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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 [1] 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 [2]”? 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 [3] (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 [4].

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 [5] 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.