By Glen Sparks
The greatest 62nd round draft pick in baseball history has a date in Cooperstown, N.Y., this summer.
Baseball writers voted Mike Piazza into the Hall of Fame on Jan. 6. The reception in Cooperstown for him should be large and enthusiastic. Piazza played much of his career only 200 miles away from the hallowed Hall, as a New York Met.
The former catcher will stand on an outdoor stage, near some of the game’s immortals. Tom Seaver, the HOF Mets pitcher, will surely be at the ceremony. Maybe Sandy Koufax, Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron will be there, too. Joe Morgan is a regular.
Following a speech, with the requisite stories of a boyhood dedicated to his love for the game, Mike will hoist his Hall of Fame plaque into the air. On that plaque will be a summary of his career, along with his portrait, created for baseball eternity. He’ll go into the Hall of Fame, he insists, as a Met.
He felt appreciated in the borough of Queens, he said. He felt loved.
Well, love can be a complicated thing. Surely, the Dodger fans embraced Piazza, who came up with the team in 1992 and stayed there until being traded, infamously, on May 15, 1998, to the Florida Marlins.
(Feel free to skip this paragraph. You probably already know the story. It’s mandatory to re-tell it, though, in any Mike Piazza post. Piaza grew up in suburban Philadelphia. His dad, businessman Vince Piazza, has known former Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda since childhood. Young Mike served as Dodgers batboy during the team’s stops at Veterans Stadium to play the Phillies. Later, the Dodgers drafted Mike as a favor to Tommy.)
The Mets dealt for Piazza one week after that trade to Miami. (Piazza played five games with the Marlins. Late in his career, he played one season with the San Diego Padres and one with the Oakland A’s.)
Officials from the Hall of Fame ultimately decide which cap a player’s likeness will bear on his HOF plaque. The smart bet is that Piazza will get his wish and go into the Hall as a New York Met. Loved? OK, he at least has an argument based on the numbers.
Piazza played more games with the Mets (972) than he did with the Dodgers (726). That simple fact makes his “counting” stats stronger as a Met:
RBI: Mets (655), Dodgers (563)
Hits: Mets (1,028), Dodgers (896)
Runs: Mets (532), Dodgers (443)
Piazza’s qualitative stats definitely favor his Dodger days:
Batting average: Dodgers (.331), Mets (.296)
On-base percentage: Dodgers (.394), Mets (.373)
Slugging percentage: Dodgers (.572), Mets (.542)
OPS: Dodgers (.966), Mets (.915)
OPS+: Dodgers (160), Mets (136)
This could go either way. If not for the 1994 and ’95 player strikes, the counting stats would be much closer. Clearly, Piazza was a more dangerous hitter as a Dodger. Jon Weisman in his excellent book 100 Things Dodgers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die writes that “there might not have been a hitter as startling, as eye-popping, as fall-back-in-your-seats-in-amazement as Mike Piazza.”
Was Piazza like that as Met? Yes, at times. But, he did not destroy baseballs with such stunning regularity in New York as he did in L.A. On Sept. 21, 1997, he blasted a ball completely out of Dodger Stadium. (He is one of four players to accomplish that feat. The club at present also includes Willie Stargell Mark McGwire and Giancarlo Stanton. Stargell did it twice.)
Piazza acknowledges in his 2013 book Long Shot that “most of my best seasons” came while playing for the Dodgers. He won Rookie of the Year honors in 1993 and finished in the top six in the MVP voting four times (twice as runner-up) in L.A. In New York, he finished in third, seventh and 13th place in the MVP vote.
In both New York and L.A., Piazza went to the postseason in two seasons. (He also went to the playoffs as a Padre.) Only while with the Mets, though, did he play in a World Series (losing in 2000 to the Yankees). Piazza also has said that playing for the Mets at the same time as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, strengthened his ties to the city. Understandable. He hit a home run against the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in the first game back after the attacks.
“It’s tough,” he said in the New York Post. “I get emotional thinking back to that moment.”
Ultimately, and maybe unfortunately, money plays a part in these things. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Piazza made just more than $19 million as a Met. He made more than $91 million as a Met. They “gave me the market-value contract that the Dodgers wouldn’t,” Piazza writes (or dictates to book author Lonnie Wheeler).
The whole contract squabble gets plenty of ink in Long Shot. Long-time Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley sold the club in March 1998 to a group led by media baron Rupert Murdoch. The Fox Group, as it was known, played hardball, as it were, with the best hitter the team had ever produced.
Fans turned on the superstar. Piazza blamed … wait for it … Vin Scully. “Scully was crushing me.”
Well, making the greatest broadcaster ever, and one much loved, into a villain, doesn’t place you onto the straightest path to sympathy. Piazza did it anyway. In any case, the ax finally fell.
“I’m with the Fishes,” Piazza, said to one teammate, according to Long Shot.
Piazza admits on Page, 343 of the book that he can be “hypersensitive.” He needs the appreciation. He needs the love. Love? After Piazza got traded, his friend Eric Karros, the Dodgers first baseman, wrote “The trade was like an earthquake. … It changed everything about the Dodgers.”
Piazza didn’t like everything about New York. He certainly didn’t like the pesky reporters, snooping around and asking a bunch of meddlesome questions about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS) and all. He did like the fans, though. After a time. The Mets faithful, being fickle in their own way, booed Piazza plenty in his first season in Queens (even as he batted .348 and cracked 23 home runs in 109 games.)
Eventually, everyone made nice-nice. The man with the quick, violent swing (producing 427 career homers and a .318 batting average) will always be a Met. But, once, he was a Dodger.