Monday, January 23, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Daniel Murphy

When a young player experiences a pennant race for the first time, he's told to savor the moment because there's no guarantee that it'll happen again.  For one former Met who was thrust into the spotlight from the moment he first set foot on a major league diamond, he relished every opportunity to play meaningful games in September.  Alas, the calendar was only thing that made it to October that season, as the Mets fell short of their postseason quest.

The bright-eyed neophyte who tasted the sweet nectar of a playoff chase so early in his career became a grizzled veteran just six years later, one who played for a losing Mets team in each of those half-dozen seasons.  But just as the sun appeared to have set on another season, the Mets shocked the baseball cognoscenti by winning an unlikely pennant, giving their veteran second baseman a chance to finally play in the postseason after having just missed during his rookie campaign.  And once he got there, he turned October into his own personal stage.

Daniel Murphy's good side will always feature a bat in his hands.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Daniel Thomas Murphy was drafted by the Mets in the 13th round of the 2006 June Amateur Draft.  Murphy, who played third base at Jacksonville University, was a college teammate of Tony Bernazard's son when Bernazard was the Mets' vice president of player development.  Murphy's development in the Mets' minor league system began slowly, as the infielder batted just .213 during his first season as a professional.  Murphy's second year showed a marked improvement in his hitting ability, as he batted .285 for the St. Lucie Mets and led the team with 34 doubles and 78 RBI.  His defensive skills, however, were another story.

Flash back a few years to when Murphy was a student-athlete at Jacksonville.  While attending a team meeting, Murphy was once asked to state his name and defensive position.  Without hesitating, Murphy answered the question.

"I'm Daniel Murphy," he said, "and I bat third."

Defense was never one of Murphy's strong suits, which became quite obvious during his time in St. Lucie, as the third baseman committed 35 errors in 131 games with the team.  But as long as Murphy kept on hitting, his name would always find a way to be included on the lineup card.

In 2008, Murphy began the season playing above A-ball for the first time in his career.  He ended the year in the middle of a playoff race at Shea Stadium.  At Double-A Binghamton, Murphy batted .308 with an .870 OPS and spent time at every infield position except shortstop.  He even played four games in left field while in Binghamton, which came in handy later that summer when the Mets were looking for an injury replacement with some experience at the position.

The Mets began the 2008 campaign with Angel Pagan in left field filling in for the injured Moises Alou.  By the time the dog days of summer began in August, the Mets had used more left fielders than Spinal Tap used drummers.  Through the end of July, the Mets had played 108 games.  Incredibly, a total of 11 players had started in left field for the team by then, with none of them playing more than 20 games at the position.  Players such as Brady Clark, Trot Nixon, Andy Phillips and Chris Aguila all "earned" starts in left field for a team that was considered one of the best in the game.  Another participant in the season-long game of left field musical chairs was Marlon Anderson, who started 20 games before pulling his left hamstring on August 1.  The following night, left fielder No. 12 made his debut for the Mets, and his name was Daniel Murphy.

"I'm ecstatic to be here," Murphy said prior to the game.  "It'll probably hit me when I'm out in left field with 40,000 people around me."

Tony Bernazard, who was instrumental in the Mets' signing of Murphy in 2006, knew that Murphy was the right man to call up at that time.

"(Murphy's) the one who is most ready," Bernazard said.  "He will give you good at-bats all the time."

Put a bat in his hands and Murphy could do anything with the ball, even bunting it.  (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

For years, Bernazard knew how great a hitter Murphy was, but even he couldn't have expected the start Murphy would have in the majors.  In his first three weeks with the Mets, Murphy started 11 games in left field and appeared in seven games as a pinch-hitter, batting .404 with a .491 OBP in those 18 games.  Murphy also collected two doubles, a triple, two homers and 11 RBI in his first 55 plate appearances.  A reason for Murphy's early success was his ability to make the pitcher throw many pitches per at-bat, allowing him to see the pitcher's full repertoire.  In fact, Murphy worked a full count in more than 20% of his plate appearances (Murphy saw a 3-2 pitch in 31 of his 151 times at the plate).

Without question, Murphy's promotion gave the Mets a spark they hadn't experienced for the first two-thirds of the season.  When Murphy played his first game with the team on August 2, the Mets were in third place in the N.L. East and stood 3½ games behind the wild card-leading Milwaukee Brewers.  A month and a day later, the Mets completed a three-game sweep of the Brew Crew that gave them a 21-9 record since Murphy's debut.  Heading into the final week of the season, the Mets were in a race with the Phillies for the division title and the Brewers for the wild card.  They began the week with a four-game series against the N.L. Central champion Chicago Cubs.

Chicago had already wrapped up the best record in the National League by the time they arrived at Shea Stadium, but manager Lou Piniella continued to trot out his best players for the critical series.  The Mets and Cubs split the first two games and were knotted in the third contest as it went to the bottom of the ninth.  Murphy then brought the Shea Stadium crowd to its feet by leading off the inning with a triple off veteran reliever Bob Howry.  The 54,416 fans in attendance were eagerly anticipating a thrilling walk-off victory, especially with David Wright about to bat, Carlos Delgado on deck and Carlos Beltran in the hole, but Piniella continued to manage the game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series instead of a meaningless game for his club.

Wright struck out.  Delgado and Beltran were intentionally walked.  Ryan Church grounded out, with Murphy being forced out at the plate.  Ramon Castro fanned on three pitches.  Inning over.  Rally over.

Murphy tried to be the hero, and he would have been had the Mets defeated the Cubs in the bottom of the ninth inning on September 24.  But the Mets didn't win.  And they also didn't win their season-ending series against the Florida Marlins.  The Brewers won the wild card.  The Phillies clinched the division title and went on to win the World Series.  The Mets got nothing, other than the start of Daniel Murphy's major league career.

Although Murphy started only 30 games in left field for the Mets after his August call-up, that somehow led the injury-riddled team at the position.  Murphy entered the 2009 season hoping to give the Mets more stability at the position after the team saw a dozen players patrol left field in 2008.  It did not take long for the Mets to realize that perhaps Murphy wasn't the best option for the job.

On the first Sunday of the season, Johan Santana dominated the Marlins, striking out 13 batters in seven masterful innings.  But Santana was pinned with the loss, as Florida scored two unearned runs in the third inning after Murphy dropped a routine fly ball.  After the game, a clearly frustrated Santana was quick to throw Murphy under the bus for the loss.

Whoomp, there it isn't.  (Rothstein/Daily News)
"It's one mistake that he made," Santana said.  "It cost us the whole ballgame, but it's part of the game."

Not mentioned by Santana was the fact that he walked Jeremy Hermida prior to Murphy's gaffe and then allowed an RBI single to No. 8 hitter Ronny Paulino after the miscue.  Nor did Santana mention that the Mets' offense failed to show up for the game, as the team was shut out by Marlins starting pitcher Josh Johnson for 8⅔ innings.  Santana very well may have been speaking out of frustration, but the stigma of being a bad fielder, regardless of the position he was playing, stuck with Murphy for the rest of his career as a Met.

After starting 13 of the first 14 games of the 2009 season in left field, the lefty-swinging Murphy began to platoon at the position with the right-handed batting Gary Sheffield, who had played the majority of his career in the outfield.  But when starting first baseman Carlos Delgado suffered what became a career-ending injury on May 10 and after Jeremy Reed - who had played all of three games in his career at first base - made a crucial error at first that cost the Mets a game in Los Angeles a week later, the Mets decided to move Murphy back to the infield.

Murphy adjusted well to the infield life.  But once Murphy stopped worrying about dropping fly balls, it would be his teammates who would start dropping like flies.  In addition to Delgado, Jose Reyes' season also ended in May.  Carlos Beltran, who was among the league's leading hitters during the first two months of the 2009 campaign, eventually missed half of the season with a knee injury.  David Wright remained healthy until he was felled by a Matt Cain fastball to the noggin.  Sheffield, who for a while was the team leader in home runs, missed extended periods of time late in the season.  And how can we forget Luis Castillo falling down the Citi Field dugout steps in August, just two months after he dropped a fly ball of his own?  When everyone else went down, sometimes literally, Murphy remained the last Met standing.

The Mets could not overcome the rash of injuries that befell them in 2009, finishing the year with a 70-92 record, but Murphy's first full season in the majors was one of the few success stories for the team.  Although his batting average dipped to .266, Murphy managed to hit 38 doubles and a team-leading 12 homers.  He also led the club in games played and finished second to Wright in runs batted in.  But Murphy's injury-free campaign caught up with him over the next two seasons.

The 2010 season opened with Murphy on the disabled list due to a right knee sprain suffered at the end of spring training.  Due to the emergence of rookie first baseman Ike Davis, Murphy began to play games at second base during his minor league rehab assignment.  Unfortunately, a hard takeout slide while covering second caused Murphy to tear the MCL in his right knee, ending his season before he could return to the majors.  A year later, Murphy's season ended prematurely once again, and for the second straight year, it involved a collision at second base.

In 2011, Murphy was among the league leaders in hitting, boasting a robust .320 batting average in early August.  But after Braves' outfielder Jose Constanza spiked Murphy at second base on a stolen base attempt on August 7, Murphy suffered his second medial collateral ligament tear in a span of 14 months and would miss the rest of the season.

Murphy finally stayed healthy in 2012 and 2013, playing in 317 of a possible 324 games, and took over the everyday job at second base.  In 2012, Murphy became the first left-handed hitter in club history to hit 40 doubles in a single season and followed that up with a brilliant 2013 campaign, setting new career highs in homers (13), runs batted in (78), runs scored (92) and stolen bases (23).  And yet, for all the progress Murphy had made as a hitter, the focus still remained on his defense, as Murphy posted a -0.8 dWAR in 2012 and an even worse -1.5 dWAR in 2013.

The 2013 season also marked the fifth consecutive season that Murphy played for a losing team.  But things started to change for the Mets in 2014 and for Murphy as well.  The Mets won five more games in 2014 than they did in the previous season and finished in a tie for second place in the N.L. East.  They also outscored the opposition by 11 runs and saw an improvement in attendance at Citi Field for the first time since the park opened in 2009.  As for Murphy, he was finally recognized for his offensive talents by earning his first All-Star selection.  By the end of June, Murphy was batting .303 with 19 doubles, six homers, 32 RBI, 51 runs scored and 11 stolen bases.   He maintained a .300 batting average until late August, when a strained quad led to a stint on the disabled list.  The injury caused Murphy to struggle upon his return, as he ended the year with a .289 average.

Despite the slow finish, Murphy still led the Mets in hits, doubles and runs scored.  His recognition as a first-time All-Star capped a six-year period in which Murphy pushed himself to improve every facet of his game.  And when he finally received the All-Star nod, Murphy was humbled by the honor.

"It's a blessing," Murphy said.  "And I don't work any harder on this ballclub than anyone else does.  There's no doubt about that.  There's 24 men in here who work really hard.  It's just an honor.  It's humbling.  It's a fantastic blessing."

Daniel Murphy, All-Star.  (Elsa/Getty Images)

Murphy wasn't the only Met in 2014 to receive national attention, as pitcher Jacob deGrom ended a three-decade Rookie of the Year drought for the Mets, becoming the first Met to win the award since Dwight Gooden in 1984.  The emergence of deGrom, plus the return of fellow moundsman Matt Harvey from Tommy John surgery and the forthcoming debut of top pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard gave the Mets hope that they would finally turn the corner in 2015.

The 2015 season would also be Murphy's final season before becoming a free agent for the first time, giving him extra incentive to have a solid season.  But even though the Mets got off to a fast start, tying a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak in April, Murphy did not.  When the calendar turned from April to May, Murphy was batting just .198.  But Murphy became a one-man hitting machine over the team's next 29 games, batting .352 with an .869 OPS.  Unfortunately, just like it did in 2014, a quad injury caused Murphy to miss 22 games in June.  And faster than you can say abracadabra, the Mets' offense disappeared.

In the three weeks they played without their second baseman, the Mets batted .217 as a team and scored an average of 2.8 runs per game.  The low point of Life Without Murphy occurred on June 9, when the Mets were no-hit by Giants' starter Chris Heston, who had just 12 major league starts prior to his gem at Citi Field.

Murphy eventually returned from his injury and three weeks later, the Mets returned to relevance with the acquisitions of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Yoenis Céspedes.  While all the attention was placed on the team's new members - which also included the team's top hitting prospect, Michael Conforto - Murphy quietly began to rake at the plate, batting .309 over the next two months.  Murphy also added something Mets fans weren't accustomed to seeing from him - power.

From July 25 through September 26, Murphy slammed eight homers and posted a .549 slugging percentage.  Included in his home run barrage was a mammoth blast into the Pepsi Porch during a nationally televised game against the Washington Nationals on August 2 and a game-tying, three-run homer in Atlanta on September 13 when the Mets were down to their final out of the game.  And of course, the Mets won both games.  In fact, the Mets had a 33-14 record when Murphy was in the starting lineup from July 25 (the night Johnson and Uribe made their Mets debuts) to September 26 (the day the team clinched the N.L. East division title).

From the night Murphy made his debut on August 2, 2008 until the final regular season game of the 2015 campaign, Murphy had played in 903 games for the Mets and had never appeared in the postseason, breaking Ed Kranepool's club record of 887 games played to start a career without a playoff game in the mix.  But that streak would end in 2015, as the Mets advanced to the National League Division Series to face the Los Angeles Dodgers.  It wouldn't take long for Murphy to begin a different kind of streak.

In Game One, Murphy was responsible for the series' first run, homering off three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw in the Mets' 3-1 victory.  Murphy took Kershaw deep again in Game Four, but the Mets lost that game to force a fifth and deciding game - a game that was single-handedly won by Murphy's bat and brain.

In the first inning, Murphy delivered an RBI double to give the Mets an early lead.  But the Dodgers proceeded to take the lead in the bottom of the first, a lead that remained intact until Murphy came up to the plate in the fourth frame.  On the first pitch delivered by Zack Greinke, himself a former Cy Young Award recipient, Murphy pulled a single to right.  Two batters later, Lucas Duda drew a walk, moving Murphy to second.  But with the Dodgers' infield employing a shift for the pull-happy Duda, third base was left vacated.  An observant Murphy noticed the lack of a fielder near the bag and took off for third, arriving safely without a throw.  Murphy then scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Travis d'Arnaud, literally stealing a run.

Murphy had already contributed to both of the Mets' runs in his first two at-bats.  When he faced Greinke for the third time in the sixth, he introduced the baseball to the right field seats.  On a 3-2 pitch from the Dodgers right-hander, Murphy lined a home run down the right field line, giving the Mets a 3-2 lead.  Starter Jacob deGrom and the bullpen (including Noah Syndergaard, who pitched a scoreless seventh) combined to keep the Dodgers hitless in their last four turns at bat to preserve the one-run lead and send the Mets to the National League Championship Series.

Flip that bat, Daniel!  You just sent the Mets to the NLCS!  (Harry How/Getty Images)

For five games, Murphy teed off against the best the Dodgers had to offer, clubbing three homers off Kershaw and Greinke.  Murphy would face another challenge in the NLCS, facing Jon Lester and Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta.  Challenge accepted.

  • Game One, first inning vs. Jon Lester:  Home run.  Mets lead, 1-0, and go on to win, 4-2.
  • Game Two, first inning vs. Jake Arrieta:  Home run.  Mets lead, 3-0, and go on to win, 4-1.

With the Cubs' top two starting pitchers out of the way, Murphy and the Mets coasted in the next two games at Wrigley Field.  With Game Three knotted in the fourth inning, Murphy delivered a tie-breaking blast against Kyle Hendricks to give the Mets a 2-1 lead.  The Mets held on to win, 5-2.  Murphy had now hit home runs in five straight postseason games.  Former teammate Carlos Beltran had been the only player to ever accomplish the feat in the playoffs, doing so with the Houston Astros in 2004.  And just one Met had ever homered in five consecutive games prior to Murphy.  That was Richard Hidalgo, who turned the trick during the 2004 regular season.  Both records would fall in a memorable Game Four.

The Mets were one win away from their first National League pennant in 15 years.  It took just 15 batters for the game to turn into a laugher.  New York scored six runs in the first two innings to take a commanding 6-0 lead.  The Mets scored their final two runs of the game in the eighth inning on a home run by - who else? - Daniel Murphy.

Murphy had homered in six straight games - a postseason record and a Mets' all-time mark - to lead the Mets to the World Series.  The former 13th round draft pick who had been with the Mets since they called Shea Stadium home had finally reached the promised land.  But alas, Murphy's dream postseason turned into a nightmare in the Fall Classic.  Not only did Murphy fail to hit a home run, he was also held without an RBI by the Kansas City Royals.  In addition, Murphy struck out seven times in the five-game series after being the toughest player to strike out in the National League during the regular season (38 Ks in 538 plate appearances).  And of course, his costly error in the eighth inning of Game Four allowed the tying run to score and led to the eventual winning run crossing the plate.

The Royals ended the Mets' season in Game Five, winning their first championship in three decades.  Kansas City also ended Murphy's tenure in New York, as the Washington Nationals gave Murphy 37.5 million reasons to leave the only team he had ever known.

"I've seen plenty of Daniel Murphy, believe me, as a general manager - often from the other side of the field," Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said.  "He is a player that plays the game the right way.  We love his attitude, his grit.  When the bright lights - not only in New York City - are on, (Murphy) shines the brightest." 

In 2008, rookie Daniel Murphy joined a Mets team that was poised to make it to the postseason, but fell short on the season's final day.  He then suffered through a number of personal injuries, several defensive position changes and more than enough losing baseball for six seasons before finally enjoying another September to remember as a 30-year-old veteran.  This time, Murphy and the team made it to the postseason party and extended their season all the way to November before the glass slippers finally came off.  And along the way, Murphy etched his name into the record books in a way no one could have expected.

Before he became a postseason hero for the Mets, Murphy was criticized for just about everything.  He wasn't a good defensive player.  He didn't hit with enough power.  He was a poor base runner.  Even off-the-field issues like missing Opening Day in 2014 to attend the birth of his first child and his comments about homosexuality due to his religious beliefs left Murphy open for criticism from fans and the media.

But with one amazing and unexpected postseason appearance, Murphy became the brightest star in a city full of them.  No one will ever be able to question his role in one of the most unlikely pennant runs in recent history.  And no one will ever be able to forget the story of the Met who once claimed his defensive position was batting third.

Daniel Murphy and his son, Noah, celebrate a memorable 2015 campaign.  (Ed Leyro/Studious Metsimus)


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman

 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Wally Backman

To succeed in baseball, sometimes all you need is someone who believes in your ability to do the job you're hired to do.  At times, that belief can get a player who doesn't light up the boxscore with eye-popping stats an everyday job.  The same holds true for a manager, who requires his front office to have faith in his ability to guide the team toward its goals.

For one former Met who was losing hope that he would be able to spend a full season in the big leagues, all it took was a manager's promise; one that gave him the confidence to improve his game to a level that would keep him in the majors for over a decade.  But that faith was not reciprocated when it was his turn to be the manager, ending a nearly four-decade relationship with the franchise that first believed in him as a player.

A rare photo of Wally Backman with a clean uniform.  (Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Walter Wayne Backman was a scrappy middle infielder from Oregon who impressed the Mets so much while he was in high school that they drafted him in the first round of the 1977 June amateur draft.  Although Backman was purely a singles hitter (he had just 88 extra-base hits in his first four seasons in the minors), his ability to draw walks and steal bases made him a valuable commodity in the speed-driven game of the late '70s and early '80s.

Backman made his major league debut on September 2, 1980, as did fellow speedster Mookie Wilson.  Backman's performance after his September call-up was far more impressive than Wilson's, as the second baseman batted .323 with a .396 on-base percentage in 110 plate appearances, while Wilson batted just .248 with a .325 OBP in nine extra opportunities at the plate.  Backman split time between second base and shortstop during his month-long debut and produced nine multi-hit games, making a case for his inclusion on the Mets' 1981 Opening Day roster.

Although Backman did make the team out of the spring training in 1981, he was relegated to mostly pinch-hitting duties, as he was hard-pressed to find a defensive position on the field.  Incumbent second baseman Doug Flynn had just won his first Gold Glove award for defensive excellence in 1980, while shortstop Frank Taveras was coming off a two-year stretch in which he stole 74 bases.  To make matters worse, rookie third baseman Hubie Brooks, who also excelled during a late-season call-up in 1980 (.309 batting average, 10 RBI in 89 plate appearances), blossomed into the team's best player during the strike-shortened 1981 campaign, batting .307 with 27 extra-base hits in 98 games.  The glut of talented infielders on the Mets' roster limited Backman to just five starts and 42 plate appearances in what should have been his first full season in the majors.

The 1982 campaign brought a new manager to the Mets in George Bamberger, and with the new skipper came Backman's first extended stint at the major league level.  With Flynn having been traded to the Texas Rangers during the off-season, the second base job was Backman's to lose.  Backman handled the offensive side of the game quite well, batting .272 and reaching base at an impressive .387 clip.  In addition, Backman's 115 OPS+ tied All-Star catcher John Stearns for the team lead among regular players.  But after five years of Flynn's Gold Glove caliber defense at second base, Backman was an underwhelming replacement in the field, committing 14 errors in 88 games at the position.  When a broken collarbone ended Backman's season in mid-August, his short tenure as the Mets' starting second baseman also appeared to be over.  It would have been were it not for a manager who had a feeling about his switch-hitting second sacker.

When Backman got injured in 1982, the Mets turned to 22-year-old Brian Giles to replace him.  Giles was much more reliable defensively and became the team's new starter at second base in 1983, leaving Backman without a position.  As a result, Backman spent most of the '83 campaign at Triple-A Tidewater under manager Davey Johnson.  The rest, as they say, is history.

A not-so-rare photo of Wally Backman with a dirty uniform.  (Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)

With a mathematics degree in his back pocket and a willingness to use computers to help him manage, Johnson saw in Backman a player whose value couldn't be measured with traditional baseball statistics.  Backman had an impressive .316 batting average for Tidewater in 1983, but his keen ability to draw walks produced a .422 on-base percentage.  At a time when OBP was not considered one of the major determinants of a player's value, Johnson saw its worth and knew that Backman would be key to his team's success.  So when Johnson was promoted to be the Mets' manager in 1984, he kept a promise to take his spark plug with him.

"I need a leadoff hitter, and Backman fit the bill," Johnson said.

Prior to 1984, the Mets had been using Mookie Wilson as their leadoff hitter.  But Wilson's .310 lifetime OBP, combined with his league-leading at-bat total in 1983 meant that he was also among the leaders in outs made.  With Backman batting first and Wilson dropping to No. 2 in the batting order, the Mets had a true leadoff hitter.  Backman's .360 OBP and 32 stolen bases were both second on the team in 1984, trailing only Keith Hernandez's .411 OBP and Wilson's 46 steals.

In addition to Backman's successful season at the plate, he also saw a significant improvement in his defense, making four fewer errors in 1984 than he did in his previous full season with the Mets in 1982, despite starting 39 more games in '84 than he did in '82.  Backman's offense and defense was instrumental in the Mets' improvement from a perennial second-division team to a 90-win contender in 1984.  And he had his manager to thank for the opportunity.

"The best thing that happened to me was having Dave Johnson as a manager last year," Backman said.  "In the past, I was never a leadoff man.  Dave put me leadoff to begin the season.  He saw what I could do and had confidence in me.  That took a lot of pressure off.  I could relax and play my game."

Backman continued to improve in 1985, making just seven errors in 140 games.  However, he wasn't playing entire games, as he would be removed often for a pinch-hitter whenever a left-handed reliever came into the game.  You see, for as many improvements as the switch-hitting Backman made under Davey Johnson, most of his success as a hitter came from the left side of the plate.  In 1984, Backman batted .162 (6-for-37) against left-handed pitchers, albeit with a .340 on-base percentage.  Since that was considered a small sample size for the mathematically inclined Johnson, the skipper gave Backman more opportunities to bat against southpaws in 1985.  And Backman got even worse.

During the 1985 campaign, the second baseman batted a meager .122 (16-for-131) vs. LHP and he was also drawing fewer walks against them, which led to an also cringeworthy .212 OBP.  As a left-handed batter, however, Backman's two-year production was among the best in the league, as batted .307 against right-handed pitching.  Not helping matters was that Backman's replacement at second base whenever a left-handed pitcher was on the mound (Kelvin Chapman) was himself a lousy hitter.  Although Chapman fared well in 1984 against left-pitchers (.296 batting average, 358 OBP in 181 plate appearances), he was downright atrocious replacing Backman in 1985, batting .172 with a .230 OBP in 142 PA.

With more teams using left-handed starters and relievers, Johnson needed a solution to generate more production against them.  He found the answer in a technique employed by former Mets manager Gil Hodges.

(Barry Colla Photography)
In Johnson's first season managing the Mets, five of his starting eight players had at least 595 plate appearances and only seven players on the roster reached 250 plate appearances.  Once he penciled in a player at a certain position in 1984, he was there for the season.  That started to change a little in 1985, as Johnson took a page out of the Book of Hodges and employed a Mookie Wilson/Lenny Dykstra platoon in center field and used both Ray Knight and Howard Johnson at third base to maximize the offensive production.  If a left-handed pitcher started, Wilson and Knight would receive the bulk of the starts.  If it was a right-handed pitcher on the mound, Dykstra and HoJo would play.  As a result, only five players on the 1985 team surpassed 470 plate appearances, but 11 men came to bat at least 200 times.  The platoons helped, as the Mets, who finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories in 1984, became one of the National League's strongest hitting squads in 1985, finishing in the league's top five in batting average, OBP, slugging percentage and runs scored.

Second base was the one position that Johnson couldn't find a suitable platoon partner for Backman.  The two-year Kelvin Chapman experiment had failed, and the Mets needed a solution if they wanted to be a complete offensive team in 1986.  Enter Tim Teufel and enter the postseason.

With Teufel aboard in 1986 to spell Backman against southpaws, the Mets flourished at second base, with Teufel providing the pop (25 extra-base hits, 31 RBI in 279 at-bats) and Backman becoming an OBP machine (.320 batting average, .376 OBP).  Only seven batters in the National League who qualified for the batting title managed to hit over .300.  Backman missed qualifying by a mere 62 plate appearances.  However, he did become just the second Met in franchise history to bat at least .320 in a season of 400 or more plate appearances, joining Cleon Jones, who accomplished the feat in 1969.  By the time 1986 was over, Backman would join Jones in accomplishing a team milestone.

The 1986 Mets won 108 games and ran away with the N.L. East title.  In the National League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, the Mets ran into the league's top pitcher in Mike Scott.  Backman's former Mets teammate stymied New York in Games One and Four, meaning the Mets had to beat the other Astros pitchers if they wanted to advance to the World Series.  After being shut out by Scott in the series opener, Backman got things going for the Mets in Game Two, scoring New York's first run of the series after delivering a one-out single off future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.  In his next at-bat, Backman produced an RBI single against Ryan and scored on a triple by Keith Hernandez to put the game out of reach.  Backman was also front and center in the Mets' Game Three and Five victories.

With the Mets trailing the Astros by a run in the bottom of the ninth in Game Three, Backman beat out a drag bunt to lead off the inning, then went to second base on a passed ball.  After Danny Heep flied out, Lenny Dykstra hit a long fly ball to right field that barely cleared the wall, giving the Mets and an exuberant Wally Backman a thrilling come-from-behind win.

After Scott's second victory of the series in Game Four, the Mets knew they had win Game Five in order to avoid playing an elimination game at the Astrodome in Game Six.  This time, Nolan Ryan would fare better against Backman, striking out the second baseman three times in his first four at-bats.  Matching Ryan pitch for pitch was Dwight Gooden, who was brilliant in his ten innings of work.  By the 12th inning, the two teams were still deadlocked and Astros pitcher Charlie Kerfeld was in his second inning of relief.  After retiring Dykstra to lead off the inning, Backman delivered a crucial single, lining the ball off the glove of third baseman Denny Walling.  An errant pickoff throw by Kerfeld allowed Backman to scamper to second base, but also meant that the Astros would intentionally walk Hernandez to get to the slumping Gary Carter.  Carter was batting just .048 in the series (1-for-21) as he stepped up to the plate.  By the time his eight-pitch at-bat was over, his average was up to .091, as Carter drove in Backman from second with a hard-hit ground ball up the middle.

Wally Backman celebrates after scoring the winning run in Game Five of the 1986 NLCS.  (ABC TV screen shot)

The Mets were now one win away from advancing to the World Series for the first time in 13 years, but had to fly to Houston to win that pennant.  Left-hander Bob Knepper was tabbed to face the Mets in Game Six, which meant that Backman would start the game on the bench and Tim Teufel would play second base.  By the time the game was over, Backman would play a key role in deciding the outcome of the game.

New York trailed Houston by three runs as the Mets came to bat in the top of the ninth.  Knepper had been brilliant, facing the minimum three batters in seven of his first eight innings.  But the Mets rallied to tie the game against Knepper and reliever Dave Smith.  With the game knotted and two men in scoring position, Backman was called upon to face the right-handed Smith and was intentionally walked to load the bases.  That's where the Mets' rally ended, as pinch-hitter Danny Heep struck out to end the inning.

The two teams continued to put up zeroes until the 14th, when Backman gave the Mets the lead with a one-out RBI single off reliever Aurelio Lopez.  Had Backman just supplied the Mets with a pennant-winning hit?  Would his name become synonymous with those legendary Mets who came through in the club's biggest moments?  Not quite, as Billy Hatcher delayed the Mets' champagne celebration with a home run off the left field foul pole in the bottom of the 14th.

As the game advanced into the 16th frame, both teams were clearly fatigued, especially the pitchers.  With Lopez still in the game for the Astros, Darryl Strawberry led off the inning with a double, which was followed by an RBI single by Ray Knight, who advanced to second on the throw home.  Backman then stepped up to the plate, prompting Houston manager Hal Lanier to summon left-hander Jeff Calhoun from the bullpen.

With Teufel having been replaced by Backman in the ninth inning, Mets manager Davey Johnson was forced to leave Backman in the game to face the lefty.  Calhoun immediately went ahead on the count with two quick strikes.  But a wild pitch allowed Knight to advance to third base, causing Calhoun to be more careful with his pitches.  Using his keen eye at the plate, Backman coaxed a nine-pitch walk out of Calhoun to continue the rally.

As bad as Backman had been at the plate against southpaws, the next batter was even worse against all pitchers, as closer Jesse Orosco was now set to bat.  But the pressure of the situation continued to get to Calhoun, as his first pitch to Orosco got by catcher Alan Ashby, allowing Knight to score from third base and Backman to advance to second.  Orosco then bunted Backman over to third and Backman later scored the third run of the inning on a single by Lenny Dykstra.  Backman's run proved to be the game-winner, as the Astros scored twice against Orosco in the bottom of the 16th before the reliever struck out Kevin Bass with the tying and winning runs on base.

By winning the pennant in Game Six, the Mets avoided a potential do-or-die game against Mike Scott, who had already dominated the Mets twice in the series.  As much as the Mets didn't want to face him, Backman was originally one of the few players who thought a potential third start by Scott would be the charm for the Mets.

"I don't care if he scuffs 400 balls," Backman said, referring to the rumored secret of Scott's success.  "I don't care if they're scuffed before the game.  I don't think any pitcher can beat us three times in a row."

However, once the Mets outlasted the Astros in Game Six, Backman came to the same realization that most of his teammates already had about having to face Scott in a potential seventh game.

"If we had lost and had to face Scott tomorrow," Backman said, "I wouldn't have slept at all."

Mike Scott wonders what might have been had he been able to scuff his balls one last time.  (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Although Backman batted just .238 with a .304 OBP in the NLCS, he always seemed to come through for the Mets during all of their memorable rallies, confirming Davey Johnson's belief in Backman's ability to be a key cog for the team.  Backman continued to produce for the Mets in the World Series against the Boston Red Sox, even though he started just four of the seven games due to the presence of left-handed starting pitcher Bruce Hurst, who was essentially Mike Scott without the scuffed balls.

Backman was sensational in his four starts, batting .375 and reaching base at a .444 clip to help the Mets win three of those four games.  But four victories were needed to win the World Series, and the Mets would need to earn that fourth win against Hurst, who had already defeated New York twice in the series.  It had been two weeks since Backman made the proclamation that no pitcher could beat the Mets three times in a row.  And before Game Seven was over, Backman made sure that his prophecy came true.

The Red Sox took an early 3-0 lead against Mets starter Ron Darling, a lead which was still intact going to the bottom of the sixth inning.  But the Mets finally got to Hurst in that sixth frame, collecting two singles and a walk off him.  With the bases loaded, Keith Hernandez delivered a two-run single to get the Mets within a run.  It was then that Davey Johnson inserted Backman into the game as a pinch-runner, which paid off when Backman came in to store the tying run on a bloop by Gary Carter that forced Hernandez out at second base.  When Backman came up to the plate for the first time in the game in the seventh inning, he drew a seven-pitch walk from Boston reliever Joe Sambito that moved Rafael Santana to third base.  The base on balls proved to be huge, as Hernandez drove in the Mets' sixth run of the game with a sacrifice fly.  The Mets went on to win the game and their second World Series title, defeating the Red Sox in the seventh game, 8-5, with Backman scoring the tying run and drawing a key walk that led to the deciding run crossing the plate.

After winning a championship in 1986, the Mets expected to win several more titles during Backman's career.  But alas, that was not to happen, as injuries befell most of the team's starting pitchers in 1987.  The injury bug also got to Backman, as the second baseman missed 18 games in June with a hamstring issue and an additional 18 games at the end of the year with lingering effects of the original injury.  With Backman missing extended time on the field on multiple occasions in 1987, his platoon partner, Tim Teufel, got more playing time and made quite an impression on the team.

Teufel had 351 plate appearances during the 1987 campaign (which was 16 more than Backman) and batted .308 with 29 doubles, 14 homers and 61 RBI.  As a result, Teufel got more playing time in 1988, with Backman starting just 28 games through mid-June.  The lack of consistent playing time hurt Backman, as he batted just .238 through the team's first 60 games.  But Backman got a second chance as a starter when Teufel missed 23 games with an injury and was absolutely spectacular, batting .344 with a .418 on-base percentage from mid-June to late August.  Just when it looked like Backman would help lead the team to another postseason appearance, he was disabled once again, missing 13 games from late August through mid-September.  By the time he got back on the field, he had lost his job once again.

(Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Although Backman finished the 1988 campaign with a solid .303 batting average and .388 OBP in 347 plate appearances, it was his injury replacement that captured everyone's attention in September.  Gregg Jefferies was called up from AAA-Tidewater on August 28 to replace Backman on the roster.  After becoming the team's first homegrown hitting prospect since Darryl Strawberry, batting .354 in his first three professional seasons and showing extra-base power with above-average speed, the 21-year-old wunderkind and fellow switch-hitter proceeded to tear the cover off the ball for the Mets, batting .462 with 14 extra-base hits in his first 13 games.  Jefferies ended the year with a .596 slugging percentage and .961 OPS, and his 17 RBI in just 29 games matched the total produced by Backman during the entire season.

Backman did play all seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, batting .273 with a .333 OBP, but the writing was on the wall.  Jefferies was going to be the team's starting second baseman in 1989, and Backman was going to need to play elsewhere.  After a dozen seasons in the organization, the Mets granted Backman's request for a trade, sending him to the Minnesota Twins for three minor league pitchers.  Upon finalization of the deal, Backman was clearly disappointed that his tenure with the Mets had to end the way it did.

"It's funny, you're nothing one year, the way I was after 1987, the first bad year I had," Backman said.  "They couldn't have given me away a year ago.  Now, I have a good year and I'm gone."

Backman became a journeyman during the final five seasons of his career, playing for the Twins, Pirates, Phillies and Mariners from 1989 to 1993.  Backman's playing days ended in May 1993, when he was released by Seattle after batting .138 in ten games with the team.  But just because his playing days were over didn't mean Backman was going to hang up his baseball uniform for good.

Less than half a decade after playing in his final game, Backman managed independent baseball teams before coming back to minor league baseball to manage the Chicago White Sox's Carolina League team in Winston-Salem.  He then was promoted to Chicago's Double-A team in Birmingham and won a league title in 2002.  Backman had another first-place finish in 2004 managing for Class-A Lancaster in the Arizona Diamondbacks' organization before getting his first chance to manage in the majors with the parent club.  What should have been a proud moment for Backman ended up being his worst nightmare, as he was fired just four days after he was hired by the D-Backs when it was revealed that he had been arrested for harassment and had been convicted of driving under the influence.  Backman had also filed for bankruptcy and did not report the news in his final interview.

After taking some time away from baseball, Backman returned to managing independent league teams and winning more division titles.  He came back to the Mets organization in 2010 to manage the Brooklyn Cyclones, leading them to a division title.  Backman then moved up the minor league ladder, managing in Double-A in 2011 and Triple-A in 2012.  But although Backman won back-to-back division titles managing Las Vegas in 2013 and 2014, he couldn't get what he really wanted from the Mets - a job managing or coaching at the major league level.

The Mets qualified for the postseason in 2015 and 2016, winning the National League pennant in 2015, but Backman was left in the Pacific Coast League while the team was celebrating its success three time zones away.  And so, with his path to the majors blocked by an organization that he claimed was disrespecting him, Backman resigned as manager of the 51s.

"When you work for an organization, do everything, you want to be respected for what you do,"  Backman said.  "I just felt, for my time being there, that the respect wasn't there."

The face of a disrespected man.  (Kin Lui)

Wally Backman was part of the Mets organization for the better part of four decades.  From a scrappy infielder in the 1980s who was one of the spark plugs for a championship team to a fiery manager who led teams to titles wherever he managed, no one could ever say that Backman wasn't a winner.  But for someone whose name was synonymous with winning, why did Backman lose so much?

Before Davey Johnson confided in him, he couldn't get anyone to believe in his ability to play the game.  When the Mets promoted Gregg Jefferies, who was basically a brat with a bat, Backman couldn't stay on the field for the only organization he ever knew.  Because the Arizona Diamondbacks were unaware of how background checks worked, Backman and his family suffered unnecessary embarrassment.  And finally, no amount of division titles was enough to give Backman a job coaching with the Mets on a full-time basis.

For someone who has been a champion many times over, Backman's lifelong career in baseball has been more bitter than sweet.  A player as beloved as he was with the Mets and a person who has given so much of himself to the game deserves better than the hand he has repeatedly been dealt by baseball.


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

If Studious Metsimus Had a 2017 Hall of Fame Vote...

On Wednesday, January 18, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the names of the former players who will be receiving the ultimate individual honor in the sport.  These players will join former commissioner Bud Selig and general manager John Schuerholz, who was the architect of the 1980s Kansas City Royals and 1990s Atlanta Braves.  Both men were elected into the Hall of Fame by the Today's Game committee.

Last year's Hall of Fame class included Mike Piazza, who became the second player with a Mets cap on his plaque, and Ken Griffey Jr., who was named on 99.3% of the ballots, which broke the record of the first player with a Mets cap on his plaque.  Three players came within 34 votes of joining Piazza and Griffey in 2016, as Jeff Bagwell (71.6% of the votes), Tim Raines (69.8%) and Trevor Hoffman (67.3%) were forced to live by the old Brooklyn Dodgers mantra, "Wait 'til next year!"

This year, there are 19 players who are on the ballot for the first time, including two former Mets (Melvin Mora, Mike Cameron) and one former Met-killer (Pat Burrell).  Neither of those three players are expected to garner the 5% voter support needed to remain on the ballot in 2018.  But there are several players who will.  And some of those players might even approach the magic 75% threshold required for election.

According to Hall of Fame ballot tracker Ryan Thibodaux, approximately 435 writers will be submitting ballots this year.  It would have been 436 had Major League Baseball recognized the Studious Metsimus vote.  (We would've gotten a vote, too, if it wasn't for that meddling requirement of being a member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.)

But just because our vote is unofficial doesn't mean you can't officially like or dislike our opinions.  There are ten players on our imaginary ballot.  Let's start with the ones who are on the ballot for the first time.

Baseball Mecca.  (Photo courtesy of the Cooperstown/Otsego County website)


 Vladimir Guerrero

He didn't reach 3,000 hits.  He didn't hit 500 homers.  He didn't collect 1,000 extra-base hits.  He didn't score 1,500 runs, nor did he drive in that amount.  And he somehow never won a Gold Glove.  None of that matters.  Because Vladimir Guerrero is definitely a Hall of Famer.

Guerrero played only 14 full seasons in the major leagues.  (He played a total of 99 games between the 1996 and 1997 campaigns.)  But he was a feared player both at the plate and in the field.  Guerrero never batted lower than .290 in any of his full seasons and was a .300 hitter in 11 of the 12 years he qualified for the batting title, becoming one of just 30 players to have that many .300 campaigns.  Although he never won a batting title, Guerrero had four years with 200+ hits, leading the league in safeties in 2002.  Guerrero also had eight seasons with 30+ homers and an incredible ten years with 100+ RBI, making him one of only 18 players to have double digit seasons with triple digit RBIs.  In addition, Vlad was a nine-time All-Star and eight-time Silver Slugger recipient.

Opposing pitchers feared facing Guerrero, as evidenced by the five seasons in which he was the league leader in intentional walks.  Only Barry Bonds (12 times) and Wade Boggs (six times) led the league in intentional passes more often.  Guerrero was walked intentionally 250 times - the fifth highest total in major league history.

It wasn't just moundsmen who hated to face him; opposing base runners were afraid to run on Guerrero as well.  Guerrero had 126 outfield assists, leading the league in 2002 and 2004.  He could have thrown out many more runners, but they got the memo later in his career and stopped trying to run on his cannon.

And in case you thought it's just me singing his praises, in 2004, Guerrero won the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.  Nice, right?  Well, that season was one of a dozen years in which the right fielder received MVP votes.  That's just about every year he played in the big leagues, meaning Guerrero was recognized as one of the best players in the game for nearly the entirety of his career.

2,590 hits.  477 doubles.  449 homers.  181 stolen bases.  1,328 runs scored.  1,496 runs batted in.  A .318 lifetime batting average.  A .553 career slugging percentage.  Never striking out 100 times in a season.  Two 30 homer/30 steal seasons.  Lots of accolades.  Lots of respect.

Without question, Vladimir Guerrero is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Vlad the Impaler prepares to bludgeon another opposing pitcher. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)


Ivan Rodriguez

The first catcher nicknamed "Pudge" is already in the Hall of Fame, as Carlton Fisk was inducted in 2000.  The second backstop with that moniker had a career that may have been even better than his pudgy predecessor.  Let's look at some key numbers.

  • Pudge I:  2,356 hits, 421 doubles, 376 HR, 1,330 RBI, 1,276 runs scored, 128 SB
  • Pudge II:  2,844 hits, 572 doubles, 311 HR, 1,332 RBI, 1,354 runs scored, 127 SB

Their RBI and stolen base totals are nearly identical and Fisk had more homers.  But Rodriguez scored more runs and had many more hits and doubles.  And then there's the defense.

Fisk won a Gold Glove once.  Once.  Rodriguez won 13 of those suckers, which is more golden hardware than any player in baseball history not named Brooks Robinson, Greg Maddux or Jim Kaat.  In fact, Rodriguez ranks eighth all-time in defensive WAR, regardless of position.  None of the seven guys in front of him were catchers.  That means - according to that little dWAR stat - Rodriguez is the greatest defensive catcher of all-time.

Throw in his seven Silver Slugger Awards (only Mike Piazza had more as a catcher; I mean Hall of Famer Mike Piazza), his 14 All-Star Game selections (the same as Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, two more than Piazza and three more than Fisk), his two World Series appearances, his 1999 A.L. MVP Award, his Steve Bartman-assisted 2003 NLCS MVP Award and that shiny ring he earned for winning the whole shebang with the Marlins ... Need we say more?

Pudge II will join Pudge I in the hallowed Hall.

Everything's bigger in Texas.  Especially the mighty roar of Ivan Rodriguez.  (Eric Gay/AP)


So, Vladimir Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez would get my votes of the 19 first-timers on the ballot.  (Sorry, Pat Burrell.)  That leaves up to eight players I can vote for on my unrecognized ballot.  And those exceptional eight are:

  • Edgar Martinez: (Slashed .312/.418/.515 and has an award named after him.  A frickin' award!)
  • Tim Raines: (Because the "Ace of Stats", Ryan Spaeder, would be very pleased.)
  • Jeff Bagwell: (15 years, 1,500 runs, 1,500 RBI.  You average 100 runs/100 RBI, you're in the Hall.)
  • Trevor Hoffman: (Hell's Bells, he had a lot of saves!  And also that 2.87 lifetime ERA.)
  • Curt Schilling: (That K/BB ratio.  That 80+ WAR.  Those postseason performances.)
  • Mike Mussina: (Higher WAR than Schilling, seven Gold Gloves, nine top-six Cy Young finishes.)
  • Larry Walker: (Three batting titles, 72.6 WAR, five Gold Gloves in spacious Coors Field.)
  • Jeff Kent: (Most HR by a second baseman, 560 doubles, 1,518 RBI and a Hall-worthy 'stache!)

Those are my ten Hall of Famers for 2017.  Some will get in.  Some won't.  And some will be Jeff Kent.  But regardless of who gets the call to Cooperstown, all of the players mentioned above had outstanding careers and deserve to be recognized for their great play.

Kinda like a certain blogger should have his Hall of Fame vote recognized.  Oh, well.  There's always next year.


Monday, January 9, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Mike Piazza

The Mets lost at least 95 games in each of their first six seasons from 1962 to 1967.  But the arrival of Tom Seaver in 1967 brought the first glimmer of hope to the team.  Although the Mets suffered through a seventh straight losing season in 1968, they showed marked improvement by winning 73 ballgames.  A year later, the Miracle Mets went all the way to the World Series, defeating the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles to take home an improbable championship.

Nearly thirty years later, the Mets were coming off another six-year stretch of sub-.500 baseball before they turned the corner in 1997, going 88-74 and staying in the wild card race until the final week of the season.  Leading the way was Todd Hundley, who became the first catcher in franchise history to post multiple 30-homer campaigns.  But an elbow injury in early September limited Hundley during the final month of the season, allowing him to start behind the plate in just one of the team's final 19 games.  Hundley's balky elbow would keep him out of action into the 1998 season, causing the Mets to go with a Tim Spehr/Alberto Castillo platoon at the catcher's position while Hundley recovered.  Needless to say, the team's offense suffered, scoring three runs or fewer in 22 of the first 39 games.  Clearly, an upgrade was needed both behind and at the plate if the team wanted to prove that the previous season's improvement was not a fluke.  The Mets were able to do both, and in doing so, they eventually gave Seaver a partner in a Mets cap at Cooperstown.

From his first day as a Met, Mike Piazza always found a way to put a smile on the faces of Mets fans.  (Getty Images)

Michael Joseph Piazza was famously drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 June amateur draft as a favor to his father, Vince, who was friends with manager Tom Lasorda.  Four years later, Piazza made his debut with the Dodgers and played his first full season with Los Angeles in 1993, becoming the unanimous winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award.  The 1993 campaign would also see Piazza start a five-year stretch in which he finished in the top ten in the MVP vote every year.

But with free agency and a potential $100 million contract looming, the members of the front office that bled Dodger blue felt Piazza wanted too much green.  And so, just midway through the month of May, Piazza was traded to the defending champion Florida Marlins, who were in the process of ridding themselves of the high-salaried players who helped them win it all in 1997.  Gone were All-Stars Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Charles Johnson, who were due to earn over $24 million between them in 1998.  Also jettisoned to Los Angeles was veteran utility man Jim Eisenreich and his $1.4 million salary.  The cost-conscious Marlins had no intentions of keeping Piazza (or Todd Zeile, who also packed his bags for south Florida in the deal) and were looking for a second trade partner for the newly peripatetic Piazza.

The Chicago Cubs were a potential suitor for both Piazza and Zeile, but the North Siders did not believe they could re-sign Piazza once his contract expired at the end of the season.  They also did not want to part ways with their top catching and pitching prospects, who were expected to be included in the potential transaction, which in hindsight ended up being a terrible decision by the Cubs, as neither prospect ever played in the majors and both were out of baseball by the 2001 campaign.  While the Cubs were pondering the potential repercussions of dealing away their young players for a soon-to-be 30-year-old backstop, the Mets had no qualms offering their top prospects to the Marlins.

New York agreed to send a package of two former top ten overall draft picks to Florida on May 22, 1998, trading outfielder Preston Wilson (9th pick of the 1992 June amateur draft) and left-handed pitcher Geoff Goetz (picked No. 6 in 1997).  The Mets also included southpaw pitching prospect Ed Yarnall, who had gotten off to a blistering start at AA-Binghamton prior to the trade (7-0 in seven starts, 0.39 ERA, 0.793 WHIP).  And faster than you can say "fire sale", Piazza was a Met.

"I have gone from a player who thought he would spend his whole career with one organization to a player who's been with three organizations in a week," Piazza said after the trade was finalized.  "I just want to get in one place for more than a week and settle down.  I'll be with three teams in a week.  Isn't that bizarre?  It's like rotisserie baseball."

Todd Hundley, who had been a Met since Davey Johnson was manager of the team in 1990, but hadn't played a game with the club since the previous September, could have been bitter after the trade was consummated.  After all, it was his job Piazza was taking and he knew that the five-time Silver Slugger Award recipient wasn't going to give it up once Hundley returned from his elbow injury.  But Hundley took the high road after Piazza became his teammate.

"I don't have any problems with this," Hundley said about the trade.  "If he can help put a World Series ring on my finger, more power to him."

Another person who didn't have a problem with the trade was Mets' co-owner Fred Wilpon, who didn't hold back his excitement when discussing the acquisition of the erstwhile Dodgers and Marlins catcher.

"The town is ready and waiting for Mike," Wilpon said.  "They love him already and they'll love him even more.

There was a lot of love in the room when Fred Wilpon broke his piggy bank to sign Mike Piazza.  (Getty Images)

At first, Piazza got tough love from Mets fans, hearing some occasional boos from the Shea Stadium crowd during his first month as a Met because he wasn't driving in runs.  Although Piazza batted .354 in his first 24 games with the team, he only drove in seven runs, with just two of those RBI coming in his new home park.  Not helping matters was the team's inability to win games as spring turned to summer.  After winning nine straight games in late May (with eight of those wins coming after the trade), the Mets went 15-22 in their next 37 games and were in serious jeopardy of falling under the .500 mark in late July.  That's when Mike Piazza turned the boos into cheers and put the team on his back for the rest of the season.

Beginning on July 18, when Piazza recorded his first multi-homer game with the Mets, the catcher went on to post a .367/.441/.705 slash line over his next 60 games with 18 homers, 56 RBI and just 27 strikeouts.  In that time, the Mets went from being wild card pretenders to holding a one-game lead in the wild card race with five games left to play in the season.  Unfortunately, the Mets went on to lose their final five games to fall short in their playoff quest, even with Piazza reaching base nine times during the season-ending skein.

The way the season ended left a bad taste in the mouths of Mets fans, especially with the knowledge that their star catcher did not have a contract for the 1999 season.  But Piazza did not keep the fans waiting for very long, as he agreed to a seven-year, $91 million contract to stay with the team through the 2005 season just three days after the World Series ended.  Todd Hundley, who hoped Piazza would get him a championship ring, was instead traded to Piazza's original team in December.

After missing out on the postseason in 1998, Piazza and the Mets were determined to end the team's decade-long playoff drought in 1999.  But neither Piazza nor the team got off to a hot start, as Piazza was batting just .273 with four homers through May 16 and the Mets had a disappointing 27-28 record after losing their eighth consecutive ballgame - a 6-3 decision to the Yankees.  That was enough for general manager Steve Phillips, who decided a change was needed to create a spark for the team.  That change involved the firing of hitting coach Tom Robson, pitching coach Bob Apodaca and bullpen coach Randy Niemann.

"This was a tough evening for the organization," Phillips said.  "We are one-third of the way through the season and that is enough time to make an evaluation.  There is still enough time to get the ship righted."

After the triple firings at the 55-game mark of the season, manager Bobby Valentine declared, "In the next 55 games, if we're not better, I shouldn't be the manager," followed by a bold statement about the Mets needing to have a 40-15 record in those 55 contests.  The first of those 55 games came in the Subway Series finale against Roger Clemens, who had yet to lose a game as a member of the Yankees.  Then Mike Piazza happened.  And the Mets-Yankees rivalry was never the same.

Boo.  (Corey Sipkin/Daily News)
Clemens completed a perfect first inning, which included a whiff of the normally hard-to-strike-out John Olerud.  (Olerud fanned just 66 times in 723 plate appearances in 1999.)  Piazza then led off the second inning with a double to start a four-run rally against the hard-throwing right-hander.  An inning later, Olerud redeemed himself by leading off the frame with a single.  That brought up Piazza, who launched his first career home run off Clemens to break the game open.  By the time the third inning was over, Clemens had hit the showers and the Mets were up, 7-0.  They held on to win, 7-2, and the team and its new coaches were back at the .500 mark.  The Mets would never see .500 again for the rest of the season.

Piazza's two-hit effort against Clemens and the Yankees didn't just propel the Mets to victory.  It also extended his hitting streak to 11 games.  Thirteen games later, a home run against the Marlins pushed his streak to 24 games, which tied the franchise record set by Hubie Brooks in 1984.  Although he didn't quite break that team record, he continued to destroy opposing pitching, especially when it was a Yankee pitcher throwing the ball to him.

When the Yankees paid a visit to Shea Stadium to face their cross-town rivals, Piazza took full advantage, going 7-for-11 with two homers, one of which was against Clemens and the other a titanic 482-foot blast over the picnic area tent.  That Saturday matinee featured seven homers (six by the Yankees) and a walk-off two-run single by Matt Franco after Piazza had been intentionally walked by future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.

Led by Piazza's offensive exploits, the Mets fulfilled Valentine's prophecy, going 40-15 to improve their record to 67-43 by early August.  A late-season seven-game losing streak almost doomed the Mets' chances to win the National League wild card berth, but a season-ending four-game winning streak propelled the Mets into the postseason for the first time since 1988, with Piazza reaching base eight times in the four games.  In those four victories, Piazza hit two more homers (Nos. 39 and 40) and collected his franchise record-setting 124th RBI of the season.

An injured left thumb limited Piazza's ability to catch and hit in the playoffs and caused him to miss two games in the Mets' Division Series victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks - a series won on a walk-off homer by Piazza's replacement, Todd Pratt, in the tenth inning of Game Four.  Although Piazza returned to action in the National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves, he still wasn't at full strength, going 4-for-24 in the series.  However, one of the four hits was a game-tying two-run homer off future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz in Game Six that completed the Mets' comeback from an early five-run deficit.  Alas, Piazza was taken out of the game in a double switch in the ninth inning and the Mets were taken out of their season two innings later when Kenny Rogers walked in the pennant-winning run.

Piazza followed up his first full season with the Mets in 1999 with another brilliant campaign in 2000.  In addition to driving in at least one run in 15 consecutive games, which set a team record and was also the second-longest such streak in major league history, Piazza raised his batting average from .303 to .324 and his OPS went up from an already excellent .936 to a mind-boggling 1.012.  The catcher's .614 slugging percentage during the 2000 season remains the highest single-season mark in franchise history for a player who qualified for the batting title (min. 502 plate appearances).  The high point of his season came on June 30, when his three-run homer off Braves reliever Terry Mulholland capped a ten-run rally in the eighth inning of an 11-8 Mets victory.  His low point came against the Yankees, and once again Roger Clemens was involved.

In the second game of a two-stadium, day-night doubleheader on July 8, Piazza strolled up to the plate at Yankee Stadium in the second inning to face Clemens.  The year before, Piazza homered off Clemens in each of Clemens' starts against the Mets.  Piazza continued his personal home run derby against the apoplectic Texan in 2000, blasting a grand slam off Clemens on June 9.   This time, Clemens would be the one doing the hitting, as he plunked Piazza with a head-seeking missile.  The catcher lay dazed on the ground for several minutes after the violent beaning before being taken out of the game.  Diagnosed with a concussion, Piazza missed the next game against the Yankees and was also forced to sit out the All-Star Game.

Extreme close-up!  Maybe a little too extreme for Mike Piazza.  (Bill Kostroun/AP)

Piazza returned to the field after the All-Star break, but batted just .294 the rest of the year after maintaining a batting average at or above .350 for the majority of the season's first half.  This time, the Mets didn't need a season-ending winning streak to reach the playoffs, as they easily clinched the wild card to crash the postseason party for the second straight year.

Although Piazza didn't drive in any runs in Division Series victory over the San Francisco Giants, he did reach base seven times in the four games played.  Still, Piazza's postseason slash line as a Met through three series was a dismal .191/.264/.277, which was hardly what the team expected from the greatest hitting catcher of all-time.   However, there was reason for hope that Piazza would turn things around in the NLCS, as the Mets wouldn't be facing the perennial division champion Braves and their deadly pitching triumvirate of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.  Instead, he'd be facing the St. Louis Cardinals' pitching staff, who combined to post a 4.38 ERA during the regular season and allowed a then-franchise record 196 home runs.  It didn't take long for Piazza to take over the series.

In the first inning of Game One, Piazza produced the first run of the series, driving in Timo Perez with a double.  The Mets never looked back, cruising to a 6-2 victory.  Piazza then homered and walked three times in the Mets' Game Two victory.  After the Mets lost Game Three, Piazza produced one of the team's record-setting five doubles in the first inning of Game Four.  He then homered in the fourth to give the Mets an 8-3 lead and drove in a crucial run in the sixth after the Cardinals had cut the Mets' lead to 8-6.  The Mets held on to win, 10-6, to move to within one victory of the World Series.

Mike Piazza had been to the playoffs twice as a member of the Dodgers and was in his second postseason with the Mets in 2000, but he had never come so close to making it to the Fall Classic.  And in Game Five against the Cardinals, he made sure he wouldn't have to wait another year.  Piazza walked and scored in the first inning.  He then doubled and scored in the fourth frame.  The rest was up to his battery mate, Mike Hampton, who was masterful in keeping St. Louis off the scoreboard.  And once Hampton induced a weak fly ball from Rick Wilkins in the ninth - the same Rick Wilkins who started four games behind the plate for the Mets in 1998 the week before New York acquired Piazza - the Mets were National League pennant winners for the first time since 1986 and Piazza was off to his first World Series to face an opponent with whom he had become quite familiar.

After batting .412 in the NLCS with an eye-popping 1.487 OPS in the five games, Piazza set his sights on the Yankees, who had dispatched the Seattle Mariners in six games to win their third consecutive American League pennant and fourth in five years.  Unfortunately, the Mets did not win the first Subway World Series since 1956, falling to the Yankees in five closely contested games.  But Piazza, who flew out to Bernie Williams in center field to end the series, continued his hitting assault against the Yankees.  Piazza produced four extra-base hits in the World Series (no other Met had more than two) and drove in four runs to lead the team.  Piazza also had a .636 slugging percentage in the series, while his teammates could only manage to slug .301.  The baseball wasn't the only thing Piazza tried to slug in the World Series.

In Game Two, Piazza faced Roger Clemens for the first time since his frightening beaning in July.  On the fourth pitch of his first at-bat, Piazza fouled the ball off, causing his bat to splinter into several pieces.  Not knowing where he had hit the pitch, Piazza jogged down the line to first base.  Piazza may not have known where the ball was, but he definitely knew where part of his bat was after Clemens inexcusably fired a shard of it in Piazza's direction.  As an obviously surprised Piazza started walking toward Clemens, Clemens could be seen saying that he thought it was the ball, which only made sense on Planet Roger because if he fielded "the ball", he should have thrown it to first base for the out instead of throwing the sharp projectile in the vicinity of Piazza's legs.  Both benches emptied, but no punches were thrown and no one was ejected.  But the memories of the incident, as well as the beaning from earlier in the year, stayed with Piazza and the Mets throughout the off-season, and would not be settled for two years.

But before the Mets and their catcher could defend themselves against Clemens and the Yankees, they had to defend their National League title in 2001.  Once again, Piazza was the team leader in a multitude of categories, batting .300 with 36 homers.  But for the first time in years, his teammates struggled at the plate, causing the Mets to spend most of the season below .500.  Even with Piazza's usual high batting average, the team as a whole batted .249, which was the second lowest mark in the league.  The club's .387 slugging percentage, however, was the worst in the N.L., six percentage points behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, who lost a league-high 100 games in 2001.  Because he didn't have the support of his teammates, Piazza failed to drive in 100 runs for the first time in a non-strike shortened season, finishing the year with 94 RBI.

Hero.  (Lou Requena/AP)
On the morning of August 18, the Mets appeared to be dead in the water with a 54-68 record.  But Piazza then put the team on his back and carried them back into contention.  Over his next 28 games, Piazza produced a .324/.417/.627 slash line with eight homers and 22 RBI, helping the Mets win 23 of those 28 contests to push them back over .500.  Perhaps his most important homer as a Met occurred during the team's resurgence on September 21, when Piazza took Atlanta's Steve Karsay deep in the eighth inning to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.  That homer, which took place in the first game played at Shea Stadium after the 9/11 attacks, gave the city and the team a reason to have hope and allowed the legacy of Mike Piazza to grow even more than it already had.

"It was almost like a blur to me, almost like a dream, sort of surreal," Piazza said.  "I'm just so happy I gave people something to cheer.  There was a lot of emotion.  It was just a surreal sort of energy out there.  I'm just so proud to be a part of it tonight."

The Mets failed to qualify for the postseason in 2001, but their Piazza-infused finish allowed them to end the year with an 82-80 record - the team's fifth consecutive winning season.  The team's fortunes would come to a crashing halt the following year.

The 2002 season was a year that began with such high hopes for the Mets, as the team acquired a number of former All-Stars to join Piazza in the starting lineup.  With Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn and Jeromy Burnitz on the team, the Mets hoped their offensive woes of the 2001 campaign would be a thing of the past.  They couldn't have been more wrong.

Vaughn, whose average season from 1995 to 2000 produced a .306 batting average, 38 homers and 118 RBI, was only able to bat .259 with 26 homers and 72 RBI as a Met in 2002.  Likewise, Burnitz was a premier slugger in Milwaukee from 1997 to 2001, averaging 33 homers and 102 RBI per season, while posting an .875 OPS.  His 2002 campaign with the Mets saw significant drop-offs in each category (19 HR, 54 RBI, .677 OPS).  The biggest shocker was undoubtedly the performance of Alomar, who averaged 38 doubles, 21 homers, 103 RBI, 121 runs scored, 35 stolen bases and a .920 OPS per season from 1999 to 2001.  He had also appeared in a dozen consecutive All-Star Games and had won ten Gold Gloves prior to becoming a Met.  In New York, Alomar failed to be an All-Star or provide Gold Glove-caliber defense (career-worst -0.9 dWAR in 2002), and as a hitter, he was merely pedestrian, with 24 doubles, 11 homers, 53 RBI, 73 runs scored, 16 steals and a .708 OPS.

Once again, Piazza was forced to carry the offensive load on a less-than-average hitting team.  The slugger led the club with 33 homers and 98 RBI, which made him the first - and still only - Met with four seasons of 30 or more home runs.  But the wear and tear of the grueling season on his 34-year-old body caused Piazza to bat under .300 for the first time in his career, as the catcher could only manage to hit .280 in 2002.  Fortunately, his matchup against Roger Clemens and the Yankees was before the beginning of summer, which meant Piazza had all the energy he needed to exact a modicum of revenge against his Yankee nemesis.

On June 15, Clemens was set to pitch against the Mets at Shea Stadium for the first time since the bat-flinging incident in the 2000 World Series.  Clemens did not pitch against the Mets in 2001 because Yankee manager Joe Torre did not want to Mets to retaliate against the veteran headhunter, saying, "I don't see the need to have it happen.  I really don't."  In 2001, Torre had the luxury of altering his starting rotation to avoid having Clemens face Piazza and the Mets.  He didn't have that luxury in 2002, as Clemens was due to start the middle game of a three-game series at Shea.

Facing Clemens in the Saturday matinee was Shawn Estes, who had become another disappointing acquisition by general manager Steve Phillips.  After compiling a 61-42 record for the San Francisco Giants from 1997 to 2001, Estes began the 2002 season by winning just two of his first 12 starts.  He was not the ideal man to send to the mound in a much-anticipated matchup against Clemens, but unlike Torre, Mets manager Bobby Valentine didn't feel the need to change his starting rotation.  Estes took the ball, Piazza got behind the plate and the game got underway.

"It's about time you started Clemens against us.  We needed to blast off against the Rocket."  (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The first two innings passed without incident and without a run crossing the plate.  They also passed without Roger Clemens coming to bat.  But with one out in the third inning, Clemens took a bat in his hands and strolled casually to the plate to stand directly in front of a crouching Piazza and the boos of a venomous Shea Stadium crowd.  Estes, who was pitching on the other side of the country when the Piazza-Clemens feud was in full swing in 1999 and 2000, was in charge of delivering the retaliatory message to Clemens in the form of a fastball to his six-foot, four-inch body.  The tension was palpable at the ballpark as Estes delivered his first pitch to Clemens.  Where would the pitch go?  What would it hit?  Would there be a bench-clearing brawl between the crosstown rivals?

The pitch went behind Clemens, missing him by about a foot.

For Estes, hitting a target - even one as large as Clemens' body - had never been an easy task.  As a member of the Giants, Estes had three seasons in which he walked 100 or more batters, leading the league in the category in 1997.  Estes never got to hit Clemens with a pitch, as both benches were warned by home plate umpire Wally Bell after the first pitch of the at-bat, but he did get to hit him in a different way later in the game, as did Piazza.

After not drawing Clemens' blood in the top of the third, the Mets drew first blood on the scoreboard in the bottom of the frame, as Rey Ordoñez took advantage of a vacated home plate to score all the way from second base on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Estes.  Two innings later, with the Mets still holding on to a 1-0 lead, Estes found a way to hit Clemens without being ejected from the game, as he smacked an unlikely two-run homer off the shell-shocked pitcher.  It was the first time Clemens had allowed a home run to an opposing pitcher in his 19-year career.  An inning later, Piazza stepped up to plate, and just like his battery mate had done in the previous inning, Piazza put a charge on the baseball, hitting it into the Yankees bullpen and effectively ending Clemens' day on the mound.

The home run by Piazza helped the Mets cruise to an 8-0 victory and also finally put an end to the four-season feud between him and Clemens.

"I don't think revenge mattered," Piazza said after the game.  "Hopefully today beating the Yankees and doing it the way we did is the key to getting some momentum.  That was really all we were trying to do."

Whatever momentum the Mets gained by the satisfying victory over the Yankees was short-lived, as the team bobbed up and down in a sea of mediocrity before drowning with a 12-game losing streak in August.  The Mets finished the year with a disappointing 75-86 final record - the first time Piazza had played for a sub-.500 Mets team and the club's first losing season since 1996.  The team's dismal performance led to the firing of Valentine and the hiring of new manager Art Howe.  The move did nothing to improve the team.

With the underachieving (and aging) Vaughn, Alomar and Burnitz still on the team, the Mets did not expect to do much in 2003.  Even with the acquisition of future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine and All-Star outfielder Cliff Floyd, the Mets were a team full of 30-somethings who could break with just the slightest touch.  Piazza, now in his mid-30s, was becoming more fragile.  He also was becoming all too accustomed to being thrown at by opposing pitchers.  In addition to the incidents with Clemens, Piazza had been hit in the back by Dodgers pitcher Guillermo Mota during a spring training game in 2002.  When the two faced each other again in a 2003 Grapefruit League game, all hell broke loose.

Mota, who had homered off Mets reliever Armando Benitez earlier in the game, threw his first pitch to Piazza a little too inside for the catcher's liking.  The next pitch once again hit Piazza in the back, causing the angered All-Star to charge the mound and the pathetic pitcher to run for his life, which didn't go unnoticed by Piazza's manager and teammates.

Let's get ready to rumble!  (MSG Network)
"The guy ran like a scared rabbit," Howe remarked.  "He wants to hit somebody, stand there and fight.  He can backpedal faster than I can run forward."

Also infuriated by the show of cowardice was Piazza's backup on the field, Vance Wilson, who offered his own opinion of Mota after the pitcher had done his version of backing up.

"He's gutless," Wilson said without mincing any words.  "If you want to hit somebody, be a man and face him.  Then he hid in the dugout and yelled a bunch of trash at Mike.  He's lucky Mike didn't get to him."

Piazza almost did get to Mota upon the conclusion of the game. Once the dust had settled on the field, both Piazza and Mota were ejected from the game.  A livid Piazza then tried to find Mota in the Dodgers clubhouse, but the pitcher had already left.  Several seasons of frustration from being targeted by Clemens and Mota had finally gotten to Piazza, causing the catcher to snap.  Piazza was suspended for five games for the incident and fined $3,000.

The disarray exhibited on the field during the Piazza-Mota brawl was a microcosm of the 2003 season for the Mets, as very few players managed to hold on to their everyday jobs.  In fact, the only Met to start more than 100 games at the same position was rookie Ty Wigginton, who somehow managed to start 153 games at third base.  Piazza was one of the many injury casualties in 2003, as a groin injury limited him to just 68 games.  As a result, he finished the season with career lows in home runs (11) and runs batted in (34).

With Piazza out for much of the season and the continued decline of Vaughn, Burnitz and Alomar (neither of whom played again for the Mets following the 2003 campaign), New York finished the year with a 66-95 record.  To this day, that dismal mark remains the only season the team has had with 95 or more losses since 1993.

The 2003 season was a year of transition in more ways than one.  Besides the departures of Vaughn, Burnitz and Alomar, general manager Steve Phillips was also relieved of his duties.  Change was imminent for Mike Piazza as well.  In the season's final game at Shea Stadium, Piazza traded in his catcher's mitt for a first baseman's glove, taking over the position for one inning.  Piazza hadn't played first base in the majors since July 26, 1993 when he was a rookie with the Dodgers, but he did play the position for a few innings during his rehab assignment following his groin injury.  And with that limited experience, manager Art Howe decided to give Piazza a starting job at the position in 2004.

When the curtain opened on the 2004 season, Mike Piazza and Jason Phillips were set to rotate between catcher and first base.  By the time the team had played 43 games, Piazza had started 27 games at catcher and 14 games at first base, while Phillips had caught eight games and been the team's starting first baseman 23 times.  But beginning on May 22, Howe gave Piazza more chances at first base in order to keep his top hitter fresh and in the lineup more often, especially with the team sitting with a 22-22 record after spending most of the first six weeks of the season under .500.

By mid-July, the Mets were in the thick of the N.L. East race, just one game behind the Braves and Phillies, who were tied for first place.  Piazza had started 33 out of 54 games at first base and was a key contributor at the plate, batting .360 from mid-May to late June with ten homers and a gaudy 1.081 OPS during the stretch.  But Piazza injured his left wrist in a collision with the speedy Juan Pierre at first base in late July and missed a week.  He then missed 21 games in August with a knee injury.  By the time he returned on August 30, the Mets were 15 games out of first and 10½ games behind the wild card leader.  A team that was 45-43 and in the thick of the playoff race on July 15 finished the season 20 games under .500.  Piazza's production also suffered because of his two injuries, as he batted just .200 with four homers and 14 RBI after the All-Star Break.

With the Mets completing their third consecutive losing season in 2004, the good feelings and optimism felt during Piazza's first three seasons in New York were long gone.  Piazza himself wasn't immune to the tumult, as he had to call a press conference to deny rumors about his sexuality in 2002 and then had to endure persistent accusations from Murray Chass and others about steroid usage in 2003 and 2004, all because they noticed some acne on his back.  Even becoming the game's all-time leader in home runs by a catcher in 2004 only served to temporarily brighten what was otherwise a dark period in Mets history.

By 2005, it had become clear that the Mets would not attempt to re-sign Piazza once his contract expired at the end of the season.  The same player who averaged 37 homers and 107 RBI per season over the first four years of his contract could only manage a total of 31 homers and 88 RBI between the 2003 and 2004 campaigns.  And so, under new manager Willie Randolph, Piazza played the 2005 season knowing it would be his last in front of the Shea faithful.  He would also play the year back at his more familiar position behind the plate.

After three straight losing seasons, the Mets played the entire 2005 campaign at or around the .500 mark.  But when the team lost to the Atlanta Braves on September 17 to drop their record to 72-76, it appeared as if Piazza's final year in New York would become the team's fourth consecutive season with more losses than wins.  The Mets won five of their next six games to improve to 77-77, then finally went above .500 for good on the next-to-last Sunday of the season, with Piazza having his final vintage performance for the team.  Piazza reached base four times and hit two home runs - his 17th multi-homer game as a Met - to guide the team to a 6-5 victory over the Washington Nationals.  The Mets never went back under .500 again and finished the year with an 83-79 record.

Legend.  (Kathy Willens/AP)
On the final day of the regular season, a near-sellout crowd of 47,718 gathered at Shea Stadium to celebrate the brilliant career of their long-time catcher.  And even though the team couldn't pull out a victory for their future Hall of Famer, losing the season finale to the Colorado Rockies, Piazza went out as a winner, receiving a long standing ovation from the fans in attendance at Shea Stadium when he was removed from the game in the eighth inning.  An emotional Piazza waved to the fans in appreciation, as both teams applauded from their respective dugouts.  The ovation was just as loud a year later when Piazza returned to Shea as a member of the San Diego Padres and hit two home runs against Mets pitcher (and fellow future Hall of Famer) Pedro Martinez, receiving a rare curtain call as a visiting player.

In 2016, the man who is widely considered to be the greatest hitting catcher of all-time finally made it to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on his fourth try.  Unfounded foreign substance rumors may have kept him out of Cooperstown for his first three years on the ballot, but once he entered the Hall, he was welcomed with open arms by the tens of thousands of Mets fans who made the trek to Upstate New York for the induction ceremony.  Piazza became the second player to wear a Mets cap on his Hall of Fame plaque, joining Tom Seaver, who received baseball's highest honor in 1992.  A week later, Piazza's number was retired by the Mets, as his No. 31 joined Seaver's No. 41 to become the only two numbers retired for players in franchise history.

Mike Piazza became a Met just as the team was turning the corner after a six-year slumber.  Considered the final piece of a team that was ready to win, Piazza nearly carried the team to a wild card berth in 1998.  He then produced two of the best offensive seasons in club annals and was part of the first Mets team to make back-to-back postseason appearances, culminating with the club's fourth pennant in 2000.  But as Piazza's body began to break down, so did the team.  Off-the-field issues fueled by the media coupled with on-the-field adversity caused by years of squatting behind the plate (as well as confrontations with wild, hard-throwing pitchers) contributed to a rapid decline in Piazza's production.  But during his final season in New York, Piazza was able to witness the team's rebirth, and when he returned as an opposing player the following season, he received the kind of love that's only reserved for the true legends of the game.

Piazza always reciprocated that love, showing genuine affection for the fans who cheered him on through the good times and the bad.  And when it came time for his number to be retired by the team after his Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, he made sure to let the fans know just how important they were to him.

"The unofficial theme of my (Hall of Fame) speech was that no one goes into the Hall of Fame alone.  Each and every one of you is in there with me," Piazza said, before pointing to his retired No. 31 and adding, "I want to say just a little bit of what it means to have my number retired for this great franchise and for you amazing fans.  That means I will always be with you.  So every time these guys are down and you need a little bit of inspiration, just give a little peek up there to old Mikey and know that I'm back home watching you guys on TV saying a lot of prayers, praying for the Mets."

Mike Piazza shouldn't just be remembered as a player who hit lots of home runs in key moments.  Rather, he should be remembered as a player who lived and died with the team just as all Mets fans did.  He thrilled the fans when he was victorious on the field, and the fans agonized with him when the team failed.  Piazza was truly one with all of us, and for that, he will always be a beloved Met.

Mike Piazza will forever be one of the greatest players to ever put on a Mets uniform.  (Jim McIsaac/Newsday)


Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver