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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
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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This One Has a Chance

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

True confessions time: When the rumor surfaced in the spring of 1998 that the Mets were about to acquire Mike Piazza, I was against the idea. Vehemently against it, in fact. The Mets, I railed, already had a perfectly good catcher in Todd Hundley. Sure, his elbow was shot, but he’d be back soon. The Mets had holes, but they didn’t need Mike Piazza.

I could slip that one into the memory hole, but I’ll own it, and admit — as I did within a few weeks — that I was being ridiculous. Hundley had set a club record for home runs, finally taking the Mets into 40-homer single-season territory. He’d shown admirable toughness and supplied some much-needed star power during one of the Mets’ sadsack periods. But — for God’s sake, Jace — he wasn’t Mike Piazza.

Nobody was Mike Piazza.

Piazza arrived and immediately gave the Mets a jolt in New York City awareness and the standings. The idiot wing of our fanbase hazed him on his arrival, booing him for merely being very good instead of fantastic, but he and we got over it and he settled in to become the emblematic player of his Mets era. Thinking about “the Mets in black” is a great way to visit with some old friends — Robin Ventura, Al Leiter, Cliff Floyd, John Olerud, Edgardo Alfonzo, Bobby Jones, Benny Agbayani, Rey Ordonez — but if you think of one guy from that era, odds are you’re thinking of Piazza.

But let’s go back to May 1998. The 29-year-old player they were acquiring was coming off a season in which he’d hit .362, socked 40 home runs and driven in 124. Those were videogame numbers — and he’d put them up in a pitcher’s park while squatting for three hours a day.

They were also the latest chapter in a story that seemed too unlikely to be true.

If Horatio Alger had written Piazza’s tale, he would have tweaked a few things. Piazza didn’t learn baseball wearing a milk-carton glove or dealing with a rock-strewn field — his upbringing was pretty much the opposite of that. He was a rich kid, and one with enviable family connections.

His father had grown up in the Philadelphia suburbs with Tommy Lasorda, six years his senior. Lasorda was Norristown, Pa.’s golden boy, clearly destined for baseball glory; Vince Piazza was his loyal sidekick (and a distant cousin). Lasorda became Walter Alston‘s successor as Dodgers Skipper for Life, while Piazza, a born wheeler-dealer, became a wealthy selling used cars. Mike was the Dodgers’ batboy when Lasorda’s team came to Philadelphia, and honed his skills in a batting cage built in the Piazzas’ backyard — one that eventually had a roof and a heater for year-round use. When Mike was 16, his dad arranged for Ted Williams to come by and watch his son’s batting-practice sessions and offer a bit of advice.

Piazza, then a first baseman, broke his high school’s home-run record (once held by Andre Thornton), but scouts were unmoved. Some of them said he couldn’t hit; all of them said he couldn’t run. Lasorda pulled strings and got Piazza into the University of Miami, but his freshman year as a Hurricane backup was a disaster; then, at his insistence, the Dodgers drafted him in 1988.

But they drafted him in the 62nd round, after 1,389 other players had been chosen. (Their top pick in that draft, Bill Bene, walked 489 batters in 445 minor-league innings.) Piazza was a courtesy pick, whom the Dodgers had no intention of actually signing — or of having play pro ball if they did expend a pittance as an additional courtesy. By all appearances he was … and I’m sorry to put this in your head … Jeff Wilpon.

The courtesy pick would get to suit up for pro ball, but only because Lasorda was his bodyguard, strong-arming anybody who got in his buddy’s son’s way. Which was pretty everybody drawing a Dodgers paycheck who wasn’t named Tommy Lasorda. The Dodgers reluctantly signed Piazza (for all of $15,000) after a tryout in Dodger Stadium, during which Lasorda told the team’s skeptical scouting director that Piazza was now a catcher.

So far, if we’re being honest, it’s a story that probably makes you feel a little queasy. But here’s where it gets interesting.

The rich kid had family connections, but he was also willing to work his butt off. Yes, he’d had a backyard batting cage, but he’d spent hours and hours in it, winter and summer. Tommy or Teddy Ballgame couldn’t drive balls into the Dodger Stadium seats for him — that was all Mike. And he now harnessed that same work ethic to learn to catch.

His first stop was Salem, where the results were probably better than expected but nothing eye-opening: Piazza hit .268 and showed a little power, but struggled defensively. So he asked to attend the Dodgers’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, language barrier and tarantulas for bedmates notwithstanding. (For two great reads on Piazza, here’s Kelly Whiteside from Sports Illustrated’s archives, and this book by some fella named Greg Prince.) He came back from the D.R. much improved as a backstop, but his 1990 season wasn’t too different than 1989, and for once his resolve faltered. Fortunately for fans in both L.A. and New York, Reggie Smith convinced him not to quit.

1991, at Bakersfield, was when things started to turn around — Piazza hit .277 with power, and his defense improved. And 1992 was his breakout — a .377 curb-stomping of the Texas League with San Antonio, a .341 tear through the PCL as an Albuquerque Duke, and a September callup to L.A. In 1993 he slammed 35 homers for the Dodgers, was Rookie of the Year, and became a baseball sensation. Besides the on-field heroics, his Littlest Allman Brother facial hair, deep brown eyes and easy smile helped make him a TV pitchman and a household name. (Something I’ve never found on YouTube forays, to my sorrow, is a wonderful ESPN “My SportsCenter moment” ad in which Piazza dreams of stealing home, to the shock of everyone from Dan Patrick to a cartoon character on a popcorn box.)

And then, improbably, he became a Met.

Emily and I were in the stands on May 23, 1998, a Saturday matinee against the Brewers, and the pregame buzz around us felt borrowed from a pennant race. Everyone in the nearby seats was talking excited with his or her neighbor, and there were periodic outbursts of apparently random cheering. Out beyond right field, you could see wave after wave of Mets fans arriving, disgorged from the 7 train. Piazza was late getting to LaGuardia, but the Mets gave us Diamondvision updates on his progress like they were NORAD tracking Santa’s sleigh.

He got a standing ovation, grounded out in his first Met at-bat, struck out in his second one, and came to the plate in the fifth with a runner on first, two outs, and the Mets up 1-0. Jeff Juden, the Brewers’ gigantic hurler, left a fastball out over the plate. Piazza whacked it into right-center and the ball kicked up dust and grass blades, then seemed to accelerate as it shot up the gap. My thought, borrowed from a bit of Mets’ spring-training chatter: A grown man hit that ball.

And Piazza kept hitting that ball, over eight seasons with the Mets that generated a slew of memories. The blast off the Yankees’ Ramiro Mendoza in the summer of 1999, which came down atop a tent 482 feet from home plate. The shot he struck off John Smoltz in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS — the best game the Mets didn’t win — that tied the score at 7-7 despite Piazza only having one working thumb at the time. The rage I felt when Roger Clemens — who seemingly could never retire Piazza in a big spot — hit him in the head with a fastball, and then threw the shard of a bat across his path in the World Series.

Or how about the first-pitch line drive Piazza struck off Terry Mulholland earlier that summer, the one that capped the Mets’ 10-run inning, and came punctuated with an uncharacteristic fist pump and yell as he hit first base? I was in the park for that one, one of those indelible escape-velocity baseball moments in which a very long, agonizing buildup culminates in a single, electric second, with the pent-up emotion of the windup exploding all at once, like the detonation of a massive, joyous thunderstorm. That home run was 20 years ago, but it’s still atop my pinnacle of personal highlights, rivaled only by the Grand Slam Single. Leaping and yelling and screaming in the stands, I was briefly worried that I was having a heart attack, and then decided I was so happy that I didn’t care.

We all loved the home runs, of course, but there was something endearing about Piazza even when he wasn’t doing great things on the field. No matter how many RBIs he had, there was an inherent awkwardness to him. Some ballplayers seem born to the game, with perfect swings and fluid strides, but Piazza never struck me that way — he looked like he’d wrested greatness out of improbability through sheer repetitions. He’d stand stock-still at the plate, followed by a violent eruption of a swing, and then chug around the bases like a kid had made a flip drawing of a T. rex — legs and arms pumping energetically but with no particular efficiency. (The scouts were right about that part — he really couldn’t run.) He worked his butt off to be a serviceable catcher, but was never a great thrower or pitch-framer — his career came before pitch framing was in vogue, but I remember dissections of how Piazza lost strikes for his pitcher because he was a “window washer,” moving the glove to excess instead of holding it still for the umpire’s consideration.

He was a little awkward off the field too. No athlete was more excited to meet rock musicians than Piazza, and when he made a cameo onstage, he looked like you and I do air-guitaring in the privacy of our rooms. He had a goofy predilection for experimental hairstyles — after one horrible loss to the Cubs, he arrived for the next game with his hair cut short and dyed platinum, sparking a Wrigley Field ovation after shedding his helmet to chase a foul ball. Or there was the game where he got hit by a pitch, wound up holding it, and disdainfully tossed it aside. In the postgame scrum, he eagerly asked the reporters, “Did it look cool?” (It did.) I’m reminded of Eddie Van Halen’s confession when asked about being the guy on a million teenagers’ rock-god posters: “I am so much geekier than all those kids who want to be me.”

But let’s part with an indelible Piazza moment. It came in 2001, the year that’s his in our Met for All Seasons series. I was there on Sept. 21, 2001, the first ballgame played in New York City after 9/11. There were long waits to get into the ballparks (the Mets, being fan-friendly for once, delayed the start to accommodate the security lines) and once we were inside, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to be there. It wasn’t that I was scared about something bad happening, though that was of course in the back of my mind. It was more that we were all still flattened by shock and grief, and trying to figure out how to move forward, and I had no idea if I had any reservoir of emotion to draw on for something as seemingly inconsequential as a Mets-Braves game.

There was a 21-gun salute and cheers for cops, fighters and emergency responders — and even for the Braves, who exchanged handshakes and hugs with the Mets. And then the game started. At first it barely registered, but the Mets and Braves gave us a taut thriller, one you couldn’t help but pay attention to.

Liza Minnelli, of all people, broke the emotional ice with a seventh-inning-stretch performance of “New York, New York” that I greeted skeptically at first, particularly when she assembled an impromptu kick line with the cops and firefighters. But if they didn’t mind, who was I to object? And she sang the absolute hell out of that old chestnut, filling it with all the love and wistfulness and defiant triumph I’d never noticed it contained.

We felt all that, and were able to let some of it out, and then the bottom of the eighth came, and Piazza arrived at the plate with one out, a runner on first, and the Mets down 2-1. He connected on an 0-1 count, forever immortalized by Howie Rose’s ecstatic yelp that “this one has a chance!” That call is a bullseye emotionally even if a little wide of the mark for accuracy — from my vantage point in the mezzanine, there was no doubt that it was gone the second Piazza connected. Before it cleared the fence, we were all on our feet screaming and hugging and celebrating.

I’ve thought about that home run a lot, and what it meant. The Mets didn’t win in 2001 — their season sputtered to an inglorious conclusion when Brian Jordan connected off John Franco in Atlanta not long after Sept. 21. And, of course, that swing of the bat didn’t bring anyone back who’d been lost, or shorten the long, painful road ahead of us — a road we’re still traveling, in some ways. But it’s not like anyone thought it could, or imagined it should.

What it did do was make it OK for us to imagine devoting ourselves to small things. It gave us permission to lose our minds about a baseball game and who’d win it. Which is far from nothing, if you think about it. We rarely find ourselves in the grip of world-shaking events; usually, we’re connecting the dots hour to hour and day to day. And there’s no shame in that, because most of our lives are small things. Piazza’s home run showed us a way to get back across the chasm that had been cleaved between the two. We weren’t going to forget what had happened, but we would be able to move forward. Maybe we didn’t know how, not just yet, but we knew we had a chance.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS

1962: Richie Ashburn
1964: Rod Kanehl
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2005: Pedro Martinez
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2019: Dom Smith

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