Piazza Still Nos. 1 & 31 In Hearts Of Mets Fans

You could make a case that Mike Piazza will forever be the Mets fans’ equivalent of Mickey Mantle, again evidenced today as the likely future Hall of Famer was formally inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame at Citi Field.

In a year where the Mets again struggled on the field and at the gate, the five-year old ballpark was filled to capacity, with standing room only tickets sold – a very rare occurrence these days – as the now 45-year-old former Met became the 27th inductee into the Mets Hall of Fame, and its third catcher, following Jerry Grote (1992 Inductee) and Gary Carter (2001).

The gratitude and platitudes flowed like a river, with Piazza graciously returning the love rained upon him by the boisterous gathering, with not only hundreds of fans arriving at the ballpark wearing Piazza jerseys and other related gear, but with the Mets adding to the fashion of the day by handing each fan a black jersey style t-shirt bearing Piazza’s name and number as they entered.

“They say you can count your true friends on one hand,” Piazza proclaimed during his brief pre-game acceptance speech, “and this is where you are,” an acknowledged direct reference to the fans as he held up one index finger.

The feeling was mutual.

Before the ceremony, Piazza told the press what the fans sincerely meant to him. “From the start, the fans taking me under their wing was truly special, and can’t put it into words. The word is just grateful. Truly a special connection. I attribute it to my faith in God, my family… the love and support was overwhelming.”

As for the reference and comparison to Mantle, Piazza might be the guy, or at least in the same conversation with Darryl Strawberry, and the eventual all-time go-to Met, David Wright.

Longtime Yankees fans have never lost their love for Mantle. He was power incarnate. One of baseball’s all-time best, and he had that extra “it” factor that also oozes from Piazza, handsome, charisma overflowing, and the ability to follow through when it was needed most.

New York City will never forget what Piazza was able to do for the Mets, for baseball, and the city of New York in that first game back following the horrible terrorist attacks on the city and the nation on Sept. 11, 2001. In that first game ten days later, Piazza crushed a home run to beat the Braves that allowed the city to breathe again, to acknowledge that we were injured, but can still respond and prevail.

It was the only game in the long managerial career of Braves skipper Bobby Cox where he later admitted he didn’t mind losing. It was the game where both teams followed the pregame introductions with unprecedented hugs and handshakes between both squads around second base.

“That home run was awesome,” Piazza exclaimed in a pregame presser, “and I was so glad to be able to execute in what I attribute to the power of prayer. I was so blessed. To have a moment like that in a week of despair. It was a miracle.”

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg recognized the moment in an official Proclamation that named this day Mike Piazza Day in the City of New York.

In 2004, Piazza and Mets fans enjoyed a personal moment when the popular backstop eclipsed Carlton Fisk with the 352nd home run of his career – as a catcher, and the greatest total of home runs from the catching position. The rest of Piazza’s 427 home runs came as a DH, as a pinch-hitter, or from those dark days when he was asked to play first base, an experiment that did not fare well. Piazza’s eventual career total of 396 home runs as a catcher continues to rank first in baseball history and likely will remain so for many, many years. Catchers, generally, are not home run hitters.

Established in 1981, the Mets Hall of Fame has been welcoming members on an irregular basis ever since, with their plaques now formally installed in the Mets Museum located near the entrance of the Jackie Robinson Rotundra. At Shea Stadium, members were honored with a bronze bust, which were originally on display on the Diamond Club level. Some of which still exist in Citi Field – Gil Hodges’ bust inside the entrance of the Press Gate, Tom Seaver’s bust at the third base entrance, and Casey Stengel’s bust also at an entrance on the third base side.

A five-man committee meets each year to determine if – and only if – any former members of the team and front office deserve such an honor. The Committee is comprised of Mets Media Relations VP Jay Horwitz, original Met Al Jackson, longtime Mets beat writer Marty Noble, and longtime broadcasters Gary Cohen and Howie Rose.

Rose again served as the MC for the on-field ceremonies.

The Mets also honored longtime scout Harry Minor with the team’s Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. Minor began a career in baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1947, and scouted for the Mets from 1967 to his retirement in 2011. Minor knew which prospects had “trouble with the curve” and helped shape four pennant-winning teams and two World Championships.

Joining Minor and Rose on the field to honor Piazza was Mike’s family, his wife, Alicia, his young daughters, Nicoletta and Paulina, his brothers, Tom, and Vince, Jr., and his parents, Veronica, and Vince, Sr.
Also on hand were previously inducted Mets Hall of Famers and former teammates John Franco, Keith Hernandez, Ed Kranepool, Doc Gooden, Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Rusty Staub, Mookie Wilson, and Edgardo Alfonzo.

One of the accolades Piazza shared with the stadium was a kudo to “The Fonz.”

“I used to say to myself, if it wasn’t me up there with the game on the line, then I wanted it to be Fonzie.”

Congratulating Piazza via a video feed from the MLB TV studios in New Jersey was Al Leiter. “Mike, congratulations…” said Leiter, beaming. “I remember when we made the trade, I was on the phone with Johnny Franco and some of the guys and we were like 12-year olds going, “We got Mike Piazza! We got Piazza!”

“I remember that first game at the end of May. I was a like a little Met fan growing up. I had the pleasure of being in the locker next to you for seven years, and know what you meant to this organization. And I can’t say enough how proud I am of you and our friendship which continues to this day. Congratulations.”

Piazza almost committed a faux pas during his acceptance speech. He generously thanked Mets management, and also noted former Mets owner Nelson Doubleday, Jr. – who was principally responsible for bringing Piazza to the organization – but if you were at the game or watched the broadcast, you might have been puzzled when Piazza said thanks to Doubleday, “who is no longer with us.”

Don’t worry, Mr. Doubleday is very much alive, and Piazza knows that, he just meant no longer with the team. As Mark Twain once mocked, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Originally, in 1998, when Piazza had been traded by the LA Dodgers – the team that drafted him in the lofty 62nd round of the 1988 Amateur Draft (purportedly as a favor toe family friend, Tommy Lasorda) – the Florida Marlins, the media asked Mets owner Fred Wilpon if he was interested in acquiring Piazza. Because it was almost a given that the Marlins were going to turn him around at some point in another deal.

Wilpon essentially said, “We already have a good catcher,” in part due to the baseball rule that says don’t covet players on other teams, and a reference to then steady and popular backstop Todd Hundley.

But it was Doubleday who recognized the star power and batting power of Piazza, and basically told GM Steve Phillips, “Get Piazza.”

The deal was consummated on May 22, 1998, with the Mets sending Preston Wilson (Mookie’s boy), Geoff Goetz, and Ed Yarnall to Florida for Piazza, who already had been the Rookie of the Year in 1992, and a six-time All-Star.

Only Wilson became a player of any significance, and ironically, is a member of the Marlins’ broadcast team these days.

The rest is Mets and baseball history. Piazza later signed a seven-year deal with New York ($91 mil) that gave him baseball’s biggest player deal at the time, and something Piazza also acknowledged on his day of recognition.

“If it wasn’t for my agent, Danny Lozano, playing a hard line with the Dodgers, I might never have come to New York.” The fans howled with that thought.

By the numbers, Piazza finished a 16-year career in 2007 with 427 home runs, 1335 RBIs, a .308 average, slugging at .545, and on-base of .377. For his eight years with the Mets, No. 31 slugged 220 homers (third on the team’s all-time list, behind Straw and Wright), banged in 655 runs, scored 532 runs, picked up 1,028 hits, and had a .296 avg.

If you’re worried about if and when Piazza makes it to the original Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and whether or not he wears a Met or Dodger cap on his bronze plaque, fear not. It is the management of the Hall that makes those decisions now, and they generally go wherever the player made his most significant contributions.

Piazza played in more seasons as a Met than as a Dodger (8 to 7), played in more games (972 to 726), had more home runs (220 to 177), and more RBIs (655 to 563). Need any further evidence, your honor?

But that Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is still a question mark. In the last election, Piazza’s first time on the ballot, and where no player made it to the required 75% nominations for election, the 12-time All-Star received just 57.8% of the vote. Not bad, and it keeps him on the ballot, but it is a process Piazza gladly welcomes.

“The process is a beautiful thing as well,” Piazza said. “Yogi (Berra) had three ballots. Joe DiMaggio had three ballots. If I’m blessed to get to be put in one day, I will be honored, but it’s out of my hands.”

As for the future, Piazza noted he’s very busy doing nothing. Plays a lot of golf. He keeps him in a competitive edge. With two young daughters and a baby boy, Marco, just two months old, he’s just dad now. But maybe about 18 years from now…

“I’m going to teach (Marco) how to hit, and the rest will be up to him.” And he joked to team COO Jeff Wilpon, “I’m going to give you first crack at him, but he’s not going to come cheap.”

We’re sure Mets fans are looking forward to the day, Mike. Congrats to a very worthy Hall of Famer.

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