Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Year We Said Goodbye

When I decided to start writing again a little over a month ago, I knew that I would need to find things to write about given the current stuck in limbo reality that has overtaken baseball and our normal lives.

I decided to spend some time writing about the 2005 season for a lot of reasons. It was the first year that I started writing my old blog. It was a season of dramatic comings and goings for the Mets. There were some interesting characters and games to talk about.  It was the year that both Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran came to town.

It was also the year that one of the greatest players to ever wear a New York Mets uniform saw the curtain come down on his terrific 7+ season run in the old ballpark in Flushing, Queens.

Mike Piazza was an iconic figure in this town. As with any great player, he means something a little different to every Mets fan who cheered him on over his time here. I'm not conceited enough to pretend to summarize what he meant to all of us, I can only speak about what he meant to me.

A little personal history is in order here. I've been a baseball fan since 1969, and I have lived and (mostly) died with the fortunes of this club over most of those years. When the great Mets teams of the 1980s gave way to the increasingly bad teams of the 1990s I was going through a period of personal upheaval in my own life. My wife and I separated and eventually divorced. In my early 30s I was struggling to figure out my place in life as I watched friends I grew up with seemingly well-settled into theirs.

Meanwhile, the Mets fell from very good to mediocre and then to just plain awful. Manager Davey Johnson was fired during the1990 season and GM Frank Cashen "stepped down" after a fifth-place finish the following year. The one era in Mets history that could possibly be considered a dynasty was emphatically over, and the team once again became laughingly bad. Worse, the decisions that the club's management made as they looked for shortcuts back to relevance were just pathetic.

 But I had endured endless bad years before, and I'm not one to ever change my allegiance. I continued to watch and hope for the best until August of 1994 when the latest in a seemingly endless series of baseball lockout/strikes shut down baseball for the year. Not that the Mets were going to the Series that season, sitting at a mediocre 3 games under .500, but I felt betrayed as a fan and sick of what the game had become.

When the start of the 1995 season was delayed and baseball actually recruited replacement players, I checked out. I barely watched baseball in 1995 and 1996. I actually tried to give up the sport completely, but I could never quite escape the hold it had on me.

When Dallas Green was fired and Bobby Valentine was hired I felt myself getting sucked back in little by little. I loved John Olerud and Edgardo Alfonzo. Still, it was the trade for Mike Piazza in May of 1998 that got me watching a good amount of Mets baseball again. I remember telling myself that "I just want to check the score," which often led to watching the rest of the game.

When the Mets managed to sign Piazza to a contract I knew I was hooked again.  The years that followed were full of some great moments and, of course, some disappointments, too. Still, Piazza was a true superstar for a team that hadn't had one since Doc and Daryl left town.

I remember with sadness when Piazza suffered a bad groin injury in 2003. Little did I know at the time that the Piazza that came back from that injury would not be the same player as the one he was before. In 32 games before the injury, he had a vintage Piazza slash line of .333/.422/.613, with 7 HR. When he returned he hit a Jerry Grote-like .244/.338/.366 with 4 HR in 36 games. Worse, his last month of the season featured 0 HR and a .234/.274/.273 line.

I remember hoping against hope that Piazza would bounce back in 2004, the year of the ill-fated move to 1B. It became clear, however, that at 35 the glory years were over for Mike. He did, however, pass Carlton Fisk in all-time home runs by a catcher.

As the 2005 season began, the last year of Piazza's contract with the club, it was clear that it would mark his last season with the Mets. As sad as that was, I'll always be grateful that we had that season to say goodbye to the man. I only wish David Wright could have finished his career with the Mets with more than just a token 2 game cameo appearance.

Back behind the plate, where he belonged, Piazza's 2005 season was solid. In 113 games he hit .251/.326/.452 with 19 HR and 62 RBI. For a 36-year-old catcher, those were great numbers, for Piazza they were merely mortal.

On October 1, 2005, the Mets were playing their second-to-last game of the season. I was moved to do something that I hadn't done since before the 1994 baseball strike. I bought tickets online for Lisa and myself and traveled into New York City to watch a Mets game. I wanted, just that once, to see Mike Piazza in person.

Predictably, I guess, Willie Randolph gave Piazza the night off. It was a good game, regardless. Jae Seo wasn't great, but he held the Rockies to a single run over 6 innings. The Mets were up 3-1 thanks to a monster HR by David Wright.

In the bottom of the sixth, the Mets had 2 on with 2 outs, and Willie sent Piazza to the plate to pinch-hit for Mike Jacobs. With everyone else in the park I gave him a standing ovation and hoped for a storybook moment.  It wasn't to be, however, as Mike struck out to end the inning. The standing ovation as he walked back to the dugout was almost as loud, however, and many of us - including me - shed some tears. The Mets held onto win 3-1, but that was anticlimactic compared to Mike's unsuccessful at-bat.

I watched the finale the next day on TV. Victor Zambrano, Heath Bell, and Danny Graves all got their butts kicked as the Mets fell out of the game early. Mike started his last game behind the plate and went a quiet 0-3.  Randolph sent him out in the top of the eighth, and then replaced him with Mike Difelice. The fans gave him one last standing ovation, and Mike walked off the field as a Met for the last time in his career.

Piazza signed with the Padres the next season and was very solid -  hitting a little better than his last 2 seasons as a Met.  He finished up his playing career in Oakland as a DH the following year.

The Piazza legacy in New York is complicated. There were always whispers and insinuations about steroid use.  Given the era, they were most likely true.

I've had several other Mets fans share stories with me about Mike Piazza doing something rude to them when they met him in person. I don't doubt them. Tom Seaver was infamous for not being comfortable around fans, but I cherish the years of greatness I witnessed from a distance. I think, with few exceptions, it's better not to meet your heroes. To me, the moments they give us on the field is what really matters.

2005 was many things to me as a Mets fan, but nothing meant more to me personally than having that year to say goodbye to Mike Piazza. He gave all of us Met fans many great moments to cherish.  He helped me to overcome my post-strike hurt and reluctance to fully fall in love with baseball again. For that, he will always mean just that little extra to me. At a time in my life when age and skepticism combine to make it hard to look at any mortal human as a hero, the Mike Piazza who graced the playing field of the team for which I've spent most of my life rooting remains one of mine.

Thank you for letting me share some memories with you.  Please stay well.

My Series on the 2005 Season:

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