David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
When John Buck changed out of his uniform and into workout clothes after Saturday's game at Tradition Field, he put on a blue T-shirt with the No. 31 across the chest.
The circle emblem, with a pinstriped background, was designed by a fan-run company as part of a movement to get Mike Piazza's number retired by the Mets. But when Buck was asked by a teammate about the shirt's meaning, the catcher shrugged.
"I don't know," Buck said. "It was just in my locker."
Piazza's No. 31 has not been seen on a Mets' jersey since 2005, his last season in Flushing before signing with the Padres. It was an amicable parting back then -- Piazza even said so in his newly released autobiography, "Long Shot" -- but his relationship with the Mets has cooled some over time, according to people familiar with the situation.
What that means for the fate of the No. 31, as well as Piazza's candidacy for the Mets' Hall of Fame, is uncertain. If everything had followed the fairy-tale script, Piazza would have been elected in January to Cooperstown, which then could have paved the way for the Mets to honor him at Citi Field a few months from now -- and possibly retiring his number during that ceremony, as well.
Instead, Piazza received only 57.8 percent of the vote, appearing on 329 of 569 ballots, and landed far short of the 75 percent needed for induction. Though Piazza's hitting resume made him a no-brainer for Cooperstown, the cloud of PED suspicion apparently was enough to deter a large segment of BBWAA voters.
As for the Mets, the jury is still out. The committee for the franchise's own Hall of Fame has yet to meet on any of this year's candidates, including Piazza, but the Mets weren't thrilled by some of the catcher's comments about the club in "Long Shot."
COO Jeff Wilpon, who has the last word on both the Hall of Fame's recommendations and the retired numbers, was criticized in the book as Piazza claimed Wilpon urged him to play with an injury in a spring training game because it was a sellout. Piazza also ripped longtime media relations director Jay Horwitz, who happens to be a member of the Mets' HOF committee, for not doing a better job of shielding the team's players.
"I felt he was more loyal to the writers and the broadcasters than he was to the players," Piazza wrote.
Are a few stinging sentences enough for one of the Mets' most popular stars of the past two decades to be alienated? That depends. Piazza also declined an invitation to attend SNY's unveiling of the team's 50 greatest players last year (he was No. 6) and team officials buzzed about that dis for months. There is little -- if any -- communication these days between Piazza and the Mets, who are confused as to why he's pulled away to this degree.
In the meantime, the No. 31 stays on the shelf. The Mets have only four retired numbers: Tom Seaver (41), Gil Hodges (14), Casey Stengel (37) and Jackie Robinson (42). In addition to Piazza, they have two other numbers in limbo, as in not retired but out of circulation: Gary Carter's No. 8 and the No. 24, famously worn by Willie Mays in Flushing but last donned by Rickey Henderson as both a player (2000) and coach (2007).
As one Mets person explained, the team's Hall of Fame does not have to be tied to what transpired this winter in relation to Cooperstown. In fact, Piazza failing on the first ballot might actually nudge the Mets to induct him into the Flushing Hall, which currently has 26 members.
The odds are that Piazza's percentage for Cooperstown will climb in the coming years, perhaps helped by a more lax attitude toward the so-called Steroid Era over time. If he ever does get in, Piazza likely would be fitted with a Mets cap based on the length of his tenure in New York and the impact he made there.
But how his former club chooses to treat Piazza's legacy in the coming months will be interesting to see. Other than a few stray T-shirts, Piazza has been mostly ignored in these parts recently, like a distant relative. And that's not a good thing for him or the Mets.