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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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2004: A First Base Odyssey

Until it falls apart (and I know from experience it will, for this is the second one I’ve had), I carry with me to ballgames a promotional day sports bag that has the motto CATCH THE ENERGY printed above the script Mets logo. How vintage does that make it? Vintage enough so that it also features an ad on a side panel urging people to use the phone book.

Both are tipoffs that this is a pretty old bag. It’s from 2004, when handfuls of fingers still roamed the Yellow Pages and the Mets were going to run their way to respectability, a heckuva goal after the 66-95 debacle of 2003. That was what the “Energy” was about: youth, athleticism, a shift away from expensive sluggers, one of whom was going to be infrequently asked to “Catch”. Mike Piazza was entering the second-to-last season of his seven-year contract. He’d start it as a catcher. He’d wind up ninety feet away on a fairly regular basis before it was over.

I didn’t get to spend as much time on this phase of No. 31’s story in my book Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star as I would’ve liked, in deference to space considerations. So I’ll visit it here, as you can below.

You can also come see me in a couple of places in the weeks ahead:

• Monday night, July 24, I’ll be one of the speakers at Varsity Letters’ next baseball program. The venue is Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker St. in Manhattan. The bill is Ron Kaplan, author of Hank Greenberg in 1938; Jay Jaffe, The Cooperstown Casebook; Mark Feinsand, The New York Yankees Fans’ Bucket List; and me. Doors open at 7 PM, the ball talk begins at 7:30, the admission is free, the other salient details are here.

• Friday night, July 28, I’ll be all about Mike and the Mets at Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine, 110 N. Park Ave. in Rockville Centre on Long Island. It’s a beautiful setting for a discussion of a beautiful player. Learn more about it here.

• Right now (or as soon as you read this exclusive deleted scene), you can have a listen to Justin McGuire and me going deep like Piazza on Piazza on Justin’s wonderful Baseball by the Book podcast. You can check it out here or find it on iTunes.

***

A little in advance of Opening Day 2004, the Mets hustled Timo Perez off to the White Sox and shipped Roger Cedeño to the Cardinals. There went two more Mets who remembered what it was like to win something as Mets. But back came an erstwhile National League champion, Todd Zeile, signing as a free agent for one more go-around with the franchise that he helped to the World Series. Zeile had played for eleven different clubs, but the Mets had been his only ticket to ride.

The Mets weren’t pointing toward another Fall Classic in the spring of ’04. After the 66–95 debacle of 2003, a handful of upgrades were attempted. Mike Cameron, the center fielder who replaced Ken Griffey in Seattle, was brought on board, as was Kaz Matsui, reportedly a terrific shortstop in Japan. Jose Reyes, despite a splashy debut, was shifted to second. His progress there would be delayed after a hamstring strain put him on the shelf for a few months. There had been talk the Mets would lure superstar right fielder Vladimir Guerrero from Montreal, but it was just talk. Vlad went to Anaheim, so the Mets scrounged together two ex-Yankee retreads, Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia, and declared them a platoon. To Wilpon’s thinking, there’d be enough talent to make the Mets, at the very least, respectable enough to play “meaningful games in September.” It was a term that eluded precise definition and baffled his players.

“What does that mean?” Cameron asked.
“I don’t understand,” Reyes admitted.
“Well,” Cliff Floyd rationalized, “I guess you’ve got start somewhere.”

Mike was more accustomed to trotting around first than standing in proximity to it for nine innings.

The perhaps meaningful Mets began their season at Turner Field with Mike Piazza on the cover of the schedule and behind the plate, though in the second game of the year, he moved to first in the latter stages of a blowout loss. His first start at first base occurred far off the mainland. The MLB-owned Expos, who couldn’t draw flies at Olympic Stadium and no longer bothered pretending to try, were playing a portion of their home slate in San Juan. As their days in Montreal inevitably dwindled to a precious few (the franchise had briefly been earmarked for contraction heading into 2002), some 10,000 fans in Puerto Rico on April 11 became the first to watch Piazza trot to a position other than catcher to begin a game in the major leagues. He lasted until the eighth, when he was removed in a double-switch. Mike’s first home start at first — and first full game there — came on April 14 at Shea in a loss to the Braves.

As first base morphed from big deal to nothing unusual, some catching business remained. Mike had drawn closer and closer to the backstop home run record, having passed Yogi Berra (306) and Johnny Bench (327) in 2002. Only Carlton Fisk (351) had gone deep more often as a catcher than Piazza, who entered 2004 with 347 and knocked three beyond the reach of any fielder in the first week of the season before shedding the tools of alleged ignorance. Mike sat on 350 until late April when, in a game he was catching in old haunt at Dodger Stadium, he blasted one out off his former batterymate Hideo Nomo.

On May 5, eight days after tying Fisk, the Mets were home to play the Giants. Mike, the starting catcher, batted in the bottom of the first against the same Jerome Williams he strafed upon his return from injury the previous August. On a three-one pitch, Mike golfed at a low, outside delivery and sent it traveling to right-center, “off the big board at Shea,” as MSG announcer Ted Robinson put it, to become “the greatest home run-hitting catcher in the history of the game.” One could debate what it means to hit a home run “as a catcher” versus anything else, but part-time first baseman Piazza acknowledged after the 8–2 Mets victory that these 352 of his 363 home runs overall were “a little more significant because of the physical demands of the position.” The next night, he took on those demands for another eleven innings, then stepped to the plate against Dustan Mohr and hit a two-out home run to end another Mets win.

What really stood out to him, Mike said upon establishment of his record, was being mentioned in the elite company of the catchers he passed. To show their appreciation for his having surpassed all of them as sluggers, the Mets invited Piazza’s now-eternal peers to Shea for a night of recognition. Before the game of June 18, Mike was surrounded by the best of the best: Fisk and Bench, two-thirds of Tom Seaver’s “basic catchers” triad, per the Franchise’s Hall of Fame speech; Berra; Gary Carter, who was finally inducted in Cooperstown the summer before, albeit as an Expo; and, thanks to this being an Interleague contest against the Tigers, Detroit coach Lance Parrish and their current catcher, Ivan Rodriguez. Rodriguez — the second receiver, after Fisk, to be known popularly as Pudge — was essentially Piazza’s American League counterpart, though more readily recognized for defense than Mike ever was. But he, like the rest of the honorees, could hit his share out.

Parrish had just missed 300 home runs as a catcher; he retired with 299, one more than Carter. Rodriguez was at 234, coming up fast on the late Roy Campanella, who finished with 239. “This is a special occasion for all us catchers,” Fisk said. “We, as catchers, can fully appreciate going behind the plate every day and putting the numbers Mike has on the board.” For his trouble, the son of a car dealer was presented with home plate from May 5, framed, and an ostentatiously yellow Chevy Super Sport Roadster…plus his second start behind the plate since May 22.

Piazza’s first home run as a reasonably adequate first baseman — nobody was under any illusion Mike was stationed there for anything but his bat — was rather delicious, considering the context. With one on and two out in the bottom of the ninth at Minute Maid Park on May 16, Piazza stroked the home run that allowed the Mets to tie the Astros and send the game to extra innings. The sweet spot of all that wasn’t that Piazza hit it off ex-Met Octavio Dotel. It was who he robbed of the win by turning it into a no-decision. Roger Clemens, who had left the Yankees to presumably finish his career for his hometown team in Houston, had started for the Astros that Sunday and was in line to raise his National League record to 8–0. Piazza prevented that. Phillips, his successor as catcher, hit the game-winning home run in the thirteenth to make it that much better.

Though Mike was pulling back from regular catching duties, the All-Star ballot still listed him at his traditional position and the electorate voted for him out of some combination of admiration and habit. The game was in Houston and his starting pitcher was none other than Clemens. Talk about an awkward pairing. The catcher said all the right things about this strangest of bedfellowing. “We’re both professional,” Mike insisted. “We both have a job to do.” Yet the pitcher had as dim an All-Star experience as could have been conceived. Clemens gave up six runs in one inning of work and the National League lost, 9–4, ceding home field advantage for the World Series, a gimmick Bud Selig dreamt up the year before to infuse the Midsummer Classic with additional meaning. In 2002, the last time Piazza had played in one of these things, the managers ran out of pitchers and the game was declared a tie.

The quest for September Met meaningfulness appeared on track for a while. The Mets played well in May and June and crept to within a game of first place in early July. Though Clemens was gone to Texas, their three-game sweep of the Shea half of the Subway Series over the Independence Day weekend was veritable manna to Mets fans. It was the first time the Mets had taken a three-game set from the Yankees since the two had begun playing semi-regularly in 1997. And after a slew of first-round picks fizzled or flamed out, the team that couldn’t draft straight at last produced a hint of good things to come with a supplemental pick from 2001. David Wright, 21, plucked with the choice the Mets received as compensation for Mike Hampton signing with Colorado, was called up to the big club in late July and installed at third base. Matsui wasn’t having a very good go of it at short, but Reyes had returned from injury and was starting regularly at second.

The Mets began to fade a bit in the East, so before the chance to compete in September completely disappeared, Jim Duquette pulled the trigger on a couple of deadline deals, bringing in two established pitchers to shore up the rotation: the Pirates’ Kris Benson, who started what was known to Mets fans as “the Melvin Mora Game” at the end of 1999 (Mora was now entrenched as an All-Star third baseman for Baltimore; Mike Bordick was retired), and the Devil Rays’ Victor Zambrano. Benson cost the Mets Ty Wigginton, who had been nudged aside from third base by Wright’s promotion, along with minor league outfielder Jose Bautista, who had just been obtained from Kansas City amid the torrent of trades blanketing MLB at the end of July. Zambrano was acquired for Scott Kazmir, the Mets’ top draft pick from 2002. He was considered a comer, but so was every pitcher the Mets had drafted for more than a decade, and none had exactly come on and stuck around since Bobby Jones.

Wright, en route to fourteen home runs in the first sixty-nine games of his career, proved he fit right away, but the new arms couldn’t hold the Mets aloft in either the division (which of course went to Atlanta) or Wild Card race (pulled out by Clemens’s Astros). Zambrano’s elbow acted up in the middle of August and he was done for the year. Bob Murphy died at the beginning of the month, necessitating a second memorial patch on the Mets uniforms. One had already been sewn on in remembrance of Tug McGraw, who passed away in January. The Mets hung around .500 until thoroughly disintegrating, losing sixteen of seventeen en route to a 71–91 record and fourth-place finish, twenty-five games behind, as ever, the Braves. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel” was Floyd’s honest appraisal, and nobody demanded an apology. All meaning attached to September and everything directly after would have to be spiritual.

***

The last game, at Shea on Sunday, October 3, encompassed enough cosmic significance for any Mets fan seeking safe passage into winter. The Mets were playing the Montreal Expos for the last time. MLB had just announced the team that brought baseball to Canada in 1969 would move in 2005 to Washington, DC. The Expos’ first opponent thirty-five seasons earlier? The Mets, at Shea. They’d since shared Rusty Staub, Gary Carter and, through Saturday night, 596 box scores. Montreal had won 298, New York 298. The championship of the St. Lawrence Seaway Series would go down to the wire.

Coming around and going around in Game 162 as well was Todd Zeile. Mostly a bench player in his second term as a Met, he was playing in his final game, having decided to retire at the end of the year. The end of the year was here. At the beginning of his career as a Cardinal, Zeile was a catcher. So he would be again this day, despite having not caught at all, save for a recent tune-up in Pittsburgh, since 1990, his second year in the bigs. As his pal Piazza could attest, there’s something about that mask, chest protector and pair of shin guards that stays with a fella.

Accommodating Todd’s going-away soirée was Art Howe, in his last game as Met manager. He was fired in mid-September once word leaked he’d be let go at season’s end with two years remaining on his contract, but in Metsian fashion, he was asked if he wanted to stay and finish out the schedule, and he consented. Fred Wilpon more or less retracted his endorsement from two years earlier: “I saw strength and courage and conviction when I met Art Howe and I said, ‘Let’s Go.’ I take full responsibility that the results weren’t there.” Nevertheless, Wilpon said the dismissal was Jim Duquette’s decision, and it would be up to the GM to choose Howe’s successor…or it might have been until Wilpon and his son, Jeff, reached out to grab Omar Minaya, Montreal’s general manager who didn’t figure to follow the Expos to Washington. Minaya had spent several years working for the Mets and was considered a top-notch talent evaluator. It wasn’t clear what Duquette’s role would be under the new regime or, for that matter, how much sway he held within the current setup. Trading Kazmir wasn’t necessarily his idea, and now that the young lefty was looking good for Tampa Bay, nothing about the deal that sent him away looked good in New York.

Buried deep down in Howe’s bullpen was John Franco, officially the captain of the Mets, but reliever non grata for the preceding month. The closer who had appeared in (694) and saved (276) more games than any Met pitcher was going to be a free agent. He’d given his hometown team fifteen seasons, including one devoted to rehabilitating his elbow. They’d dedicated Days to his three-hundredth and four-hundredth saves. Now, without explicitly labeling it as such, the Mets were making October 3, 2004, Franco’s last day.

It was impossible to not look backward. Zeile got a tribute video. Franco got a tribute video. The Expos got a tribute video. Howe got nothing of the sort, but he’d get paid for the next two years. It was also impossible to not peer ahead a bit. Wright was at third as he’d been every day since July 29. Reyes was back at short, with Matsui moving to second. David, Jose and Kaz shaped up as three-quarters of the around-the-horn alignment for 2005. Piazza’s sixty-sixth start at first, against forty-nine behind the plate, did not seem of a piece with any kind of youth movement a month after his thirty-sixth birthday.

Nevertheless, Mike batted cleanup and collected a hit and a walk, though did not add to his twenty home runs or fifty-four runs batted in. First base was designed to keep him in the lineup all year, but his bat responded only sporadically. On the final day, he and it receded into the background.

In a Ted Williamsesque twist John Updike would have adored, Zeile — Toddy Ballgame, if you will — hit the last pitch he ever saw for a three-run homer. Before Shea fans could bid this thirty-nine year-old kid adieu, he went back behind the plate and made his very final act on the field catching a pop-up to end the top of the eighth. The pitch was thrown by Franco, completing his one-third of an inning and 695th outing as a Met.

Wright homered and drove in three runs. Reyes stole three bases and scored twice. With Zeile having tipped his cap and Piazza having been replaced after five, the last half-inning of 2004 was caught by Joe Hietpas, a Double-A catcher the Mets had been carrying since September 14. Joe was insurance for a catching corps that had been dealing with a wave of aches and pains, yet never got into a game. With a season and a franchise about to wave its permanent goodbyes, Howe gave him a chance to nod hello.

When the Montreal Expos came into this world on April 8, 1969, Tom Seaver was pitching to Jerry Grote and striking out Maury Wills, the Rickey Henderson of his time, in this very ballpark. The Expos won the game, 11–10, the Mets won the World Series a little more than six months later. Nos Amours, as they were known to the fans who adored them in Quebec — dozens of whom who were now lovingly clumped behind the third base dugout — would say au revoir amidst a mélange of defensive substitutions. Hietpas was catching, Bartolome Fortunato pitching, and former Met farmhand Endy Chavez grounding to second baseman Jeff Keppinger, who tossed to Craig Brazell at first to record as final an out as could be. Bilingual baseball as practiced in the Great White North was retired, 4–3 on your scorecard. The finals: Mets 8 Expos 1; Mets 299 Expos 298.

Montreal was done. Howe was done. Zeile was officially retired. Franco signed with Houston, Al Leiter with Florida. By the next time the Mets played ball for real, Jason Phillips, Vance Wilson and Super Joe McEwing would all be with other organizations, and the Mets, as had become their custom, would be sorting through another bundle of new players.

Heading into the last year of his contract, all that remained of what would be remembered as the Mike Piazza Mets was Mike Piazza.

***

Trades happen to almost every player. Sometimes it’s because they’re worth trading for, sometimes because trading them is worthwhile. Alex Rodriguez, on whom the Texas Rangers lavished a ten-year, $252 million deal in 2001, was by early 2004 no longer judged the superstar who would lead them to the promised land. In February, they sent him to the Yankees, who instantly became prohibitive favorites to return to the World Series. Less than six months later, the Red Sox, who’d attempted to land A-Rod themselves, concluded they needed to shake up their roster and traded Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d long been considered on the same level as Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Boston without Nomah was as unthinkable as New England without chowdah, yet within three months, the region embraced the World Series trophy, its Sox having obliterated a three-oh ALCS deficit versus the Yankees on the way, no less.

It was hardly a new phenomenon to realize a player who you couldn’t possibly picture being traded was being traded. The Mets traded Tom Seaver, the Dodgers (and the Marlins) traded Mike Piazza. After 2004, the possibility existed that the Mets could trade Piazza. Mike was the core of those turn-of-the-century teams Mets fans fell in love with, but time marched on and those teams were gone. In the previous three seasons, the Mets had finished last, last and next-to-last. Piazza had done all he could, but as Ralph Kiner — who was traded twice — was fond of quoting Branch Rickey, a team that finishes last with you can finish last without you.

Minaya, charged with elevating the Mets from basement proximity, talked to other general managers about Piazza. It was standard due diligence committed in the name of an extraordinary player who had entered the diminishing-returns portion of his career. The Mets owed Piazza $13 million for 2005. In the age of A-Rod, that was no longer close to being the most anybody was being paid to play ball, but on the cusp of his fourteenth major league season, it was fair to say Mike Piazza was no longer a $13 million ballplayer. Long-term pacts are called “long” for a reason.

As shocking as the idea of the Mets sending Mike Piazza away was on the surface, his status as the main Met wasn’t what it once was. Some would never stop revering him, but others had shorter memories. Mike attended a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in November of 2003. His image appeared on the video screen. It was booed and, low blow of low blows, greeted with chants of “Roger Clemens! Roger Clemens!” Presumably there was a healthy Venn diagram of Yankees and Rangers fans, but still…the guy who hit the home run after 9/11 jeered on ostensibly neutral turf in New York? Talk about legends on thin ice.

A year later, Mike was willing to think about a change of scenery and the Mets looked into it, but in an offseason of change, they kept their longest-running player in tow. Whether he was any longer their highest-profile star was open to interpretation.

With the Wilpons’ blessing, Minaya went big. One winter after Jim Duquette paid homage to defense and athleticism — the marketing slogan for 2004 was “Catch the Energy” — Minaya attacked the free agent market with gusto for both talent and glitter. You couldn’t bring in somebody with a bigger name than Pedro Martinez, and Minaya succeeded in that unlikely quest. Martinez had helped pitch the Red Sox to their long-sought world championship, and Minaya was willing to give him the fourth year his old team wasn’t. Pedro might not be the same pitcher by 2008, but the goal was getting back into the game in 2005, and the Mets were convinced he could pitch them to prominence. His checkered history with Piazza as a teammate in L.A. and foe who plunked him at Fenway certainly didn’t impede their enthusiasm to land him.

No player was more of a get in the free agent market than Carlos Beltran, whose timing couldn’t have been better. A terrific all-around young player who’d continued progressing into his prime, it was clear Beltran was going to be too pricey for his first team, the Royals, so Kansas City dealt him to Houston. Not only did he aid the Astros in their capture of the 2004 Wild Card, he went completely nuts in the NLDS versus the Braves and NLCS against the Cardinals. Houston didn’t win the pennant, but Beltran won October: eight home runs, fourteen runs batted in, a .435 batting average. It was going to take a long and lucrative contract to lure him.

The Mets offered one — seven years, $119 million, a no-trade clause — and Beltran took it. For the first time since Bobby Bonilla in 1992, the Mets had sought and reeled in the biggest free agent fish in the pond. Beltran, though, was younger, faster, more dynamic and less inclined to rub people the wrong way than Bonilla was when he joined the Mets. At the urging of his agent, Scott Boras, Beltran explained at his introductory press conference that the Mets who had been so flat these past few years were no longer those Mets. They were “the new Mets.” The identity gained traction. Combined with David Wright and Jose Reyes, Beltran and Martinez inspired the most hope in Mets fans since the Mets were all about Mike Piazza.

Which they weren’t anymore, a symptom of the passing seasons.

In our final installment of Piazza outtakes, coming Friday, follow the path of a retired ballplayer into certified legend.

2 comments to 2004: A First Base Odyssey

  • Lenny65

    Joe Hietpas: possibly the most obscure Mets catcher ever and by golly the Mets have had plenty of pretty obscure catchers through the years. I’ve always loved those “cup of coffee” stories about guys who finally got at least one shot to play in a MLB game, something no one can ever take away from you. Forever may you live on in obscure Mets lore Joe, wherever you are.