May 22, 1998. The New York Yankees were in full control of the AL East with a record of 31-10, on a collision course with history becoming the first team to win 125 games in a record setting campaign. The Atlanta Braves were 35-13, nine games ahead of some silly little team named the New York Mets in the NL East.
Some ten years since being eliminated by the Dodgers in the 1988 NLCS the days of the Mets being the bullies of baseball in the mid-1980’s were a long and distant memory. The Mets were a proverbial joke. A team that tried and failed with names like Carlos Baerga, Jeff Kent, and Bobby Bonilla, the Mets couldn’t catch a break no matter how hard they tired. Sure they won 88 games in 1997, but still, the Mets were nowhere to be seen on the radar screen of relevance until this day, May 22, 1998.
This was the day that everything changed. GM Steve Phillips traded Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnell and Geoff Geotz to their division rivals the Miami (then Florida) Marlins for Mike Piazza.
Piazza was used to changing zip codes already in 1998. He was involved in a trade between the Dodgers and Marlins after he grew frustrated that he wasn’t getting a long-term deal from Los Angeles. The Mets took the gamble not knowing if Piazza would even be a Met after ‘98. From the viewpoint of Phillips, Bobby Valentine and the Wilpon’s, it was worth the shot.
As we now know, this was the greatest deal in Mets history. Almost 18 years later, Piazza was elected into Baseball’s Hall of Fame with 83 percent of the vote, joining Baseball’s King of the 90s, Ken Griffey Jr.
Piazza is in the Hall of Fame because 1) he’s the most prolific hitting catcher in baseball history. He hit 419 bombs in his career, 220 of which he hit as a Met. And was a consistent .300 hitter, something rare for a guy playing the games most physical position. 2) Piazza is in the Hall of Fame because he was a transformative force. A tidal wave that swept the Mets back into relevance, disrupting the late-90s block party between the Yankees and Braves.
With Piazza, the Mets came close to a wild card berth in 1998; went all the way to the NLCS in 1999, and won the National League pennant in 2000.
Not only did Piazza hit home runs, he hit home runs that mattered in big moments. From his three-run home run against the Braves on June 30, 2000 that capped off a 10-run rally, to his owning of the Yankees and Roger Clemens; walk-off homers against the Phillies, or even moonshots against Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks, Piazza had a thing for the dramatic.
Nationally, people best remember him for his post-9/11 home run against the Braves that sent Shea Stadium into a frenzy of excitement. After 10-days of anguish, the City had something to celebrate again. It was a message to the terrorist that they have not won, and will never win, ever. The true spirit of America was on tap that night.
To me, my favorite is that 10-run 8th against the Braves because of how pure-Piazza it was. When the Mets needed it the most and with the fans standing on their feet, Piazza delivered. I also fondly remember his tearful goodbye to the fans in 2005. That day was the end of era for me, almost a signal that my childhood had come to an end.
Mike Piazza you are a Hall of Famer, thank you for the memories.