went unnoticed.
Fortunately, it wasn't goodbye. It was barely so long. Wilpon and Doubleday anted up and kept Mike a Met. Some said Mike was the Mets in the years that followed. I don't know that I'd go that far. He had some pretty decent help as we made it to October the next two seasons. Radio talkies with no feel for our team would say “people come to Shea to see Piazza.” I never bought that either. They came to see the Mets but the Mets were worth seeing because Piazza was foremost among them even if he was never quite L.A. Mike here. He didn't bat .362 for us as he did for them in 1997. You see a megastar up close and personal, you see his warts. Being New Yorkers and Mets fans, we often chose to obsess on the imperfections. Now the blemishes outnumber the beauty marks and there are fewer and fewer among us who say they would choose Mike Piazza at all. There must be some American League team that could use a DH, right, right? Let's not wait. Let's deal him now.
It would take a miracle to bring Mike Piazza back to Flushing in 2006. I'd prefer my miracles be put to good use elsewhere. He's had a wonderful run here but its time will be up Sunday, October 2, the final day of the 2005 season. I hope with every fiber of my fandom that it doesn't end any sooner. I know what we're living with. I know he's not 40-120-.300 anymore. I know he's not close. I know a walk's as good as a double with him behind the plate.
And I all but don't care. Drop him in the batting order? Fine. Ease him from everyday duty? Done. Let Castro catch a little more and bring up Benito Santiago for flexibility? Okey-dokey by me. Mike's a pro and surely sees the writing on the wall is etched in disappearing ink. He's well off and whatever he wants to do after '05 is his business. Doesn't have to be ours.
But he merits a proper send-off. He merits the start in Detroit tonight regardless of his current state. We don't live in an era of Mayses and Aarons and if we did, it's hard to imagine fortysomething relics being escorted to one more All-Star start because of who they were (an attitude owing to who we've become). Mike Piazza's not quite in their league but there aren't many leagues that wouldn't have taken him at his peak. I applaud the fans who voted him in. Not because he's a Met, but because he's Mike. That “best hitting catcher who ever lived” title is not an honorary degree. He earned it.
I want Mike Piazza to remain a Met for the length of his contract. I want to see him go to right a few more times. I want to see him sacrifice his body to a guard rail in pursuit of a foul pop when the occasion demands it. And I hope that there's at least one more ninth inning that will allow me to calculate how many batters it will take to get to Piazza. Anything he does once he's up there will be gravy.
Most of all, I want the final day of the year to have No. 31's back facing me in a crouch from behind home plate. He deserves that much. We deserve that much.
Roberta Zlokower's review of Jock Soto's farewell performance revealed that “some in the audience, such as this critic, clutched a handkerchief throughout the matinee, as Mr. Soto, his partners, and the company energized each other and their loyal balletomanes with gusto and generosity of spirit and soul. The final curtain included many opportunities for Mr. Soto to absorb the endless accolades with seemingly thousands of red roses tossed onstage, with a dozen or so exquisite floral presentations from his partners and artistic director, and with many minutes of sparkling confetti, floating with delicacy, equal to Mr. Soto’s most sensitive moments…so apropos.”
Something along those lines for Mike Piazza would be very apropos indeed.
There's another great — a peer of Mr. Piazza's — who rates eternal accolades for what he did as a Met and continues to do elsewhere. Find out who in Gotham Baseball.