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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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Piazza: The Space Between

When I wrote Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, I wanted to show what it was like to root for the Mets in the years before Mike Piazza; how different rooting for the Mets became at the height of Piazza’s powers; and what is was like saying so long but not goodbye to someone who’d come to embody the Mets for so long. It’s all in there, and I think any Mets fan who lived through those times or thinks about these sorts of things will enjoy reading it.

Mentioned only fleetingly is another portion of the Piazza experience, the part where Mike’s status diminishes over time, the denouement of his Met tenure, the years between Met megastardom (1998-2001) and ascent into Met legend (2005-eternity). If you read me here, you know I don’t really go in for fleeting mentions, which is to say I wrote a good bit about those years that have kind of gone down the Mike memory hole — after the dramatic home run of September 21, 2001, before he left New York for San Diego — but had to cut much of it for space.

Even icons experience a denouement.

It’s the All-Star break. Mike was a Mets All-Star seven times. And we’ve got all the space in the world here. So during this week, while we peer into the TV in quest of Conforto sightings, I’ll be excerpting some deleted scenes, concentrating on those beloved seasons 2002, 2003 and 2004, along with some outtakes covering later years.

Not so incidentally, I’ll be appearing at Long Island’s most beautiful book store and wine shop, Turn of the Corkscrew in Rockville Centre, Friday night, July 28, 7 PM, to talk Piazza, Mets fandom, Mets writing and whatever else comes up. I hope you’ll join me there. The Mets are in Seattle that night, so the early evening will be the perfect time for a get-together. (A couple of other exciting announcements to come in the days ahead, so keep your eyes on this space.)

***

At Shea, before October of 2001 moved on to its usual autumn theater, there were a couple of moments worth preserving, even if they weren’t on a par with Piazza’s homer off Steve Karsay. On Saturday night, October 6, Lenny Harris pinch-hit in the bottom of the sixth for Rey Ordoñez and singled. It was the 151st pinch-hit of Harris’s career, the most by anybody in major league history. The Mets treated it as no less worthy of celebration than any milestone Rickey Henderson or Barry Bonds produced over the final week. Mike led a charge from the first base dugout to swarm Lenny. Tina Turner’s “The Best” blared from the sound system. The Mets had recently lost the division a year after losing the World Series, two years after losing the pennant, three years after losing the Wild Card. There’d been enough loss in their city lately besides. Harris was a well-liked teammate and his record was certainly noteworthy, but what appeared obvious from the stands at Shea is the Mets needed to end a campaign with something to shout about.

Not that they would, technically. There was one game left, on chilly Sunday afternoon, October 7, the latest date on which the Mets had ever played a regular-season game. Moments before first pitch, President Bush addressed the nation to announce America was launching an assault on Afghanistan, retribution for harboring the terrorists who executed the September 11 attacks. After all the caps and all the flags and every well-meaning beat of healing amid a morass of unyielding pain, the truth was these games could do only so much. Now, at least for the Mets, the games were ending. As Mike said in the wake of his September 21 home run, “This isn’t life and death, this is baseball.” Given Bush’s de facto declaration of war, life and death seemed destined to continue their tango unabated for who knew how long.

With serious real-world news reverberating in their heads, the Mets limped to the finish line, losing to the Expos, 5–0, concluding their mostly forgettable until it was seared into memory third-place season at 82–80. Come the seventh-inning stretch, “God Bless America” duties were assumed by the team as a whole, with Harris and first base coach Mookie Wilson serving as leaders of the choir. “We started off slow,” Piazza admitted. “A few voices cracked in the beginning. I think we were all flat. It wasn’t that easy. But I think we finished strong.”

So the 2001 Mets turned in a mostly off-key performance. Even the severest critic couldn’t say the way they went after it wasn’t heartfelt.

***

Come 2002, team history was on the verge of rebooting if not repeating itself. A decade earlier, the Mets had tried to prop up a faltering contender with a thorough housecleaning and the importation of big, impressive names. That it backfired then didn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t rekindle Met fortunes now.

Thus, out from the 2000 pennant-winners went Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Benny Agbayani, Lenny Harris, Glendon Rusch and Rick White. Out from the 2001 late surge went a few more recent contributors: Tsuyoshi Shinjo, Kevin Appier, Desi Relaford and Matt Lawton. In from the outside came Roberto Alomar, the acclaimed second baseman; Mo Vaughn, powerful first baseman; Jeromy Burnitz, who’d grown into an All-Star since Dallas Green decided he didn’t want him around; Roger Cedeño, still speedy and presumably further seasoned since his 1999 stay; starting pitchers Pedro Astacio, Jeff D’Amico and Shawn Estes; and relievers David Weathers, Mark Guthrie, Satoru Komiyama and Kane Davis.

The net Met effect was negative. Various and sundry base hits and decent outings aside, the transformation didn’t take as intended. The Mets were transformed from a team barely hanging on in the race when August began to a team that plunged precipitously out of it before August ended. Shea had less and less spark to it as the season went on. “A team of strangers,” a clubhouse observer called this collection of players. It showed in the standings. Mojo not only didn’t rise, it never seeped onto the premises…and no dogs whatsoever were let out.

Not having merited a ticker tape parade when they had their best shots at it in 1999 and 2000, there was no platform for first base coach Mookie Wilson to revise his speech from 1986 and declare that the 21st would be the Century of the Mets. After that late lunge in 2001 came up empty, whatever early momentum the franchise was carrying in that direction began to dissipate. Yet amid this Met miasma, Piazza persevered. His numbers — 33 HR, 98 RBI — were still splendid. He was elected to another All-Star Game and awarded another Silver Slugger, both honors earned. But without a playoff spot to chase, the sidebars became the main stories. Most bizarre was the topic that burned up the tabloids for a spell, namely whether Mike Piazza was gay. He said he wasn’t. No ballplayer ever said he was while he was still playing ball, but Piazza’s celebrity became a convenient vessel for speculation that arose from a fairly banal Bobby Valentine quote on the subject in general. Baseball, the manager opined when asked, was “probably ready for an openly gay player”. Next thing he knew, Piazza was telling reporters before a game in Philadelphia in May that he was straight: “The truth is I’m heterosexual and date women and that’s it. End of story.”

A more familiar subject reared its ugly head in June when Roger Clemens returned to Shea to pitch against the Mets for the first time since the 2000 World Series, meaning he’d step into the batter’s box and leave himself vulnerable to the payback for which so many who bled blue, orange and black had been salivating. It was a little late for any pitch aimed at any part of him to be delivered meaningfully, however. That World Series was over. Mike Hampton, his mound opponent of twenty months earlier who demurred from retaliation, was ensconced as a Colorado Rockie. Clemens would instead face Estes, a San Francisco Giant in 2000; his team lost to the Mets in that year’s NLDS. The feud had nothing to do with him, but when he found himself toeing the rubber at Shea facing the Yankee pitcher, he did what was more or less expected of him. He threw behind Clemens.

Way behind. He missed an enormous target. Like so much else about the 2002 Mets, it wasn’t a good look. More substantively, Estes and Piazza each homered off the Rocket and the Mets beat him soundly, 8–0, but Clemens going physically scot-free gnawed at the Metropolitan sense of self-respect.

The Mets’ play didn’t elicit much regard, not even from one of their own. Keith Hernandez, an occasional member of the cable broadcast crew, lashed out at his alma mater’s attitude in early September, writing on the MSG Network’s Web site that “the club has no heart” and “the Mets quit a long time ago.” The criticism, no matter how valid it looked to any viewer who’d kept paying attention to the floundering Mets, didn’t sit well with Piazza who fired back that Hernandez was “a voice from the grave.” The announcer retracted his statement and apologized to the players.

Piazza and Hernandez never played together but they were teammates in a sense. While the present was growing ever more difficult (the Mets feinted toward Wild Card contention in late July, trading Jay Payton to Colorado for pitching help, but ultimately went winless at home in August), the franchise celebrated its fortieth anniversary by unveiling a fan-voted All-Amazin’ Team. Keith was its first baseman, Mike its catcher. Edgardo Alfonzo and the injured John Franco, out all season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, were the only other active Mets to make the squad. Everybody elected was connected to one of the club’s four World Series teams. Though Jerry Grote and Gary Carter had rings to show from winning world championships, by 2002 it was clear no catcher took a back seat in Met history to Mike Piazza.

Then again, sometimes it was hard for the Mets to accommodate their own history in the front seat. The afternoon after the All-Amazin’ festivities, the club posthumously inducted Tommie Agee into its Hall of Fame. While the honor was well-intentioned, the execution was about as bad as everything else the 2002 Mets tried. Valentine chose the pregame period to hold a team meeting, meaning no current Mets — not even their all-time catcher — were in the dugout to witness the enshrinement. Tom Seaver expressed his disenchantment over Channel 11 during the game that followed (another loss).

Valentine fired back a few weeks later, but by then, he had bigger problems brewing. A few fringe Mets were identified by Newsday as marijuana users, which provided Bobby V yet another platform from which to address the media, which didn’t come off very smoothly. The skipper denied his players could be pot-smokers because you couldn’t possibly play ball while high and, to reinforce his point, he took a drag from an imaginary joint, which made for an interesting photo opportunity. Maybe if Joe Torre had done the same, it would have come off as a teachable moment. In Valentine’s hands, the gesture made the Mets look, well, like the Mets. In 2002, that wasn’t the most inspiring of selling points. In any event, marijuana wasn’t a burning issue in baseball until this mini-scandal, but the recently negotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement, agreed to in August on the eve of a strike deadline, did include a provision to implement testing for performance-enhancing drugs, referred to generically as steroids, in 2003.

The 75–86 season that nobody was high on — the first to see the Mets land in last place since 1993 — ended on a Sunday at Shea against the eternal division champion Braves. Bobby Cox sent up a rookie pitcher from Korea as a pinch-hitter. His last name was Bong. The irony wasn’t lost on anybody.

Valentine’s tenure had encompassed so much compelling baseball and an undeniable amount of success, but little of either in 2002. Fingers could be pointed and blame could apportioned, but in baseball, the manager is inevitably suspect, particularly one who rarely shies away from the media when he has something or somebody to criticize. Bobby V’s time was up. Fred Wilpon, who had bought out Nelson Doubleday in August, dismissed Valentine shortly after the final game.

***

On a mid-December weekend in 2002, the Mets broke up what was left of what was once considered the Greatest Infield Ever. Rey Ordoñez — who’d stopped winning Gold Gloves, never really developed as a hitter and responded to booing by calling Mets fans “stupid” — was sent to the Devil Rays. Alfonzo, despite his All-Amazin’ designation, was allowed to leave as a free agent, signing a four-year deal with the Giants. The “team of strangers” was about to grow even stranger.

Who were these guys? The 2003 Mets took shape as names garnered from places most Mets fans, no matter what Ordoñez thought of them, were hesitant to embrace. Mike Stanton, the ex-Yankee, was now a Met reliever. Cliff Floyd, a longtime Marlin, was now the Met left fielder. T#m Gl@v!ne…T#m Gl@v!ne…as much the personification of Brave oppression as anyone who wore a tomahawk across his chest, was now the Met staff ace. They’d join Vaughn and Alomar — plus, for a few weeks early in the season, a pre-retirement David Cone — and be managed by Art Howe, late of the Oakland A’s. Howe piloted the Athletics to three consecutive playoff appearances, yet GM Billy Beane didn’t seem particularly concerned about keeping him around. Wilpon testified that during a search process in which the Mets also considered Lou Piniella (for whom Seattle demanded compensation), Howe “lit up” the room and “blew me away.” He made Howe’s hiring official the day after the Angels defeated the Giants in a seven-game World Series.

Within this cornucopia of newcomers, Mike Piazza, thirty-four years old, remained a Met. He was still on the cover of one of the pocket schedules (Gl@v!ne was on the other), still the starting catcher, still the cleanup hitter on Opening Day when Gl@v!ne debuted at Shea in a Mets uniform. Mike went one-for-four. T#m gave up five runs in less than four innings. The Mets lost to the Cubs, 15–2.

The year never got much better. Fifth and last place became the club’s permanent home in June. Attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1997, the year before Piazza joined the team. The Mets commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the 1973 Mets in July, taking great care to honor Tug McGraw, who’d been diagnosed with brain cancer during Spring Training, but the season as a whole felt more like a tenth-anniversary homage to 1993. The 95 losses at year’s end would be the most the Mets piled up in a decade. All six Subway Series games, including one started in the Bronx by Clemens, went the unstoppable Yankees’ way (though the 2003 World Series wouldn’t; they’d lose it to the surprising Marlins in six). Turnover turned staggering. Acting as sellers instead of buyers, the Mets whisked away players by the fistful. Alomar, Burnitz and — after 160 saves overshadowed by a few too many critical leads that got away late — Armando Benitez were among those swapped for prospects. The GM trading them was not Steve Phillips, who took his share of responsibility when he was axed in June, but newly elevated assistant general manager Jim Duquette.

Piazza missed the bulk of the fun, such as it was. A horrific groin injury in which muscle tore away from bone was sustained during an at-bat May 16 at San Francisco, sidelining Mike for three months. That it occurred while Piazza was standing beside and not crouching behind the plate was ironic in light of developments the week before. Howe, who upon his hiring waved away the possibility of moving Mike to first base (“as long as he’s doing the job behind the dish, he’s going to be there”), let MSG know he was, in fact, contemplating a position switch for his superstar. What had changed from December to May was the availability of Vaughn. Mo’s arthritic knee eliminated him from the lineup, the active roster and, eventually, playing any more baseball. The Mets needed a first baseman. They had Mike Piazza.

Asking a highly decorated catcher to take on a new position late in his career wasn’t an absurd notion. Every time a clip of Bill Mazeroski’s World Series-winning homer from 1960 aired, the accompanying radio call from Chuck Thompson included “back to the wall goes Berra.” Yogi didn’t rush hundreds of feet from behind the plate to chase it down; he was playing left field for the Yankees. In his final three seasons with the Reds, Johnny Bench started more than 200 games at third and first. Carlton Fisk played a little first base and left field in addition to DH’ing for the White Sox. If the two All-Century catchers and the one who caught more games than any other catcher — and hit the most home runs in games he caught — could find other things to do on the diamond, then why not Piazza?

No reason, really, though it would have been nice had Howe brought it up to Mike before telling the media what was on his mind. Art told the press before he told his would-be first baseman of his position-switching plans, and that didn’t sit well with the Met of Mets. It didn’t help matters that the season was more than a month underway and nobody had asked Piazza to try his hand at first during Spring Training. He had last played it for an inning in 1993, having otherwise devoted himself to catching once it became his only conceivable path to the majors. Nevertheless, he said he told Howe and then-GM Phillips, “I’ll do whatever you think needs to be done for this organization. Obviously, my love is for this ballclub and I’ll do whatever you guys want.”

Soon, all eyes were on otherwise mundane BP activity during the Mets’ ensuing visit to Denver. Mike Piazza was taking ground balls at first base. It was a story. Then it receded, thanks to the injury in San Francisco. While Mike mended, Vance Wilson and rookie Jason Phillips caught. Phillips also showed a talent for first base. Another new face in the infield belonged to Jose Reyes, called up on the eve of his twentieth birthday to fill in at shortstop. It was supposed to be a temporary promotion, but Reyes impressed and held down the position through August, when an injury ended his season, too.

By then, Piazza — having not been selected to an All-Star Game for the first time in his career — was back with the Mets. He returned on August 13 with as much of a bang as could have been imagined. At Shea, against Barry Bonds, Edgardo Alfonzo and the Giants, Mike teed off on Jerome Williams for a two-run homer in his second at-bat…second at-bat in the game, second at-bat in three months. He singled home a run in his next at-bat and drove in two more two at-bats later. Those five RBIs turned the lights out on the visitors and, you might say, the home fans. The next afternoon, New York and much of the Northeast experienced a power outage that left the city dark and the finale of the Giant series cancelled. Perhaps Con Ed should have just plugged into the Mets’ catcher. It certainly appeared he had an ample supply in reserve.

Mike finally met first base under unusual circumstances. In late July, Bob Murphy, Mets voice since 1962, announced he would retire at season’s end. The Mets hastily arranged ceremonies in his honor for the last night of the home schedule, the final game he would call, Thursday, September 25. The occasion couldn’t have felt sadder. The Mets were concluding their second consecutive last-place season and the man who had made all the bad years sunnier by his innately hopeful nature (the Mets were never out of a game by Murph’s reckoning, they were just a few batters from bringing the tying run into the on-deck circle) was saying goodbye. During his pregame farewell, Bob retraced the franchise’s steps more than his own and closed with a farewell and amen that deserved a crowd larger than the 25,081 who paid their way in:

“I hate to say goodbye so much. I know I have no choice. It was a lot easier saying hello the first day we came to New York forty-two years ago than it saying goodbye here tonight. There’s no point in keeping you waiting any longer. Let me tell you how much I love you, let me tell you how great you have been. I’m gonna miss you, believe me I will. I’ll start missing you the minute I walk off this field. It has been such a marvelous, marvelous time. On behalf of my wife, Joye, we both say thanks to you for being so good to us, for allowing us to be a part of your life and for enjoying baseball with us. Thank you very much. Good night and God bless.”

After an appreciative standing ovation, Murphy took the elevator to the radio booth to call his final game, Mets versus Pirates. Piazza took his place behind the plate to catch Gl@v!ne. When Mike looked out toward the outfield, he could find Raul Gonzalez in left, Timo Perez in center and Cedeño in right. Around the infield, he could see Ty Wigginton at third, Jorge Velandia at short, Joe McEwing at second and Mike Glavine at first.

Mike Glavine? Yes, he was related to T#m, and his presence on the roster and in the lineup after nine years in the minor leagues attested at least as much as the Piazza-Lasorda connection ever did to the benefit of knowing somebody somewhere. With this oddball assortment having taken the field, Bob and Gary Cohen called what was unfolding as an otherwise typical 2003 Mets loss. In the top of the ninth, however, it became highly noteworthy. Moving over to play first, replacing Tony Clark, who had already replaced Glavine, was Mike Piazza.

Here came what all the fuss had been about: a liner and two grounders. Three putouts sans incident for the newest Met first baseman. In the bottom of the ninth, Mike would go down as the victim in the final strikeout Bob Murphy would ever call, taking a third strike from Julian Tavarez. Wigginton then grounded to second, ending Murph’s forty-two seasons with a 3–1 defeat and sending the Mets to Miami to play out the remaining frayed edges of their string. Mike caught the first game, the one that allowed the Marlins to clinch the National League Wild Card, then sat out the last two, ending the year with only eleven home runs in sixty-eight games. Further stabs at first base would have to wait until next season.

In our next installment, it’s the year of “meaningful games,” departing teammates and the brink of another era.

6 comments to Piazza: The Space Between

  • Inside Pitcher

    Whenever I hear Jimmy Eat World’s The Middle I still ask myself, “How did Estes completely miss that fat ass?”

  • APV

    Yes, interesting times, weren’t they Greg?

    The 2003 season was a strange one for me, because it wasn’t one where I was all that upset about anything Mets-related (certainly not like the prior year). The apathy probably started on Opening Day and then I moved to Washington state in July and stayed for what turned out to be the rest of Piazza’s Mets tenure. Before leaving, I got to see the Mariners come to Shea and that meant the return of John Olerud. He’ll always have a special place in my heart as a fan and I was more than happy to give him a standing O before his first at bat. If only the 2000 M’s had won the ALCS …

    Of course, reading about Murph’s retirement brought tears to my eyes from 3,000 miles away (and I’m willing to bet yours too from a much closer distance). And we all know he passed away the following August. What else do I remember about 2003 at Shea? Thunder Stix, Rally Monkeys and (shoot me in the head) Wilson Phillips. Yeah Jeff Wilpon, you were a real trendsetter that year. Replicating the team that won the World Series the prior year and then capitalizing on the backstop that replaced Piazza while he was out by having the A/V guy play songs from a pop trio that hadn’t been on the radio in more than a decade. Guess I picked a good year to skip town.

    It really sucked that by the time I returned to NY, Mike had left. Had I moved back a year earlier, I would have been at his final game as a Met. No wonder it was imperative to be there when he came back as a Padre in 2006 and with Oakland in 2007. You’re damn right I stood and applauded both nights. They were my chance to say goodbye. Thanks for the look back. Very easy to put the post-pennant, pre-Wright and Reyes years in the rearview, or the garbage, otherwise.

    • Great 2003 nuggets in there, APV. Yes, “Wilson Phillips” was the future behind the plate for at least a week. I, too, attended that Olerud homecoming. Maybe a quarter of the crowd joined you and me in standing and ovating. Nobody was in a good mood that entire season, myself included. I spent the year miffed about Howe replacing Bobby V and anybody replacing Fonzie. I went to 10 games total (my lowest amount of the past twenty seasons) and reached double-digits only because of Murph Night at the very end.

  • eric1973

    Bob Murphy was the epitome of class. He was very disappointed when he was taken off TV and was made to do ‘just radio,’ in the early 80s. He handled it like a pro, and I always well up when I recount his final words from his final game:

    “I’ve enjoyed the relationship.”

    So did we, Bob. So did we.

  • Dave

    Beautifully done, Greg…whether it was your intention or not, a reminder that there have been Mets teams a lot worse than what we’re watching now.

    But there’s still about 49% of the season left to go. Sufficient opportunities to get much worse…”in right field, hitting 7th, Tim Tebow…”