Opening Day 2011 will be the 50th Opening Day in Mets history. To honor that, around here we’ll be counting down the top 50 Mets in team history, one every weekday from now until we’ve done ‘em all. Today, #10, Mike Piazza:
More than any other Mets player, the personality of Mike Piazza threatens to rise above his actual deeds. He was both instantly mythical and excessively knowable – the folk hero who might address you as dude. The Mets have statistically superiors players, both position players and pitchers, but just #31 holds the honor of being loved unconditionally in the way #41 is loved. It made perfect sense for Piazza and Seaver to both ceremonially close Shea Stadium and open Citi Field, not just as the franchise’s best catcher and pitcher, but as its two best loved players. Among the Mets’ other stars, Darryl and Doc are defined by what never came to pass, Wright and Beltran by the failure of their teams, and Koosman as the perpetual king to an ace. (Koosman is also defined by an aversion to paying taxes.) But the greatness of Piazza is without conditions, and he is therefore loved in the same manner.
Though, in one way, the near universal love for Mike Piazza was strange: rooting for him could have easily felt like rooting for the house in black jack. There is no childhood hero story of overcoming poverty, distant parents, or being Canadian. Instead, he was the privileged son of a millionaire car dealer, given a personal batting lesson from Ted Williams at the age of 12. His very entrance into professional baseball had deep roots in nepotism – Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round by his godfather Tommy Lasorda, as a favor to Piazza’s father. It’s not difficult to imagine someone under similar circumstances growing up entitled and arrogant.
And then getting to run the Knicks.
But the opposite happened: Piazza became perhaps the least pretentious superstar ever. He acted much like a crazy headbanging cousin, one who stumbled into both money and fame, but never gave up the motorcycle. Piazza’s behavior was never alienating, but it was, at times, fairly weird. Among the things he did during his Mets career:
- An occasional guest host on classic rock radio station Q104.3, he once leaked tracks from Guns N’ Roses ever-delayed “Chinese Democracy” album.
- For no apparent reason other than the time period, he bleached his hair blond during the 2001 season.
- Won an episode of “Celebrity Jeopardy!”
- Held a press conference to deny persistent gay rumors.
- Dated a Playboy playmate, presumably to deny persistent gay rumors.
- Married a (different) Playboy playmate. This might not have been related to the rumors.
- Provided backing vocals on an Zakk Wylde album.
Had someone else done all that — say, Alex Rodriguez — it might have seemed excessively egotistical. But Piazza did all these things unassumingly, as the entire time seemed to be only vaguely aware that he was, in fact, Mike Piazza. It’s possible that being surrounded by famous ballplayers at a young age led to fame not phasing him, as the life of a millionaire athlete couldn’t have been much different from how he grew up. Regardless, he came across as such a normal person that he remained incredibly easy to root for.
It also probably helped that Piazza was an amazing hitter. The rest of his game was deeply flawed – he was slow, hit into an enormous number of double plays, and his throwing arm was mostly decorative – and that keeps him from being higher than #10 on this list. But he was undeniable at the plate. With a compact swing, wrapping the bat around his back with both hands, he batted over .300 in four seasons, hit over 33 home runs in four seasons, and finished with a .296/.373/.542 batting line over eight years with the Mets. He was the fu manchu-ed soul of the club, and sometimes even the city itself. Bringing the team to a World Series in 2000, he posted a 1.045 OPS in the postseason. Perhaps his most important deed took place on September 21, 2001, when he hit the only transcendent home run in Mets history. He did all this taking a year long beating behind the plate each and every season; were he capable of playing another position, who knows what he could have done. His already great batting abilities seem only to hint at even greater possibilities.
Mike Piazza was the perfect player to root for. The best hitting catcher of all time, the face of the turn of the century Mets, and — what I realized writing this post — the player that first caused me to love baseball. He seemed superhuman but in no way removed from reality. He was a force, but one tied to the earth. At times, his personality overshadowed both the contributions of his teammates and the flaws in his own game: Piazza does not rate as well statistically as you might expect, something that surprised me when I made this list. It is probably best to say that his intangible impact was greater than his tangible one.
The meaning of Mike Piazza goes beyond numbers, beyond many things, perhaps even beyond baseball. I think his teammate Al Leiter answered the question best: “What does he mean to this team? Everything.”