Piazza's imperfect exit

NEW YORK – The script for Mike Piazza's farewell ceremony didn't go as planned, but perhaps that was appropriate, because his Mets career as a whole wasn't exactly perfect.

It was a long, strange ride for Piazza, and it all flashed before his eyes on Sunday, Shea Stadium's unofficial farewell ceremony for Piazza's career in New York.

It's not a given that Piazza won't be back in New York in 2006, but it's probable, and both sides speak of the uncertainty as though it's certain. 'You're not gone, but goodbye,' one scribe characterized it.

See what we mean about imperfect?

If Todd Zeile or one of his Hollywood movie companions were to pen the ideal way Piazza could go out in New York, it'd be the time-tested hero exit – Piazza would likely retire (he won't), riding off into the sunset with one last home run (he didn't) in a game the Mets won (they didn't).

But in a Mets career that will be remembered as much for heroics as for controversy – the Roger Clemens incidents, the declaration of heterosexuality, the aborted move to first base – what was one more footnote to add to the pile?

"It wasn't quite the ideal game I wanted to go out on, but it didn't matter," Piazza said.

So the fans booed when Piazza was lifted for Mike DiFelice after seven innings, with one more at-bat still owed to the paying crowd.

It still couldn't negate a stirring video tribute in the seventh inning, in which grown men and children alike cheered and teared.

Piazza bowed and waved to the crowd like the king of Queens, which is of course what he was – or is – to those who filled Shea Stadium for an otherwise meaningless game against the last-place Rockies, thundering applause and chants of "Mike Pi-az-za!" one final time (at least, until No. 31 hangs on the left-field wall).

"I really didn't expect it," Piazza said. "I can honestly say I'm very, very honored, flattered and surprised. It was an amazing day for me."

Driving to the stadium and walking through the dim concrete corridors one final time, Piazza said the sequence of moments, faces, words and actions flickered past his eyes, just as they would later that afternoon on the DiamondVision screen.

There were so many moments, linked in perfect symmetry – the first game in 1998, and the run-scoring double to right field that started it all off; leading the Mets to the playoffs and serving as the face of respectability; the 10-run inning; the post-Sept. 21 home run that brought baseball back to life in New York; All-Star Games; TV commercials; three managers, dozens of teammates; blonde hair, brown hair, mullets and goatees, not to mention anything of the hair metal he brought back into vogue around here four times a night.

Walking through the tunnel, past the clubhouse doors for what almost certainly was his final tour as a New York Met, Piazza said he had to choke back his emotions.

There was a reason he'd declined to give the 'Lou Gehrig' speech during the seventh-inning stretch: he just didn't think he'd be able to hold it together, especially not after the crowd roared, roared and roared some more, their hunger for Piazza unquenchable no matter how many curtain calls he took.

"This was a huge part of my life," Piazza said. "I'll always be a big part of my life, with the fans and the great times and the tough times. You can't describe the emotion of leaving this ballpark some nights where I actually was walking on air, and other nights where I just wanted to crawl under a rock and never come out. It brought out every ounce of emotion."

And it drained him, too. Everything Piazza had to give, New York readily accepted, only to come back asking for more. The final totals will show Piazza gave the Mets 972 games, plus a pair of postseasons, 220 home runs, 665 RBIs and too many thrills to even ponder.

In the grand scheme of things, at-bats No. 3,476 through 3,478 went into the register as ground balls to shortstop Clint Barmes, chipping Piazza's career average to .311.

At-bat No. 3,479 might not have mattered that much, although the fact Willie Randolph gave it to DiFelice and not Piazza in the eighth inning is sure to be a sore spot for Mets fans (DiFelice singled).

Imperfection again, but the ideal circumstance also would have had a quick-working pitcher on the mound to lighten Piazza's duties. Victor Zambrano wasn't that, and Piazza's body told him rest might not be such a bad thing – "After this one, I'm going to have to become a DH just so I can rest," he told home plate umpire Andy Fletcher.

"It would have been nice to hit one more home run, but I think in this way it was a good thing because it kept the moment for what it was," Piazza said. "Honestly, with everything going on and I'm a little sore – I think my tank is a little empty."

What's next for Piazza? At age 37, he's past his prime as a baseball player, but in the prime of his life otherwise. It doesn't really matter what he has left to offer on the field – his Hall of Fame credentials and plaque as a Met are secure – but the fact that he feels able to offer anything at all will keep him on the field.

West Coast, East Coast, it doesn't really matter. Piazza has never played a spring training in Arizona, which is an idea; he's also never had an American League at-bat, an even more prominent idea.

Maybe it'd be a return to the Los Angeles area, signing with the Angels and jabbing at the Dodgers some more, burned so by letting him go in the '98 fire sales. Or perhaps Piazza could stay within a four-hour drive and pump some balls out of Camden Yards, where he was once rumored to be headed following that first year in New York.

No one knows, least of all Piazza. Short of signing with the Yankees, Mets fans are sure to embrace Piazza, no matter what uniform he next dons.

"From here on out, everything is just icing on the cake," Piazza said. "My relationship with this organization is wonderful. No matter what happens, I'll always want to come back here. I'll always have a home here."

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