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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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‘Dude, Hit the Ball Hard’

Mike Piazza is a special instructor in Mets camp. He is among the most special of all Mets, so the title fits. Nice of him to swing by St. Lucie, just as it was good thinking on Jeff Wilpon’s part to invite him.

(We will now take the keyboard on which I’m typing out of play and send it to Cooperstown, as it’s the first keyboard ever used by a Mets blogger to express a complimentary thought toward Jeff Wilpon.)

What instruction can Piazza give the Mets of today, particularly their catchers? Besides “wear extra padding in your mitt when Syndergaard pitches”? Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet it will be useful. He’s Mike Piazza, for goodness sake. We don’t regularly tout his election to the Hall of Fame just to be friendly. He was one of the all-time greats as a hitter and — the occasional floating throw into center notwithstanding — a hard-nosed catcher who seemed to work well with his pitchers. If you weren’t convinced of his credentials after experiencing his eight breathtaking seasons at Shea, then read his 2013 autobiography, which I just got around to doing. Mike will make sure to let you know he was one of the best…whether you appreciate him or not.

Sadly, he doesn’t think you do, which seems to be the point of the book.

Long Shot (written with Lonnie Wheeler) is the richly detailed life story of a public figure you thought about plenty while he was in your line of sight but, honestly, never thought about nearly as much the public figure himself did. You couldn’t have. We are all our own protagonists, but Long Shot takes the concept well beyond focused self-examination. The book seems to assume every moon, planet and sun revolved around Mike Piazza from the first time a scout watched him take his cuts to the last time he left a major league field as an active player…and none of those heavenly bodies spun quite to the center of Piazza Universe’s satisfaction.

The Piazza of Long Shot lays out a canvas unfortunately skewed to slights. Mike never got over the doubts of anybody who didn’t think he belonged in professional baseball, anybody who wasn’t convinced of his merits as a catcher or hitter, anybody who…well, everybody. Everybody doubted Mike Piazza and he showed them. That’s the tone of the book. That’s the substance. If he was as defensive during his playing career as he is in his recollections, he’d have more Gold Gloves than Johnny Bench. Every now and then he drops in a note about how lucky he was and how grateful he is to have been so blessed, but then he gets back to ticking off all the times somebody ticked him off.

As exhilarating as it was to watch Piazza hit to all fields is how exhausting it was to read Piazza remember selectively. He portrays New York as incredibly tough on him, what with all the booing after he was traded here. I went to 18 games in 1998 with Mike a member of the Mets and I have to say I mostly recall standing and cheering in the company of tens of thousands who were doing the same. Granted, the random 6-4-3 DP wasn’t greeted with “aw, you’ll get ’em next time, big fella,” from everybody populating Loge and Mezzanine, but No. 31 was the most popular Met from the moment he boarded the plane that carried him definitively north from Fort Lauderdale. Dissenters notwithstanding, we Mets fans absolutely adored Mike Piazza. We were overjoyed when we got him. We were ecstatic when he signed to stay on. We were saddened when he waved goodbye. I didn’t know we were not living up to his expectations while we were emoting overwhelmingly in favor of his being Our Guy from 1998 through 2005.

Then again, he has far less good to say about Dodger fans, so I don’t feel so bad about inadvertently making him feel episodically put upon. The Dodger crowd made him feel worse. So did Dodger management. So did many of his L.A. teammates, not to mention those with whom he played in the minors. By comparison, New York was nothing but peaches, cream and perfectly permissible protein shakes (the rich detail includes an exploration of Mike’s workout regimen, presumably included to deflect the inane bacne assertions that have undermined his Hall candidacy to date).

Plus, he’s still Mike Piazza of the New York Mets and will always be Mike Piazza of the New York Mets. No overly touchy memoir can take that away from me.

While I came away from Long Shot wishing Mike was more comfortable as the Hall of Fame-caliber star who inhabits his own skin, I wasn’t altogether sorry I read it. His inherent affability shone through despite pursuing his agenda of dismay, plus I learned a good bit about how a spectacular hitter and stalwart catcher sees the game, and now that he’s special-instructing, I imagine he has a few pointers (besides “dude, hit the ball real hard”) to pass on to the likes of Travis d’Arnaud.

I was also reminded you don’t have to have been Piazza-level as a player to accumulate and dispense wisdom to the next generation. One of the names that jumped out from the pages of grudges in Long Shot was that of Frank Estrada. Estrada was Piazza’s winter league manager in Mexico in 1991 — and Frank is short for Francisco.

Recognize him? Francisco Estrada was one of the four players the Mets gave up to get Jim Fregosi from the Angels in 1971. That’s usually as far as he gets in the Met canon, but if you read Long Shot, you’ll find out that Estrada played a role in Mets history that outweighs his throw-in status in the Nolan Ryan deal.

Francisco Estrada taught Mike Piazza how to catch. Not singlehandedly, but enough so that Piazza saw fit to single him out for his instruction more than 20 years after the fact. “He taught me a lot,” Mike wrote of the man known as Paquin. “In the end, going to Mexico was absolutely the best thing I could have done that winter…it was when I started to become a polished hitter.”

Ryan + 3 for Fregosi was a bust of epic proportions for the Mets. But if you consider Piazza, by way of Estrada’s tutelage, a de facto throw-in to the deal coming back this way (albeit 27 years after the fact), I’d say the worst trade ever made eventually evened out just fine.

15 comments to ‘Dude, Hit the Ball Hard’

  • Dave

    Fascinating that Piazza looks back and doesn’t feel the love. Would require someone with more knowledge of psychology than I have to figure out why, but from a baseball perspective, I think it was long ago agreed – and unanimously so – that if he was drafted in whatever it was, the 61st round or something, that 29 other teams badly goofed 60 times each by thinking there was someone else they needed more than Mike Piazza. Even the Mets, who often fall clumsily short in honoring their own, inducted him into their HOF in less time than most inductees have had to wait, and his uniform number has at the very least joined those of Carter, Mays and now apparently Hernandez as unofficially retired. We loved him and cheered for him, even when he came back later in a different uniform, I know because I was at a game where he was in town as a Padre.

    Although he is not someone one might normally compare to Piazza New York Catcher, I’m just finishing Morrissey’s autobiography, which is similar to what you describe. When not cackling endlessly about everything he finds loathsome, he cackles endlessly about how everyone finds him loathsome…all the while cleverly reminding the reader about his record sales and legions of adoring fans just about everywhere but Antarctica. Fame and public admiration are kind of like money I suppose…those who have the most of it seem to be the ones who feel they are being shortchanged the most.

  • Totally valid criticism of the book. I came away with a similar impression. But the blame for the book’s unfortunate tone rests squarely on the shoulders of Piazza’s writer and editor. I doubt Mikey did much more than sit for a series of interviews. It’s certainly possible, if not likely, that he whined in those interviews, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the writer and editor to make the whine palatable.

  • 5w30

    “Good thinking” and “Jeff Wilpon” don’t go together. For example: http://instagram.com/p/lD4JIRhO7o/

  • dak442

    I haven’t gotten around to this book yet, and with this review I will likely take my time.

    Among others, I attended Tom Seaver Night, Rusty Staub Day, Doc’s return from Smithers… and I have NEVER seen an outpouring of love and affection for a Met like three I saw in person directed at Mike: his last game as a Met, his return as a Padre, and the last day at Shea. Heck, he sold out the usually sparsely-attended Closing Day last year.

    I agree with Bluenatic that this came from the writer and editor. Mike knows how we feel about him.

  • open the gates

    It wouldn’t shock me if Piazza had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. It’s what drives some people to achieve greatness. Of course, with some folks the chip on the shoulder takes over altogether. (see: Bonilla, Bobby)

  • Noreen

    I agree with your critique of the book. I was an enormous fan of Mike Piazza and I could barely get thru this book. I was just glad that I borrowed it from the library and didn’t pay for this drivel.

  • Patrick O'Hern

    Didn’t feel the negative tone in the book as much as others. Thought he definitely had a chip on the shoulder but I felt he also expressed his appreciation for the Met fan and NY stay. He did admit he took it all too seriously and wished he could’ve enjoyed it more. Just finished Neil Young’s auto. Surprised by how upbeat he is in it -doesn’t slag anyone.

  • Lenny65

    The idea that Met fans were tough on Mike is pretty laughable. The way I remember it, he was embraced almost exactly like Gary Carter was, immediately and totally. And even Gary Carter heard the boo birds here and there. He’s easily one of the top four of five most beloved players in team history, without a doubt.

  • PenaciousH

    Agree- I had to give up the book 2 chapters in. AND if Piazza didn’t change his mind about our love for him after Mike Piazza day last year, which I enjoyed attending and heard and saw a loong standing O then I dunno what to say.

    • Lenny65

      I’d say it’s between Mike and David Wright for most beloved non-’69 or ’86 Met ever, with Rusty in the show position.

  • Met5fan

    Totally agree with your take on the book. My regret is that i paid for it. As a life long Mike fan I will always admire his baseball accomplishments and will never forget the home run after 9/11. But after reading this poor excuse of a bio, i have lost any respect or admiration for him as a person. What was his motive other than revenge on all of those who did not recognize his greatness? He certainly shot himself in the foot with regards to hall of fame votes. The flashbacks about his friend “treating” his backne make me nauseous. The takeaway as a lifer fan was that he never enjoyed playing the game. What a sad perspective on a privileged career and lifestyle. And no fair blaming the editor…unless he/she was a Dodger fan.Mike couldn’t put two sentences together to defend himself when it was published.

  • nestornajwa

    Let’s not make too much of this. He played the game with great joy and enthusiasm. Remember when he accidentally snagged that line drive during his first game at 1b? He was a brilliant athlete, not a great communicator. He’s angry NOW, and I don’t blame him. There are thousands of books written by current and former professional athletes, and maybe two dozen are good reads. He’s frustrated and this is his way of lashing out, staying in the spotlight long enough to swing a few votes, and maybe making a few bucks. He’ll be his smiling self when we see him at the ballpark. And, hopefully, at the podium in Cooperstown SOON.