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



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