- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Embroidered Into Our Fabric

You can identify my black Mike Piazza [1] t-shirt by sight if you see me wearing it; it says Mets 31 on the front, PIAZZA 31 on the back. I can identify it by feel. It was always longer than all the player-number shirts I acquired in the late 1990s, thicker without being confining. I’m a t-shirt connoisseur, I suppose, or at least a connoisseur of my t-shirts.

I know my PIAZZA 31 well enough so that when I make the purposely infrequent decision to wear it, I know no other shirt could be covering my torso. It, like he to whom it pays tribute, is one of a kind.

Absorbs perspiration, provides inspiration. [2]

Absorbs perspiration, provides inspiration.

PIAZZA 31 came out of retirement for the third time in a decade just as Piazza’s 31 was going into retirement for keeps. The last time my black shirt with the particularly dark blue and definitely cracked numbers was in rotation was October 2, 2005, Mike’s last game as a New York Met [3]. It moved from drawer to shelf after the next laundry, re-emerging on August 8, 2006, Mike’s first visit back to Shea Stadium as a San Diego Padre [4]. Seven years later, on September 29, 2013, while others wore the PIAZZA 31 they were handed upon entering Citi Field (I’m always impressed that people don giveaway shirts as soon as they get them), I opted for Old Glory to come out of the closet. The occasion was the induction of Mike Piazza into the Mets Hall of Fame [5].

One more time, I said at the end of that day. They will retire his number and I will unretire this shirt one final time when they do.

They did. And so did I. PIAZZA 31 didn’t just fit fine. It felt right. How many summer nights from 1999 to 2005 did I sweat in this shirt? How much Flushing humidity has it absorbed? (What haunting climate change story could it tell?) By the middle of Saturday night, July 30, 2016, the upper half of my body was dead certain of what it was wearing. There could be no other shirt for me on this date, just as there could be no other Met at the center of the ceremonies that demanded I dress appropriately.

A confession: I both love and hate talking about retired numbers. I love it because it’s such a carefully woven topic, consisting of so many fascinating threads. I hate it because it unravels so quickly. There is no right answer. There is no wrong answer. Usually, there are no answers, just more opinions, no two ever quite meshing. You probably could have injected the subject into the pair of political conventions just completed and had each party snipe at the other for its totally unreasonable stance.

Changing minds is a tough go in any realm these days. A person’s criteria for retiring a number seems to stay as stuck as any summer evening’s moisture to my PIAZZA 31. We should retire ‘A’ because…but wait, what about ‘B’?…never mind ‘B’…‘C’ is totally overlooked…what, you want to be like the Y’s and retire every number in sight?…besides ‘A’ wasn’t here as long as ‘B’…you guys are completely dismissing the historical significance of ‘D’…yes, but ‘E’ was already retired and ‘C’ actually had better stats…‘B’ wasn’t that great for us, not really…‘A’ had issues off the field that I can’t forgive…did ‘C’ ever actually win anything?…look at this list of numbers retired by some team we never give any thought to and how it’s ridiculously expansive…but not as expansive as the Y’s…y’know, the Y’s had a lot of really great players…‘F’ them, what about ‘D’?

I find it simultaneously the most stimulating and irritating topic in all of fandom, never mind blogdom. I value consensus and clarity almost as much I prize a t-shirt that’s as familiar as it is reliable. Arguments that circle round and round are anathema to me.

Perhaps that’s why 31’s official placement in an orange circle backed by blue pinstripes was so striking. At the moment it was unveiled, it was perfectly clear what it was doing keeping company with its handsomely relocated numerical brethren high above the left field corner at Citi Field. Exposure to Mike Piazza in all those at-bats way back when — and as he swung away at his makeshift podium Saturday — provided clarity that no number could have been more worthy of the honor the Mets were wisely bestowing on him after withholding it from everybody else for 28 years. As for consensus, if there was anybody in the house who wasn’t touched, moved and/or chilled by 31’s reveal, I couldn’t detect a nay vote.

This weekend and last remind us that Mike Piazza ruled. He was an era unto himself, and it was as invigorating an era as any that Mets baseball has offered. In a way, every Mets era fits me like my PIAZZA 31. Give me 31 seconds to think about a given season, and I’m mentally back in that season. Drop me off anywhere between 1998 and 2001 and I’m at home in the heart of Piazza Country. Nothing matters like Mike and the Mets, and nothing ever will. That’s when he and his teams pre-empted all regularly scheduled programming in our consciousness. When Piazza himself did something special — which was often — the Met Emergency Alert System went into effect. He might as well have been batting on every channel.

As with Cooperstown a week ago and the Mets’ underexposed Hall of Fame three years ago, the retirement of 31 was always, on some level, a technicality. Why would you have halls of fame and other accoutrement of what we refer to as immortality if you’re not going to ensure Mike Piazza is embroidered into their fabric? Within a franchise where importing elite talent has produced a decidedly mixed bag (may contain up to 95% letdown), Piazza was routinely great most of the time from the start. He grounded into a few more double plays than preferred his first couple of months. After that, he excelled on the regular and came through in extraordinary fashion at moments so iconic that they still bear his name. There was never any serious doubt he’d attain every honor available to a baseball player done playing.

Yet when the kudos he had coming have come along, his acceptance of them has been exhilarating. Mike has made these DVD extras to his career true bonus features. With the sudden addition of Justin Ruggiano [6], there have been 1,019 New York Mets. I’m willing to say that nobody among them has ever “gotten it” or “gets it” more than Mike Piazza, the “it” being this thing of ours.

Mike Piazza worked to make himself a longshot major leaguer, then a dazzling superstar. He had both of those down cold long before he arrived dazed at LaGuardia on May 23, 1998. Once he found his bearings, he worked to make himself a Met. I don’t know that anybody else ever has. He took time between cuts in the cage to notice who we were, what we wanted, how badly we wanted it. I can’t swear that our desires are tangibly different from those who adore the Dodgers or the Marlins or the Padres or the A’s, but Mike discerned during his sixteen seasons and after that it was different playing for the Mets than it was any of his other teams. It wasn’t a PR effort on his part. He understood our familial instinct, our yearning to make him one of ours, and he embraced it. He got it.

Not having come up as a Met only enhances Piazza’s legacy. After four months, he could have walked away. He could have been lavishly compensated anywhere he chose to go in the fall of 1998, places where 6-4-3 DPs and throws that sailed into center would presumably be tolerated a little longer or ignored altogether. Instead, he was determined to make it here, which studies have shown indicates you can make it anywhere. But why bother with anywhere else when you can be the rare imported superstar who doesn’t disappoint Mets fans? I really think Mike loves the Mets in that large-hearted mythic way an immigrant loves America.

That he loves the Mets like we do and loves Mets fans like we love him is not in question after the way he spoke when 31 was retired. It was right in line with what he said when the Mets installed him in their own Hall of Fame and Cooperstown’s voters finally generated a clue and did the same. He roots with us. He prays with us. He wants our current players, when they’re in need of a boost (and they sure as hell are lately [7]), to look up at his number and derive all the inspiration they can from “Ol’ Mikey”.

We applauded everything he said and everything that was said on his behalf. We are in this together with him for as much eternity as a lifetime will allow. We will always look to 31 and appreciate how much better we were thanks to him having become one of us.

***

If you didn’t see the ceremony, by all means watch it here [8].

***

My deep appreciation to my wonderful sister of a non-biological nature Jodie who came up from Florida for the ceremony and made sure I got the opportunity to wear an old t-shirt for a new reason. We took in the game from the Honda Clubhouse, which is the Avenue of the Americas identity of what you probably more immediately recognize as the Mo’s Zone. It used to be fair territory. Now it’s an interesting perspective. If you position yourself properly, you’re within unique heckling distance of Carlos Gonzalez [9]. It’s hard to resist the temptation. It’s also hard to leave at the end of nine innings, because they don’t let you out to dash to your train until the occupants of the Mets bullpen pass in front of you en route to their clubhouse.

The Ruggiano-enhanced Mets didn’t look any better versus the Rockies from ground level than they did any other angle. They’re pulseless, lifeless and teetering on the edge of 2016-hopeless. They’re also going to be sans pending [10] Cleveland Indians catcher Jonathan Lucroy [11], which negates whatever was decided in recurring trade deadline conversations throughout Citi Field Saturday night (or not [12]). I participated in one of those for a couple of innings as I slipped out of the Honda cocoon midgame and met up with two other long-distance travelers who determined they absolutely had to be on-site to witness 31’s overdue consecration. A tip of my damp black Mets cap with the 2000 World Series patch (when I go for a theme, I go all in) to my friends Mark from England and Dave from California [13] for coming so far — not just their respective non-Honda sections — and standing with me in the drizzle between Papa Rosso and Beers of the World just so we could mull over a deal that was probably never going to happen.

I could think of worse things to get wet doing.

You can stay dry inside Little City Books in Hoboken and relive with me that golden year of 2015 on Monday night, August 8, 7 PM [14]. It was a year ago today that the Mets made a trade and became Amazin’ Again. The contents of that book will probably come up at Little City, but feel free to talk about any year — or number — when you see me there.