What a difference a couple of days makes: Mike Piazza packed his bags for Denver and Houston with 390 home runs to his name, having passed some guy named Bench and drawing within sight of #400 — making his onrushing twilight cruise around the Shea harbor look like it might be one to remember very fondly. And now, hey, he was going to two of the National League's more-ludicrous parks: arena-baseball home Coors Field and Minute Maid Park with its short porch in left field. Mike could return with 393 or 394 dingers. We could return six or seven games over .500. October? Why, we can't make plans, honey. We'll still be whooping it up about #400 for Mike and watching the division series.
Of course, Mike returned home with 390 home runs. (And we went 2-5).
Maybe he just needed the challenge: #391 was one of those Piazza classics, a high, arcing moon shot that probably came down with ice crystals on it. #392 wasn't as beautiful, but it was still a line drive over the center-field fence at Shea — and one that tied up the rubber match of our series with the Brewers. (A game we'd lose, but welcome to the 2005 Mets.)
I've accepted that this team most likely has too many holes and works in progress to make October plans. OK, so be it. What I want out of this heartening, frustrating, topsy-turvy year is to see #400 sail over the wall at Shea and cheer for Michael Joseph Piazza as he puts his head down and stomps around the bases.
For psyche-up purposes, here's a list of 10 Memorable Piazza Blasts, in reverse I-got-something-in-my-eye order:
10. July 14, 2005: We may stink, but Mike — as today's game demonstrated — is not going gentle into that good night. Maybe it's that trip down to the No. 6 hole, or the days off Willie has given him. (Which have got to be good for Ramon Castro too.) Or maybe it began with this game, with someone named Blaine Boyer coming into a tie game in the 8th and throwing an 0-1 meatball to Piazza. Which a few years ago would have brought to mind the old line about the throwing of lamp chops past wolves, except age has shaved a few precious slivers of a second off Mike's reaction time, and he misses it. So — and this is the part where a sly grin creeps onto the storyteller's face — Boyer tries it again.
9. June 9, 2000: In the twisted annals of the Antichrist, this home run is a symbol, the equivalent of the railroad car in which seething Germans signed the Armistice Treaty. First game of the 2000 regular-season Subway Series at Yankee Stadium, and at this point Roger Clemens was already a psycho headhunter, but not one we had any huge personal aminus against, beyond his spray-painting his initials in Shea in October '86 (how'd that turn out, Rocket?) and the general affront to humanity that he represented. In the third inning of an 0-0 game, Jason Tyner (remember him?) reached on a Posada error and Clemens walked Bell and Alfonzo. BOOM! and it's a grand slam over the center-field fence, into that annoying stretch of Yankee Stadium batter's-eye bleachers. 4-0 Mets, and it got even better after that, until Torre finally came to get the Antichrist in the sixth with the good guys up 9-2. Whereupon reptilian urges to murder started to crawl through the slightly swelled nodule of spinal cord huddled somewhere inside Roger Clemens' skull. We know the rest, from the beaning in the Worst Doubleheader Ever to Todd Pratt looking crazed as Hampton avenged Big Mike to the splintered bat to Shawn Estes winning the war (aided by another Piazza home run) but losing the battle to last year's All-Star Game. But it all started here. Oh, and fuck Roger Clemens.
8. May 16, 2004: Revenge is a dish best force-fed at scalding temperatures while your enemy screams and begs, but failing that, the important thing is he winds up eating it. When Clemens unretired to play for Houston, the whole beaning/bat/Estes brouhaha got revived and moved to the NL. Clemens had won his first seven starts of the year and looked ready to win #8, striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings and even collecting an RBI single. (Just to annoy us, it scored Jeff Kent.) Mike, meanwhile, went 0 for 2 with a walk against the Rocket. Two outs on the ninth, down 2-0, Valent on second, Piazza as the tying run against old friend Octavio Dotel. 1-2 count — but wait! There it goes! We've got a brand-new shiny one! Which turned into one of those rusty grinding one until finally Jason Phillips won it in the 13th, making for a not-perfect but still quite satisfying day. (Strange how this is a somewhat shrunken copy of another Mets-Astros game to be discussed in a moment.)
7. April 28, 1999: I was at this game with two friends — Danielle, a Met fan through and through, and Tim, a neutral along for the ride who happened to be a former college-baseball player. I remember that it was cold, though that might be the memory of Armando blowing a 2-1 lead in the 8th. In came Trevor Hoffman, and the kind of muttering associated with seeing the hanging judge march into his courtroom in a particularly foul mood. Two out, one on, Piazza at the plate. CRACK! and Tim is up and out of his seat before the ball even clears the second baseman's head. “That's gone!” he yells as the rest of us in the mezzanine are just starting to get our bearings. And so it is. Guess sometimes watching something really isn't a substitute for doing it. Bobbing out of Shea on the outgoing tide of happy fans, I'm just marveling at how five seconds can turn a cold night with scattered Benitezness into a great night.
6. June 17, 2001: The Yankees had beaten us in the first two games of the Shea leg of the Subway Series, and it was beginning to dawn on us that the irritating drawbacks of the 2001 team weren't some passing thing. 7-2 Yankees, eighth inning, and we look as dead as dead can look. Ventura reaches on an error by Derek Jeter — Schadenfreudish snickers. McEwing HBP. Relaford RBI single makes it 7-3. Ordonez walks, causing thousands of fans to pinch, punch and set fire to themselves to confirm such a thing really happened. Mark Johnson strikes out. Randy Choate exits for someone named Carlos Almanzar. Agbayani singles to make it 7-5. Hope lifts its weary head, looks around, blinks, sees Yankees, awaits execution. Shinjo hits a grounder, slides into first to demonstrate that this thing about Japanese players and good fundamentals is a myth — but isn't doubled up. Ordonez scores: It's 7-6 with two outs and Piazza striding to the plate. Hope begins to scamper about wildly, still pretty sure it's gonna get its head bashed in with a shovel, but what the heck. On an 1-0 pitch, Mike destroys an Almanzar pitch for an 8-7 lead and the salvation of our honor. Hope does a drunken jig, goes into the fetal position when Armando tries his hardest to blow the save, begins dancing again when he somehow doesn't.
5. Sept. 16, 1998: The one day we all thought the idea of Mike Piazza behind the plate and Todd Hundley in left field might work. Having been muzzled by Mike Hampton, we had to face Billy Wagner in the ninth, down 2-0. Two outs, one on and Piazza connected — a jaw-dropper of a drive that paved the way for Hundley's pinch-hit shot in the 11th. The postgame interview was startlingly awkward — rarely have two players on the same team standing so close together seemed so far apart — but no matter. It meant a series win against the Astros, who were running away with the NL Central, and left us just a game behind the Cubs in the loss column for the wild card. (Great series: The previous day we lost when Derek Bell led off the 12th with a dinger off Jeff Tam, a terrific game that just ended up wrong.) We had all sorts of wild thoughts about a Piazza/Hundley combo that turned out to be silly. But after this, you made sure you were at your station in front of the TV if Mike Piazza was batting. Phone ringing? Watch the game, dummy. Gotta pee? Watch the game, dummy. Just spontaneously combusted and should really get to a New York Hospital? Watch the game, dummy. Can't you see who's at the plate?
4. July 10, 1999: One of those days that makes newcomers into baseball fans, and that stopped a city. It's the Matt Franco game, the 9-8 win with Rey Rey leaping in the coach's box and Mariano finding out that an 0-2 strike doesn't always end things. (Next time you're cursing Angel Hernandez, which every Met fan should do at least weekly, stop and have a kind word for Jeff Kellogg.) The friggin' Yankees hit six home runs: two by Posada, two by O'Neill, one by Ledee, one by Knoblauch. Big whoop: None of them went 482 feet, bouncing off the tent in the picnic area. No matter what team you rooted for, you talked about the one Mike Piazza hit off Ramiro Mendoza. Hell, dogs who saw it got up on their hind legs and began howling in terrified awe. Later in the day, Brandi Chastain was so moved by the memory of it that she tore off clothing after some other sporting event. Six home runs? Feh. Those weren't home runs. When a well-struck baseball makes dogs howl, tents buckle and women spontaneously undress, that's a home run.
3. October 19, 1999: Sure, this one ended with Kenny Rogers making like Julio Santana against Andruw Jones, igniting a simmering rage in the Gambler that would finally find release six years later against the nation's cameramen. More ups and downs than a thousand rollercoasters, but no up was up-er than Piazza — playing with one thumb, for Chrissakes — bashing a John Smoltz pitch over the fence to right-center in the seventh to make it 7-7. That one shot erased all the horror and frustration that built up in watching the Grand Slam Single victory curdle into a 5-0 hole with Leiter not recording an out. Sure, Franco would fail and Benitez would fail and finally Kenny would throw Ball Four, but it was Piazza who erased the hurt and the rage and ensured we'd walk away defeated, but proud nonetheless.
2. June 30, 2000: We've written about it before. We'll write about it again. It's rivaled only by the Grand Slam Single as the most-emotional game I've been lucky enough to attend — I have an MP3 of the climax of the 10-run inning that I still listen to every so often, grinning like a damn fool as Alfonzo comes up with us down 8-6 and the crowd finally daring to believe. The night before had been John Rocker's return, with pleas for sportsmanship and cops everywhere and us losing, so the pasting we were taking the next night was doubly depressing. So Mulholland pitches to Piazza with the score tied and 50,000+ baying and it was like somehow Mike knew that there was no need for unnecessary drama. First pitch, WHAM! on a line out by the retired numbers, and Todd Pratt's leaping over the dugout rail and even Piazza can't go around the bases stoically on this one, pumping his fist in un-Mike-like jubilation. Leaping up and down in the stands I thought I might be having a heart attack and briefly paused, then decided I didn't particularly care and started leaping around again, because how, really, could life get much better than this?
1. Sept. 21, 2001: A wounded city, a shocked nation. It seemed childish and even callous to talk of baseball, and 41,000+ streamed into Shea tense, frightened, wondering if we were there to watch a baseball game or just huddle up together until we figured out what the hell we were supposed to do next. We stood silent during a 21-gun salute, cheered for cops and firefighters and emergency responders and soldiers and even for Braves, who broke out of file along the third-base line to shake hands and trade hugs with Mets. And then Diana Ross and Marc Antony and Rudy Giuliani and finally a baseball game — a taut, terrific baseball game on a night we would have forgiven the two teams a half-awake mess. Which almost felt like a shame, because at first it was difficult to focus on the game that night, to settle into its rhythms and greet it with the enthusiasm it deserved. To my astonishment, it was Liza Minnelli — in my mind a generation-ago joke — who first broke through to us in the seventh-inning stretch. She chirped how happy she was to be there, and up in the mezzanine I remember we kind of eyed each other, then shook our heads as she assembled an impromptu kick line of firefighters and policemen to accompany her for “New York, New York.” It didn't seem appropriate, this happy show-bizzy playing to the cheap seats. But on second thought the firefighters and cops didn't seem to mind, and if they didn't, who were we to object? And no sooner had I thought that than I realized she was singing the heck out of the old chestnut, making it bittersweet and urgent, and by the halfway point we were all 41,000+ singing along feeling the same way, and we ended it roaring as Liza found a way to make it hard-fought and triumphant. (And then Benitez let in the go-ahead run, and hey, that was old and familiar, so we could get used to grousing again. Armando, he always did his part.) Bottom of the 8th, down 2-1, Steve Karsay (a Queens boy) on the mound, and Alfonzo coaxes a one-out walk. And here's Mike, 0-1 count, and he connects for an absolute no-doubter over the center-field fence, and in that second we were plunged back into pure baseball, into the joy and euphoric release it can bring. We weren't going to forget about bigger things — that would be impossible. But with that swing, Mike made it OK to lose ourselves in baseball once more, gave us permission to turn a little thing like who won or lost a baseball game into a big thing again.
Thanks, Mike — for those and all the others. Now how aboout eight more, memorable or not, to discuss before we bring the blue-and-orange curtain down?