David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Mike Piazza waited four years for Wednesday’s phone call, the voice welcoming him to Cooperstown. And by our estimation, it was three years overdue.
The fact that the sport’s greatest hitting catcher, with an obvious Hall-worthy resume, had to sweat to clear 75 percent of the BBWAA electorate never made sense. But even after finally getting his 83.0 percent Wednesday, second to Junior Griffey’s record 99.3, Piazza again was reminded why it took so long.
So rather than fully enjoy the triumphant and well-deserved moment, Piazza had to spend time swatting away another volley of PED-related questions like high and tight fastballs. For three years, the shadowy accusations delayed his trip to Cooperstown, and what should have been a validation for Piazza instead suggested that the stain of suspicion wouldn’t be rinsed away so easily.InteractiveMLB Hall of Fame 2017: Who is worthy?
“At the end of the day, the fans understand there’s no flawless institution,” Piazza said. “It’s the human condition that we all make mistakes. I think we all need to understand that the game is healed, they’ve addressed the issue and we’re moving on.”
If only it were that easy. When Piazza became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013, he seemed to create a whole new subset of candidates: players who were rumored to have dabbled in PEDs — without concrete evidence — yet never tested positive or were suspended by Major League Baseball.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens remain in their own separate class, fallen icons immortalized by their courtroom sketches. Then there is a second group of admitted PED users, including Mark McGwire and Gary Sheffield.
Beyond that was Piazza, who has been forced to answer to unspecific charges, to explain what others never had to. In the court of public opinion, there is no presumption of innocence, and Piazza’s eventually changing the minds of a few dozen writers apparently isn’t going to exonerate him. Now he’s being characterized as the flag-bearer for a suspect generation, and that doesn’t feel right.
“As a player, you put up all the numbers you can, and you work as hard as you possibly can,” Piazza said. “It’s like an artist. You just put it out there, and people can be critical or people can be complimentary. I’ve been blessed that a lot of people have been very complimentary.”
The Dodgers kicked Piazza from L.A. to the lowly Marlins two months into the 1998 season, but he was loved unconditionally in Flushing. In Piazza, Mets fans got a rock star, a charismatic, slugging catcher whose every plate appearance was a must-see event.
The night of Sept. 21, 2001, made Piazza an immortal New Yorker, and the image of that Shea homer pops up in the mind’s eye of every Mets fan whenever his name is mentioned. What Piazza provided for the franchise, and previously accomplished during his seven-year stint with the Dodgers, can’t be erased.
But as only the second Hall of Famer to wear a Mets cap in Cooperstown — Piazza couldn’t announce it until Thursday — and with his No. 31 now on tap to be retired at Citi, maybe it’s the imperfections that make Piazza the perfect Met. Just listen to how he described the team’s far-flung fan base Wednesday in explaining his connection to the franchise.
“It’s a mixture of love and frustration,” Piazza said, “and ups and downs.”
Not unlike Piazza’s own career, to some degree. A 12-time All-Star, Piazza never won a World Series, and appeared in only one, the five-game loss to the Yankees in 2000. During his eight years with the Mets, Piazza witnessed what could be a daily circus from his corner locker, and endured some demoralizing lows in his last few seasons at Shea. But anyone who watched him play, and saw him pulverize baseballs the way Piazza did, immediately thought Hall of Famer. Period.
“I just know that I showed up every day and took care of my business on the field,” Piazza said of the PED-tainted era he played in. “I think this game is in great hands with so many writers and analysts and people that are able to put that in perspective.”
It took a while. But in making it to Cooperstown, Piazza ultimately had all the proof he needed.