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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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Forever Ours, Joe Pignatano

Joe Pignatano was the bullpen coach. He was the bullpen coach when I got here. He was the bullpen coach forever. I’m using past tense only on a technicality. Forever is a mighty long time.

Piggy, as he was known also forever, has died at 92. The ballpark in whose bullpen he famously cultivated tomatoes preceded him in death, but like Joe, Shea is eternal. Picture an affable chaperone keeping loose tabs on a clowder of purring arms — firemen, long men, swingmen, journeymen, screwballers, forkballers, young fastballers seeking the zone, old junkballers fooling the years — and you see Joe Pignatano. Dad’s in the dugout. He can’t be everywhere. “Hey, Piggy,” he asks his next door neighbor, porch to porch. “Do me a favor and watch the kids while I’m working.”

Peggy, preparing for another season.

Sure thing, Gil. And Yogi. And Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier and Joe Torre. Piggy was on the staff of every Met manager from 1968 through 1981. He tended the bullpen’s vegetation and he raised relief pitchers. His garden proved plentiful.

Joe Pignatano, in case you hadn’t heard while he wore a Mets uniform, came out of Brooklyn. Of course he did. “He was a Brooklyn Italian,” his son told ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill not long ago. “You give them a patch of dirt and they plant tomatoes.” Naturally enough, Piggy sprouted as a Brooklyn Dodger. He tagged along to Los Angeles when the Bums decided they needed to be glitzier and ritzier. The backup catcher to Johnny Roseboro stayed tight with certified Boy of Summer and future Hall of Famer Gil Hodges. The last miles of their active-player journeys crossed paths on the 1962 Mets — Piggy’s final batted ball resulted in a triple play in his team’s final loss among many — and joined forces anew in Washington mid-decade. Hodges managed the Senators. Pignatano became his trusted aide. Like fellow lieutenants Rube Walker and Eddie Yost, they followed the manager home to New York. With Gil, they grew a champion.

On April 2, 1972, as Spring Training ground to a striking halt, Gil golfed with his trusted coaches. Then he fell, never to rise. Pignatano was with him to his dying breath. Then, once there was a season, he stayed at Shea, assisting Yogi Berra as he would assist the men who succeeded Gil’s successor. Eventually Piggy took on first base coaching duties, but that, like the past tense, gets filed under technicalities. He was…is always our guy in the bullpen, always one of Gil’s guys, always as warm and funny like everybody says, always around to relive 1969 — and a Mets fan always finds time to relive 1969.

Go ahead. Pick up the dugout phone. Call down to the pen. Piggy will step around the vines, answer promptly and relay the proper instructions to the right lefty and the appropriate righty. The man knows his crops.

5 comments to Forever Ours, Joe Pignatano

  • Ah,Piggy. My coach and friend at Mets Dream Week in 2000. A walk on at Ebbets from the neighborhood. Every evening he would tell us stories about Vero Beach and Gil in the 50’s.How they would all run windsprints to avoid pulled hammys. Showed me how to frame pitches and adjust my cup. He even gave me the ‘Miss Congenialty’award at the closing banquet. A great man. RIP

  • Paul from Brooklyn

    A legend in every way here in the neighborhood too.His grandson went to school with my daughter.A fantastic family. Any friend of Gil’s would be a great man and Mr. Pignatano was indeed a great man. RIP Joseph

  • Will in Central NJ

    A plaque should be placed where Piggy’s tomato plants once rose towards the sun. Probably near the Advance Ticket Windows of Citi Field. It would be tongue-in-cheek, yes, but it would speak to Mets fans of a certain age. So why not?

  • eric1973

    Thanks for this, Greg.
    Great tribute.

    And in addition to staying with the Mets through the Torre era, Torre took him and Rube Walker with him to Atlanta, where I believe he tended to his garden down there.

    Well, now he can continue to tend to his garden — ‘Up There.’

  • Cobra Joe

    I am so sorry to learn of the death of Mr. Joe Pignatano; he was one of the great Gil Hodges’ savvy coaches on the 1969 New York Mets World Series championship team, along with Yogi Berra, Eddie Yost and Rube Walker. Tug McGraw and the other players would good-naturedly refer to him as “Piggy.”

    When Mr. Pignatano took over as first base coach, I remember when he got into an altercation with the “slightly” aggressive Tim “Crazy Horse” Foli, concerning Foli’s occasionally errant throws from shortstop over to first base, I believe Met first baseman Ed Kranepool and “Crazy Horse” also got into it over the volatile Met shortstop’s throws over to first base, hence Tim Foli’s inclusion in the trade for Montreal’s Rusty Staub (where the volatile Foli would also get into it with Expo second baseman, Dave Cash).

    There was a young pitcher on the St. Lois Cardinals, named Silvio Martinez (if I can recall correctly after more than forty years, who came up to the majors and enjoyed much success, striking out a ton of hitters. During one game at Shea Stadium , Martinez reacted very angrily, when a Met player hit a double off of him, prompting Joe Pignatano to yell over at him, “What, do you think you can get them ALL out?” prompting the hot-tempered Martinez to try and get to the outspoken Met first base coach before being restrained by his teammates.

    I enjoyed reading Mr. Pignatano’s son saying how his Brooklyn Italian father would grow tomatoes in both his backyard and in the Mets’ Shea Stadium bullpen. My late grandfather also planted tomatoes, eggplants, and even planted an apple tree in his backyard. Mr. Pignatano was always a delight, when he would exchange bon mots with Ralph Kiner on the beloved “Kiner’s Corner.”

    I understand that Mr. Pignatano, along with the other Met coaches, would regularly attend Sunday Mass with Gil Hodges when the Mets were on the road. Of course, Mr. Pignatano and the other coaches were there with Mr. Hodges, when he dropped dead from a heart attack in Florida at the end of spring training in 1972.

    Hearing of Mr. Pignatano’s death, the last surviving coach from the 1969 “Miracle Mets,” is another sad reminder of how many of those fine men we have lost as Mets fans over the years and how time is rapidly passing for us from when we were all cheering for our Met players as young kids in grade school and high school during that truly memorable Mets season.

    Requiem aeternam, Mr. Pignatano.