LA Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza, a member of the Major League All-Star Team, shakes hands with Orix BlueWaves outfielder Ichiro Suzuki during their workout for the opener of the eight-game Super Major Series at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on Oct. 31, 1996. (AP)
1996 was a happier time for Dodger fans. The mid-nineties were a time when you could sit back and enjoy multiple well-manicured stylings of Mike Piazza’s facial hair. Here’s Mike “Pepperoni” Piazza (thank you, Chris Berman) with a faux Fu Manchu.
Choked up by a pregame tribute to the victims of the World Trade Center collapse, Mike Piazza tips his hat to the crowd at Shea Stadium after he hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning that lifted the New York Mets over the Atlanta Braves 3-2 on Sept. 21, 2001. (John Iacono/SI)
Every player that steps onto A baseball field dreams of that moment.
They put in years of effort in the hope that they one day
will be considered great. That they can take their place in baseball’s most
prestigious hall. That their name and cap can sit among the best of all-time.
For Michael Joseph Piazza, that dream is now a reality.
The wait was long. Four years of missed chances, ballots
casted and counted, to no avail. But in early January, with 83 percent of the
vote, the wait was over. And on July 24, he was cemented as one of baseball’s
best when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His plaque will now be viewed by every baseball devotee that
makes their way to Cooperstown and his legacy has been secured. A legacy that
will not only mark him as one of the best offensive catchers to play the game,
but also as one of the greatest Mets in franchise history, as he becomes only
the second player to enter the Hall of Fame as a Met.
“What an amazing life
that I’ve had in baseball,” Piazza said. “The memories, to me, I almost can’t
capture. It’s truly a blessing and I’m very, very grateful.”
For Piazza it is the culmination of a career that began when
he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 62nd round (1,390th pick) of
the 1988 amateur draft. With his enshrinement into Cooperstown, Piazza is the
lowest draft pick to ever reach enshrinement.
“That’s what’s wonderful about baseball,” Piazza said. “You
just need a chance. I was able to sneak into this game, kind of limp in, if you
will. Through a lot of hard work, some luck and some determination, I was able
to build a pretty good career.”
He spent four full years in the minor leagues before getting
his first big league call-up in 1992 with the Dodgers.
In 1993, Piazza’s first full season in the big leagues, he
batted .318 (174-547) with 24 doubles, 35 home runs and 112 RBI en route to
being named the National League Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and a Silver
Slugger. He even finished ninth in the MVP voting that season.
It was the first of 12 All-Star Games for Piazza (he’d make
seven of those 12 as a Met) and the first of 10 Silver Slugger awards, which is
the most by a catcher. His consecutive run of Silver Sluggers from 1993-2002
are the most consecutive wins of any player at any position in major league
While he played his first seven seasons with the Dodgers, he
really found a home when he became a Met after a trade with the Florida Marlins
on May 22, 1998.
“I enjoyed coming up with the Dodgers and had an amazing
career there as far as getting to know Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale and the
Hall of Famers,” Piazza recollected. “But, fortunately for me, I eventually
ended in New York. Some way, shape or form, I became a New York Met, and truly have a special relationship here with the fans of the Mets.
“I feel like the fans here truly brought me into their
family. Every time I’ve come back, I’ve been so incredibly honored from the
Upon arriving in New York, Piazza gave the Mets the
superstar that they had been searching for. Someone with star power that could
compete with their crosstown rivals.
“We needed that,” said Al Leiter. “When you finally get
that, it absolutely legitimizes where the team is going.”
He went on to make the All-Star team in seven of his eight
seasons as a Met and helped lead them to the NLCS in 1999 and then, a year
later, the World Series. He hit 427 career home runs, the most ever by a
catcher, and more than half of those (220) came while he was a Met. His first
as a member of the Mets came on June 1, 1998 off Pittsburgh’s Jason Schmidt in
the eighth inning. His 220 home runs are third-most by any Met behind Darryl
Strawberry (252) and David Wright (242).
None of his 220 home runs as a Met, however, had (and
continues to have to
this day) a lasting impact on the population of New York City as the one he hit on September 21, 2001 following the September
11th terrorist attacks.
His mammoth blast in the eighth inning off Atlanta’s Steve
Karsay not only gave the Mets the lead when they were trailing by one, but it
helped heal the city of New York in a time when it needed a beacon of light. It
brought the 41,235 fans at Shea in attendance that night bursting to their
“I get emotional thinking back to that week,” Piazza said.
“It’s something you can’t define. It changed all of our lives. Not just at a baseball level, but
personally for me. It really put my life into perspective and what the important things are.“
“For me to be at the right place and the right time and to
come through, I can only think it comes from above and a lot of people that put
wind under my wings.”
Piazza went on to play in orange and blue for four more
seasons and hit 83 more home runs. His 352nd home run as a catcher, which broke
Carlton Fisk’s record for home runs by a catcher, came in the first inning on
May 5, 2004 vs. San Francisco off Jerome Williams. He’d finish his career with
the aforementioned 427 career home runs in his primary position of catcher. Also of note, his 396 career home runs while playing the
position of catcher are also most by anyone who has ever played the game.
A year-and-a-half later, Piazza played his final game as a
Met on October 2, 2005. He didn’t grab a hit in his final game at Shea, but
when removed in the eighth inning, Piazza received an eight-minute standing
ovation from the 47,718 faithful New Yorkers.
After a few years bouncing around to Oakland and San Diego,
Piazza called it a career following the 2007 season. When it was all said and
done, it would only be a matter of time for Piazza’s call from the Hall to come
with the career numbers he’d put up. His .545 career slugging percentage is the
highest all-time among catchers while his .308 batting average is eighth
all-time for backstops. His .377 on-base percentage ranks him 13th all-time for
While his catching days were officially over, there was
still one more pitch that Piazza needed to catch and, not surprisingly, it
would come from the only other Met player to be enshrined in Cooperstown, Tom Seaver.
There wasn’t a more fitting dynamic duo for a final pitch
and catch to close Shea Stadium on September 28, 2008 than Seaver to Piazza
with 56,059 looking on at two of the team’s icons standing 60-feet, six-inches
from one another. Seaver delivered the pitch to Piazza and then the two met at
the mound and walked out, arms around one another. They’d go on to open Citi
Field the same way.
“Without a doubt Mike Piazza was one of the top hitting
catchers in the history of the game,” said Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. “For Mike
to compile the stats he did while catching is amazing. His election to
Cooperstown is most deserving.”
The wait for Piazza’s next honor won’t be long, as the Mets
will honor the catcher by retiring his number 31 on July 30 when the Mets take
on the Rockies at Citi Field as part of a Mike Piazza Tribute Weekend. His number, fittingly, will sit next to Seaver’s in permanent
recognition in the ballpark.
Seaver’s No. 41 became the first number worn by a Mets
player to be retired when the Mets bestowed the honor on Seaver when he was
elected to the Mets Hall of Fame on July 24, 1988. Now, the honor is coming to
“We are truly thrilled to honor Mike by retiring his number
to recognize his incredible career,” said Mets COO Jeff Wilpon. “His offensive
prowess, ability to deliver in the clutch, and tireless work ethic helped him
become one of the great catchers of all-time.”
“It is such a tremendous honor to have my number retired
alongside the great Tom Seaver,” Piazza said. “My time as a Met was truly
special and I want to thank Fred, Saul, Jeff and the entire organization for
this incredible gesture.”
When Piazza stood up to deliver his speech on
the lawn in Cooperstown, it marked the culmination of all he had worked for
over the course of his entire career. The player that almost didn’t get
drafted, that toiled for years in the minors and waited years after his
retirement for this recognition, will now forever be enshrined among the
greatest, sporting the blue and orange cap he wore so proudly during his days
in New York.