(NOTE: To the FReepers and the strident left out there. I'm well aware of Mike Piazza's political leanings, and that sports is a worthless waste of time. But it's my waste of time, thank you very much :-) )
Sometimes, you don't realize how important someone has been in your life until you assess what they've done and where they've gone. It happens in love. It happens in sports.
I was at the New York Mets final home game yesterday (and I'm a trouble maker of long repute, but more on that later). Mike Piazza was playing the last game of his current contract with the Mets, and likely his last game as a Met.
As I watched the various tributes and highlights on Diamondvision, it occured to me that Piazza had become the baseball version of Rod Stewart: not the most important entertainer, but someone who has marked so many important moments for me, who has added an exclamation point or an accent ague to much of my recent history.
He might not be the first player who comes to my mind, but give it time, and I'll find a moment to reminisce about.
Mike Piazza came to my team, the New York Mets in 1998. The Mets were a horrible mess, had not been in the playoffs in ten years, the World Series in 12. He brought instant credibility, not unlike Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter in the mid-80s.
Suddenly, it became fun to be a Mets fan again. It's a pity the teams he played on subsequently turned out to be so poorly constructed, but the spark was there, and in 1999, and again in 2000, Mike helped this team reach the playoffs and then the World Series.
Oddly, he never seemed to hit The Big One. In 1999, it was another catcher, Todd Pratt, who supplied the fireworks against Arizona. In 2000, Piazza will longer be remembered for being on the receiving end of a bat thrown by Roger Clemens than for anything he hit in the World Series, including the final fly-ball out.
And yet, he always managed to push the team that much farther, that much harder, to get into the spotlight.
He never had the swagger of many New York players, probably as he managed to sneak into the league as the 400th-some-odd player in the draft in his rookie year, but he never lacked for confidence, either. He did his work, did his job and had much to show for it.
I guess his ultimate moment came not in a playoff game, or even a playoff run (although it did start what had the prima facie appearance of yet another Met miracle), but in the first home game at Shea Stadium after September 11, 2001.
September 21, 2001. The Mets took on the Atlanta Braves, and each team gathered on the field ahead of the game and embraced and shook hands, while the fans were still stunned and numbed by events ten days earlier. No amount of consolation or official reassurance could get the city back on its feet. It seemed we went about our business dreading the funereal atmosphere inherent in the wake of the greatest tragedy we could ever imagine.
The Mets, listless and numb as well, having spent days helping out at Ground Zero (and embarassing the heck out of the Yankees organization), played a terrible game and Atlanta had stretched out to a 2-1 lead. It was the bottom of the eighth inning and the Mets being what they were and the Braves being who they were, the fans fully expected a loss.
Mike took care of that with one swing, and it was as if the entire stadium had been wired with whoopie cushions: everyone leaped out of their seats and began to cheer wildly, shouts dodging the teardrops on the way out.
Sort of what happened yesterday.
So my voice is gone, my head is killing me, my back is stiff, and while I'm sad, I'm also happy to have seen a great player in his prime playing for the team I adore.
PS...about that "troublemaker" thing....well, see...Mets management and I have serious disagreements about what players belong and what players should stay. In the past, I've had to bite my tongue (since I'm only a fan and hold no sway), but yesterday, I saw an opportunity to cause a little havoc.
During the seventh inning stretch, when they showed Mike Piazza's highlight reel, I started a chant of "One More Year". Piazza has 397 home runs, and I thought the team owed it to the guy to let him get them here, in New York, the city that has embraced this Pennsylvanian as a New Yorker.
I knew the Wilpons had to be there, and as the entire stadium picked up the chant, I knew they had to hear it.
And so did Mike.