Piazza passes Fisk as Mets top San Fran

NEW YORK – Move over, Carlton Fisk. There's a new catching home run king of all-time, and it's Mike Piazza. <P> Piazza launched the record-breaking home run, the 352nd of his career as a catcher, off of Giants starter Jerome Williams in the first inning Wednesday, blasting a 405-foot drive that dented the right-field scoreboard at Shea Stadium.

After circling the bases, a grinning Piazza – "I felt like there was a monkey off my back," he said – was greeted by the entire Mets roster atop the steps of the dugout. Hugging several teammates, including team captain John Franco, Piazza then emerged from the dugout to give a sparse but loud crowd the curtain call they lusted for.

"I'm so proud," Piazza said. "I'm proud to be in that company. There are some great catchers who've played this game. It's like a fraternity."

Clearly, this record meant a lot not only to Piazza, but to his family and friends as well. His father, Vince, was at Shea Tuesday but missed the record-breaking blast Wednesday, a bit of a let-down after following Piazza to Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego in pursuit of history.

"My parents have always been so supportive," Piazza said. "[The record pursuit] has been frustrating at times. I think that's what makes it so special to me. I've seen the complete spectrum – the good and the bad – playing here [in New York]. I wouldn't trade any of it in."

The record had seemed to have taken on a life of its own around the Mets, despite the fact that it didn't exactly have the sex appeal of Hank Aaron's 755 career homers, Ted Williams' .406 average or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

Those are numbers of legend that any baseball fan worth his salt could recite off-hand; until Piazza closed the gap, perhaps the only person who really knew about Fisk's 351 home runs as a catcher was the former Red Sox and White Sox catcher himself.

Don't tell that to Piazza.

"It's something I'm so proud of," Piazza said. "To do that, you have to stay healthy and be somewhat consistent. There's a lot of injuries at that position."

In any event, Piazza's 352nd home run and all that follow will provide an interesting footnote to the text of a plaque that will someday be affixed to a wall in Cooperstown, which may have been Piazza's motivation all along.

Piazza left the Windy City without a long ball, waiting until the April 28 game at his old stomping grounds, Dodger Stadium, to park homer No. 351 as a catcher off of Los Angeles' Hideo Nomo.

Six days and a cross-country flight later, Piazza finally caught Fisk, which should be a great relief to all around the team.

With the record finally securely in Piazza's grasp, the Mets will now have to plan a ceremony at Shea Stadium involving Fisk and the Hall of Fame's Jeff Idelson – a passing of the torch, if you will – but more importantly, the Mets can now plan for a future where Piazza is the Mets' everyday first baseman.

Piazza joked with Howe that he was now "tired of catching," but for the remainder of this season, Piazza will likely continue to catch the majority of New York's games, especially with Jason Phillips beginning to hit and holding down the fort effectively at first base.

"As far as first base goes, I'm enjoying the experience," Piazza said. "I feel like I'm improving every time I go out there, and personally, it's going to help me in the later years of my career."

But whereas manager Art Howe had to respectfully hold Piazza out of any serious discussion of a full-time first base job (hey, baby steps: it was trouble enough getting Piazza down there to begin with), now the Mets have no real obstacle toward saving Piazza's legs.

It's understandable that Piazza loves to catch, and he gets a bad rap from his poor throwing to second base – everybody notices the balls that scoot into centerfield, but few recognize the fact that Piazza is considered a better pitch blocker than his widely-praised New York counterpart, Jorge Posada of the Yankees.

"I still feel like I have a lot left in the tank," Piazza said. "I feel like I can continue to help this team move forward."

Catching was the ticket that got Piazza to the major leagues after being tagged as a 62nd round draft selection, and he'll probably never totally surrender the tools of ignorance. But it's in Piazza's best interests that he inch ever so slowly toward becoming a full-time first baseman, which, with stud prospect Mike Jacobs on the horizon at Triple-A Norfolk, could come as soon as spring 2005.

For one night, however, that can all be set aside. This was a night for Piazza to celebrate the long hours of blood, sweat and tears he'd spilled on diamonds from Norristown, Pa. to Vero Beach to Flushing.

Clutching his prize souvenir, the recovered baseball, with a death grip, Piazza was enjoying his moment.

"I have so many special memories in this game," he said. "I'm just blessed."

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