Mike Piazza to be inducted into Mets Hall of Fame Sunday
As jarring as it was for Mike Piazza to be dealt to New York from Florida on May 22, 1998, in his second disorienting trade in eight days, it was obvious that the Mets really were the ones who had changed addresses.
He merely had changed cities. They moved to a whole new world.
"We got our rock star," said Al Leiter, the Mets' top pitcher at the time. "I was on the phone with John Franco and some of the other guys and we were like 12-year-olds, going, 'We got Mike Piazza!' "
General manager Steve Phillips, who made the deal, recalled the long-term implications. "We stopped being on everyone's no-trade lists,'' he said this past week. "Players wanted to come here. Robin Ventura signed, Rickey Henderson signed, Todd Zeile signed. Mike singlehandedly impacted everything about our team."
That transformation, capped by the franchise's first World Series appearance in 14 years, will be celebrated Sunday at Citi Field as Piazza is inducted into the Mets Hall of Fame. The ceremony will take place before the Mets play the Brewers, as they did on May 23, 1998, when Piazza debuted by hitting a key double and catching Leiter's shutout.
The club is selling standing-room tickets, a sign that there will be a big crowd to see a man who practically doubled the Mets' attendance that first year.
"It's a great honor, and well deserved," said Franco, who preceded his friend Piazza into the Mets' Hall. "It is a step toward the day he goes into Cooperstown."
Who knows if Piazza ever will be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame? Although his name never has been connected with any performance-enhancing drug probe, enough voters were suspicious to keep him out when he became eligible last season. If he does go in, though, he almost surely will do so as a Met. People who were in Queens during his seven-plus seasons believe no tribute is too great for Piazza.
"Here he was, a megastar, and he was incredibly low maintenance. He had no entourage," said Phillips, who now has the morning drive show on Sirius/XM's "Mad Dog Radio" channel. "His dad and brother would be with him, and the prettiest girl, but that was it. And after the game, he would have a protein bar and a Powerade. I never had to worry about that 3 a.m. phone call. It was an honor to be part of his time here."
Sunday will be a time to remember the electrifying moments from a player who had a knack for rising to the occasion: the way he "owned" Roger Clemens (as Phillips put it) and his contretemps with the former Yankees pitcher, his home run in a comeback from an 8-1 deficit against the Braves, the powerful home run in the first game after 9/11.
Sunday will be a time to explore why he was so clutch. "He was a great player," Franco said.
And it will be a time to reflect back 15 years, when the planets in the Mets' solar system were realigned overnight.
"I remember that Fred Wilpon went on Mike and the Mad Dog and said 'We're fine, we don't need a catcher.' Then Nelson Doubleday went on a few days later and said the opposite," said Leiter, now an analyst for the MLB and YES networks.
Doubleday won. "I think we surprised a lot of people," Phillips said. Piazza was surprised at the first thing he saw as he arrived at Shea Stadium from the airport: Lines at the ticket windows. Then there was a rushed but laid-back meeting with Leiter. "He kept saying, 'OK, Dude,' " Leiter said.
By the time he arrived at his locker, Franco, who had known and traveled with Piazza for years because they had the same agent, had surrendered jersey No. 31. "I knew that's what he wore all those years with the Dodgers and I knew he would appreciate it," the former reliever said.
Phillips, Franco and Leiter all emphatically said Piazza's catching was underrated. His arm was not great, but they agreed that he called a good game, blocked pitches and was passionate about it.
Piazza is likely to be passionate about Sunday. As much as he changed Mets history, he had a personal transformation here, from a frowning reluctant superstar who was booed in 1998 to a beloved New York icon who was wildly cheered every time he so much as grounded out in his 2005 Mets finale.
"He was a great player, a great Met," said current Mets outfielder Mike Baxter, who grew up a Mets fan in Whitestone during the Piazza era and looks forward to meeting the honoree Sunday. "He's somebody you strive to be like, a pretty common guy, an afterthought in the draft who worked his way up to being a superstar."