Tuesday, May 20, 2008

So long, Mike

Today one of the greatest New York Mets off all time officially said goodbye to the game of baseball. Michael Joseph Piazza, most recently of the Oakland Athletics, announced his retirement, beginning the five year countdown to his Hall Of Fame induction. The only questions that remain are which hat, Mets or Dodgers, will adorn his plaque in Cooperstown--judging by Piazza's statement, he'd probably choose the interlocking NY--and just when the Mets will get around to retiring his number 31. Tom Seaver's number 41 took its place on the Shea Stadium wall in 1988, a year after his retirement, so I don't see why there wouldn't be a Mike Piazza Day on the inaugural Citi Field schedule.

Piazza's prodigious power was and remains his calling card, but to focus merely on the long ball underestimates how well rounded his offensive game was. The greatest home run-hitting catcher in the game's history also put up a career .307 batting average and a .377 OBP to go along with his .545 slugging percentage. His career OPS+ of 142 ranks 61st all time, tied with hitters like Miguel Cabrera, Todd Helton and Gary Sheffield and ahead of Ken Griffey Jr., Reggie Jackson and David Ortiz. Piazza managed to rank in the top ten in OPS in the National League five times in the 90s despite playing the most demanding defensive position on the diamond in two of the toughest parks in which to hit in the league.

And, yes, he hit 427 home runs, 396 of them as a catcher and six more in the postseason. There were plenty of memorable shots among those. There was the two-run blast to center in the bottom of the eighth on September 21, 2001, to give the Mets the lead over the Braves in their first home game after the attacks of ten days prior. There was the solo shot to right in the first inning on May 5, 2004, that broke Carlton Fisk's record for home runs by a catcher and which I was lucky enough to witness live. But the one that stands out in my memory today took place on a Friday night at Shea in 2000.

The Mets entered June 30th trailing the first place Braves by three games, having had a seven-game winning streak snapped by Atlanta a day earlier. The pitching matchup featured Mike Hampton for the Mets and Kevin Millwood for the Braves. Both went seven innings, but Millwood allowed just one run while Hampton was knocked around for five. Reliever Eric Cammack entered in the top of the eighth for the Mets and gave up two walks before Brian Jordan stepped to the plate and smacked a three-run home run to put the score at 8-1 in favor of the Braves. Cammack finished the top of the eighth*, bringing the heart of the Mets' lineup to the plate, beginning with two hitter Derek Bell.

Bell singled to center but Edgardo Alfonzo flied out. Piazza singled and went to second on a throwing error, putting runners on second and third for Robin Ventura. Ventura grounded out, driving in a run to make the score 8-2 but leaving the Mets just one out to work with. What followed was the most dramatic eighth inning at the end of June I think I've ever seen. Todd Zeile singled to bring home Piazza. Jay Payton singled. Kerry Ligtenberg entered the game for the Braves and walked the next three batters, Benny Agbayani, Mark Johnson and Melvin Mora, making the score 8-5. Terry Mulholland entered and walked Bell, bringing in another run. An Alfonzo single tied the game and brought Piazza to the plate for a second time in the inning, this time with two men on base. Mike then electrified the crowd, the bench and play-by-play man Gary Thorne by driving the ball over the left field wall to put the Mets ahead, 11-8, pumping his fist as he jogged to first.

The Mets didn't wind up catching the Braves in the division that year, though they did outlast them in the postseason after winning the Wild Card. But that game was some of the most fun I've ever had watching a game of baseball on television. Piazza provided a lot of fun moments in his nearly eight years in New York. He is the greatest offensive player in the history of the franchise and if his is the second theoretically blue and orange cap to adorn a plaque in Cooperstown, it will be a fitting honor.

*Fun fact: Cammack pitched so badly that even though the Mets took the lead after the inning that he pitched, he was not awarded the win by the official scorer. Armando Benitez, who pitched the ninth in what would otherwise have been a save situation, was.

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