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The Age of Piazza

Matt Lawton hit 3 home runs during his brief 2001 term as a Met, each of them prior to the bottom of the eighth of the game of September 21, an inning he happened to lead off by grounding out to Braves shortstop Rey Sanchez. Edgardo Alfonzo swatted 15 from Opening Day until he was walked by Steve Karsay with one out in that same frame. The 2001 home run totals, up to that bases on balls, of other Mets who batted from the first inning through the seventh inning that Friday night:

• Robin Ventura: 20
• Tsuyoshi Shinjo: 10
• Todd Zeile: 9
• Jay Payton: 7
• Rey Ordoñez: 3
• Bruce Chen: 0
• Joe McEwing: 7

Combined, those nine Mets had hit 74 home runs in the first 147 games of that Mets season. None had hit one out in the 148th, which was near completion when Alfonzo walked and Desi Relaford was sent in to pinch-run for him. While several of those Mets seemed unlikely to hit a homer at any given moment, it wasn’t inconceivable that a few of them might take an Atlanta pitcher deep. Fonzie, Robin and Shinjo were all in double-digits. Zeile, Payton and McEwing had certainly homered enough that year so it wouldn’t be a novelty.

Yet none of them did homer on September 21, 2001. Mike Piazza, however, did. Mike Piazza hit his 34th home run of the season after Alfonzo walked. It put the Mets ahead 3-2. They’d go on to beat the Braves by that score.

By now you no doubt recognize the home run in question as the most famous home run hit by any Met in this decade or, depending on whom you ask, the most famous home run hit by a Met ever. It didn’t end a game. It didn’t ensure a playoff berth or a postseason series victory. It was an eighth-inning home run on a night whose cachet was generated less by competitive context than by the simple fact that more than 40,000 New Yorkers gathered at Shea Stadium to watch a baseball game.

It’s generally remembered as more, of course. It’s remembered for pregame somberness, for lingering unease and for a handful of electrifying performances. Among those belting our their best on September 21, 2001 were Diana Ross with “God Bless America,” Marc Anthony with “The Star Spangled Banner,” Liza Minnelli with “New York, New York” and Mike Piazza with the go-ahead homer off Karsay.

Piazza’s solo was the most memorable star turn of them all, but nothing that Friday night was about standing alone in a spotlight. It wasn’t about any one person. It was about thousands of people, too many of whom could not be at Shea Stadium. It was about the thousands they left behind and the millions who mourned for them. It remains remarkable to understand that the act of going to a Mets game — even a Mets-Braves game — could represent so much to so many.

And in the middle of it, Mike Piazza. There’s no tangible reason it had to be Piazza who hit the home run that recalibrated our municipal emotions. It could have been Ventura or Alfonzo or Shinjo. In theory, it could have been Ordoñez.

But it had to be Piazza. These types of moments always found Piazza. Or maybe Piazza and the moments always met in the middle. Anybody who would go as deep as Piazza did on a night that ran as deep as that one did would deserve to be remembered, but I can’t imagine anybody else would have done it. On some other Friday night in some other circumstance, sure, anybody could swing and connect. Not that night. That was what Mike Piazza did. We accepted it as extraordinary and perfectly normal, which is what the 40,000+ in attendance were seeking on September 21. We went on to hold it fondly and we hold it still. We hold the days and nights of Mike Piazza the same.

Had the boundaries of our imagination been stretched and had the home run come off the bat of another Met, would we have embraced it immediately and continued to grip it like it mattered beyond a 3-2 lead in the eighth?

I don’t know. But somehow I don’t think so.

Mike Piazza hasn’t been a Met since October 2, 2005, but I feel very comfortable considering him The Met of The Decade, for whatever that’s worth. His MVP-worthy season when the Mets earned a pennant, his monster breaking out of its cage that October, the still-stellar numbers for a fulltime catcher the next couple of seasons and the records he set might be enough to rate him this hypothetical honor. But with Mike Piazza, per usual, accomplishment is only part of the story. Electrifying performance is always the subtext.

The 2000s were the Age of Piazza. There was no other Met who commanded our attention for as long as he did or who was as worthy of it. I don’t believe he had a serious challenger in that regard.

Honorable mentions:

Pedro Martinez displayed sensational stage presence over a shorter period but racked up decidedly fewer results; David Wright put up the most impressive numbers yet still seems to be trying to fill a pair of shoes that don’t fit his feet any better than that experimental batting helmet fit his head; Carlos Beltran offered us more talent than anyone but did not truly capture our imagination; no one was more exciting at what he did than Jose Reyes yet Reyes’s stay at the top of his game has been intermittent; Johan Santana produced at the most clutch level, but hasn’t been here all that long; Al Leiter talked the best game in town before eventually talking his way out of town.

Fine Mets in our time, but none of them touches Piazza. Four seasons have passed since he played as a Met and he’s still, in our collective gut, bigger than any who have succeeded him. Mike Piazza was always big. He always made you stop and focus on him. Your eyes were instinctively PiazzaCams. You followed his every move. When he came to bat, your mind swarmed with the possibilities. You tensed up as he coiled. You exploded when he let loose.

And that was just the hitting. He wasn’t a polished catcher (nor a passable first baseman), but he was Piazza every moment he was on the field. He never stopped being Piazza. On what had to be a dozen occasions each year, his being Piazza mesmerized you. It could be because of a home run. It could be because of a glare or a quote or a reaction to your ovation. He came here in 1998 to be the Mets’ main man and, despite diminishing skills and statistics that couldn’t be ignored as the expiration of his contract approached in 2005, he never really ceded the role. His appearances as a Padre in 2006 and as a ceremonial receiver in 2008 confirmed his forever place in our hearts.

What made Piazza’s time in our midst all the more thrilling was that he never emitted the sense it desperately mattered to him. Being Piazza was his job. His baseball card didn’t require a position listed. Being Piazza was plenty. Somebody might throw an impertinent question or a bat shard at him, and he knew how to handle those just as he could handle Terry Mulholland or Carlos Almanzar or Steve Karsay among many, many others at the most momentous of moments. He was physically formidable and he did let his big stick to much of his talking, but he wasn’t exactly the strong, silent type of cliché. Mike Piazza never seemed shy, just as he didn’t too often come up shy. He was at ease with who he was. Now and again, it meant stepping up and playing the hero.

On September 21, 2001, on the heels of ten days that sent a city reeling, we realized that’s exactly what a baseball player who hits a big home run is doing: playing. Piazza, we understood, wasn’t a hero. But at a Mets game — specifically that singular Mets-Braves game — nobody could have possibly played it better.