For about a year, it was my pleasure to be associated with an enterprise called Gotham Baseball. The following is adapted from an article I wrote for the Winter 2006 issue of its print edition.
The game stops. Of course it does. The top of the seventh is over. This is when we stand, when we always stand. We stand and stretch. We sing something. “God Bless America.” “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” “Lazy Mary.” Anything will usually suffice.
But today the game doesn’t so much take a break as it shifts into park. We’re not using the middle of this seventh inning to stand and stretch as we are to stand and salute. It would be superfluous to sing, so we don’t bother. We’re not here to beseech a Deity to do His best on our country’s behalf; sorry, America, you’re on your own this particular Sunday afternoon. And we already know we’re out to a ballgame.
Boy do we ever.
It’s the last ballgame Mike Piazza will play for the New York Mets. We know it without having it officially confirmed. Nobody who can pronounce the relationship over is prepared to say it is so. Words like “almost certainly” are our insurance policy in the wholly unlikely event lightning strikes and the catcher who is in the closing minutes of his seven-year contract and the organization that is receiving the last of its $91 million worth from him decide they might be as good together in the immediate future as they have been in the suddenly distant past.
But we all know lightning isn’t going to strike. We all know that this day, October 2, 2005, is Piazza and done. So we all stand and salute.
Mike. And only Mike.
There is only one.
We all know what’s coming. The public address announcer tells us to direct our attention to the DiamondVision. We’re already focused. We understand that we are going to see what sports teams’ A/V squads produce when they want to acknowledge one of their own. They’re going to play a montage of highlights: Mike Piazza’s greatest hits, set to music.
The song, as said before, doesn’t matter. That’s not why we’re standing. We’re standing for him…his accomplishments, our emotions and how both are inextricably enmeshed. Yet a career retrospective, no matter how well-intended or slickly produced, is almost inappropriate. Mike Piazza’s genius is not for giving us memories to look back on, but moments to look forward to.
If his era and its end must have a theme, Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” would work best. Anticipating Mike Piazza’s actions is what we’ve been doing continually for almost a decade.
When will Mike become a Met?
What will he do when he does?
How will he handle New York?
Can he lead us into the playoffs?
Can he get us to the World Series?
What will he do next?
There are no more nexts for Piazza here, but a nearly full Shea Stadium can dream, can’t it? Stay right here, Mike. These are the good old days.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though. He’s going, going, almost gone. Standing and saluting, then, is the least we can do for every track of NOW That’s What I Call Michael! 31 flickering on DiamondVision. We know all the hits by heart.
We know he will wander slightly dazed from L.A. to Miami to out of the Mets dugout on May 23, 1998 and double off the Brewers’ Jeff Juden. We know that he will deliver us from a summer of Spehr, Castillo and Wilkins, some of the trivia answers filling in for the injured and instantly obsolete Todd Hundley. We know that down two with two out and two on, he will blast a ninth-inning laser off of young, pea-throwing Billy Wagner in the Astrodome and that it will extend a Wild Card lunge a little longer than maybe it deserves.
We know that the following year he will own Roger Clemens and rent Ramiro Mendoza and make the Big Apple a two-team town again once and for all. We know that he will ache in his team’s first postseason in eleven years, but save most of his hurt for John Smoltz in the form of a liner above the right-centerfield fence at a not-so-sacred Met burial ground in Atlanta. It will be the centerpiece of a rally that highlights 1999’s NLCS Game Six, perhaps the greatest League Championship Series game ever — an eleven-inning 10-9 win for the Braves, yeah, but a triumph of the spirit for Met fans who have just spent a month finding reason after reason to believe.
We know that 2000 will be his best Met year, that he will make his case as a battered and bruised receiver for MVP; that he will cap one of this or any club’s most impossible comebacks by blitzing the first pitch Terry Mulholland deals him to left field and beyond. It will be an eighth inning that starts with the Mets behind 8-1 and will end with them ahead 11-8, the three go-ahead runs on his bat’s say-so. We further know that he will become the Monster in this year’s NLCS, the Monster who will bust Out Of The Cage against the Cardinals; that he will pave the way for the likes of Abbott, Alfonzo and Agbayani to claim a pennant. And we surely know that he will take the final mighty swing of the 2000 World Series; that it will land in the glove of the other team’s centerfielder…we know that, too.
We know of another game against archrival Atlanta on a night when civic and athletic hostilities will be rendered irrelevant in this nation and in this city. We know it will be September 21, 2001 and we know it will be only ten days after September 11, 2001 and we know it will be the first baseball game in town since then and we know it will be plenty, plenty weird to be at it let alone place any importance on it. But we know that by turning on what Steve Karsay offers him, he will make a baseball game seem more wonderful than anything could possibly seem given the circumstances. For this team, at this time, in this town, it will be tonic.
We know all that. We know a milestone, most shots launched long by a backstop, will be reached, but we also know it doesn’t come easy, that there are injuries and regime changes and lifestyle allegations and an uncomfortable, uninvited position switch and an increasingly evident decline to fight through. That stuff’s not in the highlight montage, but we see it if we look hard enough.
We also see the second half of 2005 when the man is dropped down in his batting order. It sparks a personal revival. He starts homering again right here at Shea, right after the All-Star break. A big one against the Braves. Then the Padres. Then the Dodgers. If he isn’t his old self, we know what he is is pretty damn special. We know that he takes Sunny Kim to the most distant precincts of Flushing, No. 397 careerwise, just three nights prior to today.
We can watch most of that on DiamondVision, but really all we need to do is close our eyes and we can see as much as we want of what one ballplayer does for one set of fans who have never had someone quite like him before and aren’t sure they will have someone remotely like him again.
The video ends. The man emerges. Mike Piazza steps out of the home dugout.
He is applauded.
He waves some more.
He is cheered.
He waves again.
He is vocally and — this much is becoming obvious — endlessly worshipped. This goes on for…well, nobody’s looking at the Armitron clock. Mike Piazza should be used to the protracted attention. He’s absorbed it steadily across the late 1990s and early 2000s when trotting from home to home. This is different. This is 47,718 pairs of eyes fixed on him, not counting those of teammates, umpires and even that day’s irrelevant opponents. Pairs of eyes and pairs of hands. The clapping doesn’t cease. The chanting, a wishfully thought “One More Year!”, won’t relent. The stands are just that; seats go fannyless for the duration.
The seventh-inning stretch expands beyond its traditional parameters. The game is stuck in park. This isn’t Cal Ripken taking a victory lap for passing Lou Gehrig. No record is being broken here. This is, technically speaking, homage to a contract expiring.
Something about this strikes Mike Piazza as too much. There is a game in progress. It is still the middle of the seventh. Nobody calls the rest of it off. Nobody would mind, but a catcher knows the rules. There is more baseball that needs to be played, 18 players, including the home team’s catcher, required to complete it.
No, you can sense Piazza concluding, this isn’t quite right.
From in front of his dugout, he makes a gesture more familiar to overeager patrons in the first 20 minutes of a Bruce Springsteen concert than at a simple baseball game between two teams playing out the 162nd strand of the string. He gestures downward with both hands. He raises and lowers them again. He’s trying to tell us something.
1) The ol’ Wayne’s World “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” bit. But that would be ridiculous because Mike Piazza certainly has the presence of mind to understand — after eight Met seasons, 972 Met games, 220 Met home runs, 655 Met runs batted in and more momentous Met memories than any Met has manufactured — he is worthy of this extreme closeup.
2) Bruce’s classic “we’re gonna be here for a long time, so siddown!” sentiment. True, we aren’t scheduled to be here much longer, but like Springsteen, Piazza is at heart a workingman. Why stay on your feet when you put down good money for that chair?
For goodness sake, people, take your seats. You can’t keep applauding me forever.
We 47,718 Mikeminded individuals would do anything for Mr. Piazza the afternoon of October 2, 2005…but we won’t do that. We won’t sit down. We won’t go gently into that bottom of the seventh. We don’t care that the Colorado Rockies are on their way to an 11-3 victory. We don’t care that our New York Mets are on their way to an 11-3 loss. We won’t get on with our lives so you can get on with yours.
You know better.
We know better.
Piazza gives up and gives in. He stops telling us to sit down. He waves a little longer. He soaks up the adulation, makes it a part of him if he is at all human. It will be something that he can carry with him into the cold of winter, into the not exactly warm waters of free agency, off to San Diego for whom he will sign in January and to wherever fate steers him after he finishes being an active legend.
An umpire at last declares “enough.” There’s nothing in Knotty Problems of Baseball that covers mass idolatry. Play ball. The fans, the Mets, the irrelevant opponents all sigh. Sure, Blue. Whatever you say.
We sit. They play. The bottom of the seventh arrives and departs. Mike takes his position behind the plate to start the eighth…and then almost shockingly abandons it before a pitch is tossed. Even though he is due an at-bat, his manager pulls him.
Aw, what’s this? This isn’t perfect. This isn’t even the perfectly lovely of 52 weeks ago when Todd Zeile was the aging kid Met fans bid adieu. On that Sunday afternoon, Todd got to squat behind home plate because he felt like it. Todd got to homer on the last pitch he ever saw because the fates thought it cool. Art Howe managed much of 2004 like it was a Todd Zeile fantasy camp. For a year it was too much. For the day it was just right. Apparently we used up our allotment of end-of-the-line karma on Todd Zeile. Hence, no more swings for Mike Piazza. On what turns out to be the last pitch he ever sees as a Met, back in the bottom of the sixth, he grounds out to Clint Barmes. He leaves some of us tearful, but he also leaves all of us hitless.
Maybe Mike only has only so much to give. Surely it is given. Unmasked, he waves. We applaud. He exits. So do many of the 47,718. With Mike DiFelice in for Mike Piazza, this day becomes much adieu about nothing.
Besides, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch the Mets without Piazza real soon.
He will reappear on this field after the game to be interviewed and talk about how, wow, that was something else, and he will elicit one final burst of recognition from those who stick around. We will learn much later that he will reappear on this field yet again on a Tuesday night in August of ’06 when his new team plays his old team, he and his new crew doing well, his old outfit and its new catcher going gangbusters. We will move on without Mike Piazza, but as we can easily forecast, we won’t forget him. We can anticipate, too, how he will someday return to Shea Stadium or its successor structure as not just an ex-Met but as an ex-ballplayer, once more to be loved and honored — as a Met Hall of Famer, as a Baseball Hall of Famer, as the last Met to wear 31.
But all we know, as we stand and cheer on October 2, 2005, is he will never again be Mike Piazza who plays for the New York Mets.