The sports-industrial complex to which we've all become attached keeps us on our toes. It makes sure we feel we're not doing our job unless we look ahead, sometimes way ahead, to ascertain results and consequences before they could possibly be known. The 2008 Mets, for example, have played 44 games and few us of are focused on the 45th for the mere sake of enjoying it. No, we've got to figure out it what it means in terms of The Big Picture.
What fun is sports without The Big Picture? I believe it was the Monday after the Sunday last fall when the football Giants raised their record to 7-3 that a popular talk radio show (talk radio being the home office of determining what will happen long ahead of the fact) opened not with a discussion of how Eli Manning, Michael Strahan and their mates mounted a win over the Detroit Lions the day before, but instead by announcing the conclusion to the Giants' season six weeks before the schedule would play out: they'll get to the second round of the playoffs where they'll be beaten by Dallas who will play Green Bay for the right to lose to New England in Super Bowl XLII. I have two t-shirts, a pennant and a DVD that say different, but that's neither here nor there.
As much as sports fans can be counted on to wallow in the past — Flashback Friday returns tomorrow — we sure do like to know, definitively know, what's next. Pencil in Santana to give us at least seven; pencil in a 5-2 homestand; pencil in Willie as gone after the West Coast trip. After a hit was reruled an error or an error reruled a hit, Bob Murphy would remind us that's why they put erasers on pencils. Erasers, however, aren't why we buy pencils.
Given the penchant for penciling in the unknowable and the desire to write endings in indelible ink before the final chapter is conceived, I wasn't surprised that the instant reaction from many Mets fans upon the news of Mike Piazza's retirement was twofold.
“The Mets have to retire 31.”
“He has to go into the Hall of Fame as a Met.”
Gauzy memories of what Mike meant (like the gorgeous ones my partner strung together) were almost secondary. The playlist of Mike's greatest hits could stay on pause. We had two results to sort out and confirm. We can no longer predict where he'll wind up come spring or if he'll move to first or when he's going to break that catchers' home run record or if he'll be ready for the Atlanta series or whether he'll re-sign with us or whether we have a chance to get him from the Marlins, so we have to have something to look forward to with Mike Piazza.
• Do the Mets have to retire 31?
Is it fair that he jumps the line, that we crumble 31 crackers into the numeral soup that so far lacks the savory stock of a 17, a 36, a 24, a digit du jour? That he logged less innings here than an overlooked/underappreciated stalwart of your choice? That his Herculean homers, his Gunsmoke grit, his John Barrymore stage presence didn't add up to a world championship?
Don't bother me with details. Number retirement is perhaps the most circular argument in all of Met protocol, left wide open by the Mets' failure to act (or by dint of their principled reserve, if you like). Mike Piazza was the Met of Mets when the Mets were at just about their best, even if their 1998-2001 best wasn't quite good enough to be exchanged for the most valuable prize in the S&H Catalog, even if their and his best leveled off between 2002 and 2004, even if the organization posted signs from his locker to the exit throughout 2005. Mike Piazza was the Met of Mets for the bulk of eight seasons, the Met of Mets as only Tom Seaver was and was longer. Only Tom Seaver has a number retired for having been so.
Let's give 41 some company. Let's not wait so long that we begin to forget why 31 towered over Shea as it did. Let's not let well-intentioned arguments for other numbers cancel this one out. And if you want to arrange a dual ceremony in which 17 shakes hands with 31 and they both high-five 41, I'm all for adding them up on a wall together.
• Does Mike Piazza have to go in as a Met?
I feel more passionate about the number than the plaque because, to my way of thinking, I — generic Mets fan — have (or ideally should have) some say over whom my team honors. I can't do a blessed thing about the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I've about given up trying.
I'm down on Cooperstown. I've stopped giving myself over to their machinations. I don't much believe in what they do anymore. A body that finds a way to laud Walter O'Malley, ignore Gil Hodges and turn its back on Buck O'Neil has lost its right to be considered august. Rest assured, however, I'll self-servingly change my tune for at least a winter's afternoon when Mike Piazza's election is certified.
About four seconds after the word goes forth in January 2013, we'll be jumping all over that question again: Does Mike Piazza go in as a Met?
If it were up to me, the answer is the same as the one applied above to the retirement of his number: of course. Of course he goes in as a Met. He was the Met of Mets, and not in the way that Bobby Bonilla was during his first term. He was the Met of Mets when being the Mets and loving the Mets were two of baseball's highest callings. He was the Met of Mets when that made Mike Piazza a household name from coast to coast.
You can make an intelligent argument, if you are so inclined, that Mike Piazza shouldn't go in as a Met. If you are a Dodgers fan, I would expect you to (you wouldn't be doing your job if you weren't). He became a baseball star in Los Angeles. He became a baseball phenomenon in Los Angeles. He began becoming the best-hitting catcher baseball has ever seen in Los Angeles. It is, however, my considered opinion, that he completed the job in New York, meant something more in New York, achieved greater fame with more layers of substance in New York. If I imagine myself in, say, Kansas City and were asked to proffer an opinion on the matter, I think I would say Mike Piazza was a Met who had been a Dodger, not a Dodger who went on to become a Met. But I can't say for sure, 'cause I'm not in Kansas City.
Somebody will ask Piazza what insignia he thinks should be engraved on the cap that is portrayed on his plaque. I predict he will choose the hat of a diplomat, even if the crescendo of the statement he released upon his retirement was one big hosanna for the likes of us:
I have to say that my time with the Mets 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.
(When the uninitiated wonder why we swoon over millionaire athletes, show them that, will ya?)
Upon retiring, Mike showed the presence of mind to namecheck Fred Wilpon, Nelson Doubleday, Steve Phillips, “Johnny” Franco, Al Leiter, Charlie Samuels, Bobby Valentine, Art Howe and Willie Randolph. I don't doubt he considers himself a Met when he considers himself a ballplayer. The same statement, however, was peppered with praise for the Dodgers — “you gave me birth to a life that never in my wildest dreams did I think was possible” — and even found a way to pay homage to his cameos with the Marlins, the Padres and the A's. Should some HOF apparatchik come to Mike in 2013 and tell him he will be immortalized as something other than a Met, he will probably approach it, accept it and embrace it like he did everything in the game: with as much grace and class as any superstar baseball has been privileged enough to host.
Pinning an objective identity on a player can drive a person crazy, particularly in this day and age of virtually unrestricted movement. To date, 831 players have played for the New York Mets. Ninety-six have been Mets only. The other 735 have been Mets to us. Jeff Conine signed a Spring Training contract to “retire a Marlin” this March, but he was a Met to us. We may not have wanted to have been saddled with Tommy Herr, but we think of him in Met terms because it's what we do. Dean Chance was just passing through, but he was a Met. So was Tom Hall, so was Willie Blair, so were both Mike Marshalls.
But that's us (and only a select few of us bother to drill that deep). If you take the broader view, you are not being a bad Mets fan if you ponder aloud…
• Keith Hernandez: Met or Cardinal? (Met; Cardinal Keith never dated Elaine Benes.)
• David Cone: Met or Yankee? (Pains me to tilt distastefully toward four rings and a perfect game even if he did come “home” to not pitch well at the very end.)
• Lenny Dykstra: Met or Phillie? (Bigger star as a Phillie, more Nails right here.)
• Felix Millan: Met or Brave? (All-Star in Atlanta, instantly beloved in New York…1973 trumps whatever came before.)
In the Hall of Fame business, we take great pride in rattling off which Mets are in. As long as there's a line on the plaque that specifies NEW YORK (N.L.) and the date is 1962 or later, they're in as Mets. Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, Warren Spahn…you may have arrived there without us, but we're there with you. Nolan Ryan, Willie Mays, Eddie Murray…you didn't really need us, but you've got us. Rickey Henderson…when they come to get to you, you might remember us (or you might not, but we remember you). Gary Carter…
That's the precedent that seems to have come up a lot this week. Gary Carter was granted a plaque in Cooperstown in 2003. The fine print mentioned he was a Met, just as it noted his participation on the Giants and the Dodgers. But the emblem on his headgear is clearly that of a Montreal Expo, the team on which he started, the team on which it became abundantly clear that he was a Hall of Famer to be, the team where, for what it's worth, he finished up.
The Mets were where Gary Carter became a world champion (and a champion of Ivory Soap). The Expos were where Gary Carter became the guy the Mets had to have. Gary Carter was never quite the Met of Mets; the '86 Mets contained at least four transcendent individuals. Gary Carter was — no offense to Andre Dawson — the Expo of Expos in his time there. The Expos' time was limited upon Carter's Cooperstown induction. Within fifteen months of his speech, there would be no more Montreal Expos. I would have liked to have seen Gary Carter go in as a Met. I could easily get why Gary Carter would go in as an Expo. It didn't diminish a bit my joy for a player who had given me so much of the same a generation earlier.
There wasn't much discussion over what Tom Seaver would go in as. Well, maybe a few Cincinnatians grumbled, perhaps a South Sider or two thought differently, but who would have figured Tom Seaver's plaque wouldn't show off a Mets cap? More than half of his career and almost all of his Amazin' feats came as a Met. I suppose I would have cried foul, screamed bloody murder and howled to the heavens if Tom Seaver hadn't gone in to the Hall of Fame as a Met in 1992. But that was never a serious option.
The whole cap thing is a relatively recent phenomenon. Comb the HOF archives and be surprised at how many plaques portray players — from the era when they endured all or most of their careers with one team — with blank or no caps. Mel Ott, for example, has a fine head of hair but no insignia to indicate his two-decade tenure as the New York Giant of New York Giants. I don't recall it ever being mentioned as an overriding issue until Reggie Jackson rather blatantly decided to be “officially” remembered as a Yankee rather than an Athletic because (reportedly) George Steinbrenner promised him a job if he would. Dave Winfield supposedly went the other way to secure employment in the Padre front office. Nolan Ryan skipped straight to his last team, the Rangers, even if he established his legend as an Angel and burnished it as an Astro.
I didn't really have a problem with any of those calls. Jackson, Winfield and Ryan absolutely were, respectively, a Yankee, a Padre and a Ranger. They were also absolutely were an A, a Yankee and an Astro/Angel. It's not as if the cap blotted out what they did in the NOT PICTURED portions of their careers. Of course the whole thing was thought to have raged out of control when Wade Boggs allegedly made a deal (eventually vetoed by the Hall) to go in as a Devil Ray, despite having worn batting crowns as a Red Sock, even though he rode a horse as a Yankee. But even then, it wasn't off-the-charts crazy to picture him in a TB cap for all time. He collected his 3,000th hit as a Ray; he kissed home plate as a Ray; he finished up as Ray because he grew up in Tampa. Would it really have corrupted the Wade Boggs legacy had visitors to the Hall of Fame glanced at his plaque, seen a Devil Rays logo and moved on to Ryne Sandberg and Bruce Sutter?
Carlton Fisk played more for the White Sox than the Red Sox. Carlton Fisk's Red Sox career alone didn't earn him admission to the Hall of Fame. Carlton Fisk set the catching records that pushed him over the Hall hump in Chicago. Yet he would go in as a Red Sock probably because the first thing everybody thinks of when they think of Carlton Fisk is Carlton Fisk willing a ball fair in Fenway Park. Game Six of the 1975 World Series is what is memorialized on Carlton Fisk's plaque cap.
There's something eternally romantic about Pudge the Red Sock, something almost pedestrian about Fisk the White Sock. He was a bright-eyed kid in Boston, a battle-scarred veteran in Chicago, landing there because of a contract mishap in Boston (and winding up at loggerheads with Jerry Reinsdorf before he was done). If we're going to pick this two-team catcher as a precedent for Piazza, wouldn't that mean the Dodger cap has an edge? Isn't L.A. where muscular Mike first flexed and awed? Isn't that where his youthful bloom blossomed into a Rookie of the Year stampede, a perennial All-Star berth, an insane .362 average? Wasn't Mike Piazza already a Pert-endorsing superstar at Dodger Stadium? Wasn't it essentially bad faith on the part of Fox that chased him from Chavez Ravine in 1998?
Didn't Mike Piazza play his only World Series as a New York Met, and play it quite memorably? (Come to think of it, didn't Gary Carter, too?) Didn't Mike Piazza stride from baseball famous to actually famous as a Met? Didn't Mike Piazza leap to legend at Shea? Wasn't it here and for us that he hit the homers everybody associates with him? Who was at the heart of the single most dramatic game imaginable in September 2001? Where did that take place? Where did he not fade from sight but heartfully bid adieu? To whom did he give his utmost regards in October 2005 and August 2006 and May 2008?
Mike Piazza should go in as a Met. Yet he might not. I'll probably be more outraged than I'm letting on, but I hope if that's the case, my ire will be tempered by knowing that if he doesn't wear a Met insignia on his cap on a plaque, that he did so in real life on a helmet for most of eight seasons…and will continue to do so for as long as I think of him.
Which will be for a very long time.