To commemorate Mike Piazza’s retirement, I’m reprinting my piece “Mike Piazza” from my book Mets Fan. Mikey is my favorite non-pitcher player in the whole history of the Mets. If you were a Mets fan around the turn of the twenty-first century, he’ll always be with you.
At the end of the 2005 season, the Mets did not re-sign Mike Piazza. You had the sense that Omar Minaya wanted him to go, as he had wanted Leiter to leave the year before. This had been Mike Piazza’s team and it could not be any longer. It had to be something different now.
More than any Mets player except Seaver, Piazza had created and defined an entire era of Mets history. He lifted an exciting but wobbly team to the point where it thought that it was as good as the Braves and destined to beat the Yankees in the World Series. The team wasn’t as good as that, but Mike was great enough to allow us the pleasure of the illusion. He had a glamour and an explosive talent that was like nothing we’d seen since the Eighties. I will always cherish the fact that for seven years, I got to watch the career of one of the best right-handed hitters since DiMaggio, the best hitting catcher in history.
Piazza was a gentle and modest superstar. His skills were enormous, but he seemed to stand in the background behind them, like a parent, expecting you to look at them and not him. Sure he knew you were also looking at him. How could you not? He was handsome and perfectly formed and he stood more firmly on the ground than anyone else. But he looked as if he had no interest in being a star. He was only interested in smacking the ball where it needed to go, and controlling the game from behind the plate with his steady force and will.
In more than forty years of watching baseball, I don’t think I’ve seen anything as beautiful as Piazza’s short miracle of a swing. It made no physical sense. It was too short to send a ball that far, but like a swift, silent explosion, it did. When Piazza came to the plate you leaned forward to see the swing. You kept your eyes focused on the spot where his arms and the bat would be and you prepared yourself to see the split second of contact and to shift your gaze to the long path of the ball’s flight. You got ready to stand. On every pitch. If it didn’t come, you didn’t mind because you knew it would come soon. And when it came, you felt yourself seeing and remembering it at the same time, because you knew you were watching something rare and unique and that once he could no longer do it, you would never see anything exactly like it again.
I loved to watch Piazza catch. I loved the energetic confidence of his crouch, and the surprising speed of his springing up after foul pops. I loved how he would stand on the mound with his mask off and everyone would look straight at him, as if he were the captain, the main guy, the only one who could make things right. His arm, as everyone knows, was not as strong as a catcher’s arm needed to be. And as he got older, he didn’t throw out many runners. Yet one of the things I liked most about watching Piazza play was seeing his face after he failed to throw a runner out. He had that sad, determined grimace, a twitch of his closed mouth, with his eyes focused straight ahead. He wasn’t surprised, but he wasn’t resigned. When he did throw out a runner, he looked pleased, but he also looked as if he knew that next time he probably wouldn’t.
Maybe it was vain of Mike to catch for so long. But I was glad he got the catcher’s home run record. He was even better than Bench and Fisk and it was good to mark that with a number. I thought it was inspiring that Mike was so devoted to the craft of catching that he wouldn’t let it go. He revered his work and he wanted all of the catchers in the future to know that he had been there. Playing his position near the end, Mike was as eager and as hopeful as a rookie. But he was a thoughtful grown up who could not fool himself. His dignified disappointment wasn’t always a happy thing to watch, but it was as much worth seeing as his home runs.
The fans loved him, without any reservations. At Shea, you’d see and you will see forever the number 31 on bent backs and little backs, on broad backs and narrow backs. No one should ever wear that number in that uniform on our field again. He won us all over, with his bat and his heart and the beauty of his play.
Mike gave us the great years of 1999 and 2000. And he gave us the small spasms of hope we had in the years after that. He was one of the greatest players ever. And he grew older. He’d get bunged up, and he’d be out of the lineup, and he couldn’t lift the team any longer. I wish we had held those one-run leads in the bottom of the eighth and tenth innings of the sixth game of the 1999 Championship series against Atlanta. I wish we had shown the Yankees something to fear in the 2000 World Series. Just three or four games tilting the other way would have given the Piazza era a more satisfying flavor in the memory. But it was fine as it was, and by 2005, it was time to move on.