Esposito: Retiring 31 Is Icing on the Cake for Piazza

Only Mother Nature could have dampened the spirit and energy at Citi Field on Saturday night as the Mets officially retired Mike Piazza’s No. 31.

After a whirlwind week which saw the former catcher officially entering the immortal ranks of Cooperstown’s elite last Sunday, the parade of honors culminated with a celebratory ceremony marred only by a light drizzle throughout.

Of course Piazza was overwhelmed by the permanent tribute.

“A tremendous honor,” Piazza stated prior to the ceremony. “Every team has different philosophies on their retired numbers. I think it’s great the Mets keep it an exclusive club, (to be up there) with Tom Seaver – The Franchise, Gil Hodges, Casey Stengel…makes it more special.

“I have my son (Marco) here, and he’s too young to appreciate it, but I think it’s cool that I can take him here one day to a game and say, ‘Hey, your Dad was cool once.’

“It was a privilege to have caught the last pitch from Tom Seaver at that last game at Shea (in 2008), the culmination of a lot of things, my journey here…it was struggle in the beginning, but after that, it was wonderful.”

The story how Piazza inherited 31 is Mets-related. At Phoenixville High School in Pennsylvania, Piazza wore 13. He considered 3 a lucky number. With the Dodgers, he first wore 25 in the majors, but in 1992, among the pitchers he caught were ex-Mets Roger McDowell and Bobby Ojeda. Ojeda left the club, and McDowell, who’d been wearing 31, switched to the number Ojeda had been wearing, 17, to honor his mate from two teams. Piazza jumped on the vacated 31, a reversal of his high school number.

And in one of those baseball irony endings, McDowell, who wore 42 as a Met, later joined Texas and Baltimore to close out his career. For both teams, he wore 31.

The half-hour pregame ceremony centered behind second base, as the field was covered by tarp during the rain. A large Piazza logo covered the home plate area, and a special Piazza logo home plate was later brought out so Piazza could throw out the first pitch – from the catcher’s position, to Al Leiter near the pitcher’s mound – a switcheroo from normal first pitches.

Mets broadcaster Howie Rose emceed the festivities.

“This is a really big deal,” Rose told the nearly sold out stadium, “a really, really, big deal.” Rose checklisted the few numbers and names the team had retired previously – 37, 14, and now 31, plus 42, which was retired by all of baseball, and those placards honoring the memories of Bill Shea and Ralph Kiner.

Joining Piazza’s family on the field, his wife, Alicia, daughters Nicoletta and Paulina, his parents, Vince and Veronica, and his three brothers, were ex-mates Cliff Floyd, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Leiter. Curiously absent from the ceremony were Johnny Franco and his manager, Bobby Valentine.

It was Franco who quickly volunteered to give up his uniform number, 31, when Piazza arrived in May of 1998. “I was going to bribe him if he didn’t,” Piazza joked.

Piazza paid Valentine great compliments in a pre-ceremony presser and also admitted he gave one of the greatest pre-game motivational locker room talks, even better than his mentor, Tommy Lasorda.

“Bobby played for Tommy, so they had similar styles…both always had big personalities. Bobby was gregarious, and he could push my buttons a little bit, knew how to drive me. Playing for Tommy prepared me for playing for Bobby.”

A pre-recorded video introduced Piazza to the Citi Field faithful. it began with Piazza crouched next to the site of the home plate from Shea Stadium, which now is planted in the parking lot in its original location. The camera followed Piazza into Citi Field, into the Met clubhouse and then onto the field to a frenetic ovation.

Piazza spoke from the heart at the podium in short center field and not from a pre-written speech as he did in Cooperstown.

“How many of you had a good time up in Cooperstown?,” Piazza asked.

He thanked the Lord for letting up on the rain. He thanked Jeff and Fred Wilpon to a mild chorus of boos. But Piazza quickly admonished the crowd and thanked Steve Phillips for completing the trade that brought him to New York.

Acknowledging how emotional his speech brought him and many to tears, Piazza referenced A League of Their Own. “With all due respect to Tom Hanks, there is crying in baseball.”

Already a Mets Hall of Famer since 2013, Piazza humbly told the fans who kept chanting his name, “My unofficial theme (in Cooperstown) was that no one goes in alone,” Piazza said, “and now every one of you is in there with me.”

He pointed to the newly christened disc on the upper left field rafters and admitted he still watches Mets games from his home in Miami. And he’ll always be a fan of this team. “That means I’ll always be with you.”

Piazza is still third on the Mets all-time list in home runs with 220, behind Darryl Strawberry (252), and David Wright (235). He’s behind the same two in RBIs with 655. He’s first in slugging percentage (.542), fifth in on-base percentage (.377), fifth in total bases (1,885), fourth in average (.296), and fourth in extra-base hits (415).

Now the owner of an Italian soccer team (A.C. Reggiano), Piazza remains the team leader in RBIs for a season (124 in ’99), and second in home runs for a season (40 in ’99), behind Carlos Beltran and Todd Hundley, who both hit 41 as Mets (’06, and ’96, respectively).

And of course, Piazza will likely hold the record for most home runs as a catcher (396) for a very long time.

And now that number 31 will adorn Citi Field for even longer.

“It’s going to be up there forever,” Piazza proudly stated. “It’s overwhelming.”

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