You know when you go out west how they say, don't miss the Grand Canyon, it's one of the few things in life that when you see it, it doesn't disappoint?
—Toby Ziegler, The West Wing
This is it, huh? This is the last series in which we'll see Mike Piazza actively participating in a Mets uniform. He might come back for a 2000 reunion or as a guest instructor or, knowing the Mets, as a backup third baseman in five years, but otherwise, this is it.
This is Mike Piazza's last homestand, four games against the otherwise irrelevant Colorado Rockies. Willie has said that as long as Mike says he's up to it, it's Mike's decision on whether to play in each game. I would assume we'll see Mike strap on his gear four more times or risk mass testiness that would sting more than any sliver of wood from a shattered ball, I mean bat (so hard to tell those two items apart). Mike may not want this much attention for doing something as anticlimactic as leaving, but he knows he's getting it. Better to crouch down and enjoy it.
I'm certain barring an injury (and Mike is a magnet for all kinds of scrapes), that we'll see him when we go on Sunday even if it is a day game after a night game. That's the idea, to say goodbye to Mike. I regularly attend the final home game every year — “Sorry about the disruption folks. But I always do the last dance of the season” —Johnny Castle, Dirty Dancing — but this was one I'd mentally circled since the schedule came out. Maybe since 1998 when Mike first got here. I remember telling you back around then that the two games I would not miss would be whenever they said goodbye to Bob Murphy and whenever they turned off the lights at Shea. One came to pass, one is off in the distance. But the last game Mike Piazza ever plays for the Mets?
I can't say I saw it coming.
I never do. In Keith Hernandez's riveting diary of 1985, If At First (written with Mike Bryan), he mentioned offhandedly that he wouldn't mind finishing his career in San Diego if he doesn't stay with the Mets. I nearly fainted. Keith not finish as a Met? That could never happen.
But it did. Keith Hernandez became a Cleveland Indian. Gary Carter became a San Francisco Giant. Darryl Strawberry became a Los Angeles Dodger. Wally Backman went to the Twins. Ron Darling went to the Expos. Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell were Phillies. Buddy Harrelson and Tug McGraw were, too. Cleon Jones wound up in White Sox. Jon Matlack was a Texas Ranger. Steve Henderson was a Cub. Randy Myers was a Red. Mookie Wilson was a Blue Jay.
Dwight Gooden pitched for a team in the American League whose name escapes me.
All kinds of Mets who were always going to be Mets didn't wind up as Mets forever after. A few who never should've been bounced bounced back with relatively unhappy returns. Kingman, Mazzilli…Tom Bleeping Terrific were all sent packing. They boomeranged to Shea but they didn't finish up here (Tom tried, but it didn't take). Rusty Staub was the bright, orange exception to the rule and that was 20 years ago.
From the era of most recent success, the one that spanned 1997 through 2001, the stalwarts all left. Most of them were invited out. There was a time not so long ago that if I told you that John Franco and John Olerud and Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo and Al Leiter and Rick Reed and Turk Wendell and Rey Ordoñez and Benny Agbayani and Jay Payton and Todd Pratt (even Todd Hundley and Todd Zeile) would not stay Mets forever, it would've seemed unlikely to unimaginable. We've been living in a very fluid age of movement among baseball players, but there was a significant stretch when the Mets were winning and the Mets who were doing the winning were as much fixtures at Shea as the apple and the hat and the furry, feral cat.
Every one of those players is gone — mostly long gone and relatively forgotten. We get on with things as fans. Sure we remember and we bolster our recollections by bookmarking Retrosheet and Ultimate Mets, but that's not our primary business. The matter at hand for us is to keep winning, keep moving forward, keep acquiring newer and better players and, as necessary, keep shedding their older and deteriorating predecessors.
Amid all that, Mike Piazza remained. Even as he dipped from star attraction and cleanup hitter to burdensome salary and lonesome relic, he stayed. Mike Piazza didn't stop being a Met. Not in spirit and not in fact.
Mike Piazza is the only Met who knows what it's like to have been a 1998 Met and watched a Wild Card berth crumple up and blow away.
Mike Piazza's the only Met who could tell you how Bobby Valentine behaved when the 1999 season was falling down around him not once but twice.
Mike Piazza's the only Met who's been to a Subway Series game…a real Subway Series game.
In a sense, Mike Piazza is our griot. He is the Metropolitan-American version of the learned storyteller of certain West African tribes. Griots are said to pass on the history of their people orally and when one dies, it is as if a library has burned to the ground.
When Mike Piazza leaves, an epoch of Mets baseball goes out the door with him. When Mike Piazza leaves, there is nobody here who was a National League Champion Met. There's already barely anybody else here (Trachsel, Seo) who even played for Valentine. Piazza was right in the middle of his batting order. The manager and the megastar, more than anybody else, defined that period of Mets baseball for us. Bobby was crazy. Mike was crazy good. It was a different time, before Omar, before Willie, before Howe. It was, if you want to know the truth, a better time. It was the time of Valentine pushing buttons, pulling strings and leading our team to the playoffs twice. It was the time of Piazza going deep, hanging in and leading our team to the playoffs twice.
Save for what we can piece together on our own, that's all gone after Sunday. It's like a set of Mets media guides will have burned to the ground.
Bobby Valentine fired? Sure, managers are hired to be just that, and with Bobby being Bobby, it was inevitable. But Mike, not under contract? Potentially wearing a uniform that doesn't have our name on the front? PIAZZA 31 receiving the same inelegant Clubhouse Shop 50% OFF treatment as so many overstocked WIGGINTON 9s and SHINJO 5s before it?
I wouldn't have believed it when Mike first arrived from Los Angeles via Miami. I wouldn't have believed it when he spanked Billy Wagner and punished John Smoltz and drove Roger Clemens batty. I wouldn't have bought it for a moment when he was the monster who emerged from his post-season cage in 2000. And how could have anyone believed it that first night baseball returned to Shea in September 2001?
He was what they said he'd be when we exchanged Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall and Geoff Goetz for him. He didn't disappoint. No, he was as good as it Goetz.
But time marched on, the fucker. Mike became less and less of a slugger. It was said he was never much of a catcher but boy did he throw himself into it. When Vanilla Ice was big, there were all these articles about how, sure, we've seen lots of white boys come along and rip off the black man's music, going all the way back to Elvis, but this guy is different. But he wasn't. Nobody's ever all that different in those kinds of “we've seen this before” scenarios. I thought of Vanilla Ice vis-à-vis Mike Piazza in that when Mike was at the height of his powers, the inevitable “all catchers break down and stop hitting” comparisons came up but were shot down. Sure, it happened to others. It may have happened to Johnny Bench. But not Mike Piazza.
Why not? He's human. He's all too human. He bruises outside and in. What foul balls and backswings and valiant dives into the first row didn't take out of him, the dismantling of the team he was a part of had to. We're not the only ones who felt isolated from the Mets as their 1999 and 2000 mainstays were asked to leave. The Times magazine did a pretty jarring story on Mike feeling all alone in his own clubhouse in 2002. It's 2005. I don't get the sense that he's made a lot of new pals.
What's Mike have this year? 18 home runs, 61 RBIs. Not too terribly shabby for a 37-year-old who's absorbed a barreling baserunner per week for a dozen years. Do we say to hell with closure and sign him again? There aren't many good, let alone great catchers on the open market and none appear to be clawing a path here from Binghamton or Norfolk. A little bit of Michael in our lives, a little more Castro on the side? Or vice-versa? Season No. 9? How about it? I always carry a pen. If security doesn't stop me, I can toss it down from the mezzanine.
Nah, I don't think so. We're between a rock and a home plate where this catcher is concerned. If Piazza had taken that first base stuff seriously, maybe he'd be platooning with Minky or Jake right now and have a reason to remain in 2006. But that's not happening and neither is a return engagement. If the Mets wanted him back, they would've made a move by now. Mike's time has, at last, passed.
Pity us far more than him, because Mike's time was a very, very good time to be a Mets fan.