2005-03-25 / Sports

2005 May Be Last Hurrah For Mets’ Piazza

By Michael Avallone Sports Columnist

By Michael Avallone
Sports Columnist

Hard to believe it’s been seven years already. Seven years that has seen the re-birth and the fall of the Mets. When he first arrived at Shea in May 1998, Mike Piazza seemed destined to be just a 4-month rental for the team in Queens. But as the Mets put together their most exciting summer in almost a decade, something funny happened. The fans, who had booed their first true superstar since Darryl Strawberry, began to embrace him as he carried the Mets through the summer months.

New York actually held the Wild Card lead at the end of the year, but lost five straight games to close out the season. However, the foundation was there, and the only thing left to do was sit and wait to see what the greatest hitter the Mets had ever had would decide. Thankfully for Mets fans, Piazza didn’t even file for free agency, signing a seven-year, $91 million contract just two days after he was eligible to enter the open market.

Fast forward seven years and the Mets seem to be where they were in ’98. A team that has some potential but still might be a piece or two away from being a true contender. Unfortunately, 2005 may be the last chance Mike Piazza has to win a World Series with New York. Entering the final year of his contract, the 36-year old catcher is coming off of the two worst seasons of his Hall of Fame career. From 1993-2002, Piazza’s first 10 full seasons he put up these numbers: .322 BA 35 HR 107 RBIs. In two injury-plagued campaigns since then: .273 BA 16 HR 44 RBI.

It’s understandable that most fans want to see Piazza remain a Met beyond this season, assuming he decides to keep playing. The face of the franchise and all that was good during that three-year span from ’98-’00, did his part in helping the Mets gain two straight playoff berths and a World Series appearance. However, how much does he have left? Catchers often hit a wall and stop dead in their tracks. Take 2004 Hall of Fame inductee, Gary Carter, for example.

Although Carter had his best years with the Montreal Expos, he had one great, one good and one so-so season for the Mets. Of course, he and Keith Hernandez were the glue of those mid-‘80s teams, holding the club together long enough to win 108 games and the 1986 World Series title. But after averaging 28 homers and 103 RBIs his first two years in the Big Apple (1985 & 1986), his production tailed off dramatically at the age of 33. The rest of his Mets career produced just 33 homeruns and a .231 batting average.

Piazza’s drop hasn’t been so precipitous, but it does bear watching. After tearing a groin muscle early in ’03, Piazza returned late in the year and looked little like the 33-homerun hitter he was the year before. However, despite a good first half (resulting in another All-Star appearance) in ’04, Piazza’s final numbers were low across the board after a horrendous stretch run. He did miss time with a knee injury, but he still finished with more than 500 plate appearances, making his .266 20 54 numbers very worrisome.

Perhaps with free agency looming, Piazza has one bigger year left in him. Most experts agree that if he decides to continue his career as an everyday player, it would be best done in the American League where he can DH a good portion of the time. The Mets would be happy with a .280 batting average, 25 HRs and 80 RBIs from Piazza, but can they really expect that after two straight sub-par years? For the Mets sake, they better hope so, because another year like he had in ’04 will make it nearly impossible for the Mets to win the NL East crown.

Anyway you slice it, this looks to be Piazza’s last season in a Mets uniform. It would be a shame to see him ride off into the sunset on the heels of another disappointing season. He’s flourished in the Big Apple, made the Mets matter again, and has been the voice and face of a franchise seemingly always in the shadow of the cross-town Yankees.

Piazza came to the Mets when they needed a presence. He gave them that presence and returned a sense of purpose to Shea when it seemed like there would never again be one. Whether or not this is Piazza’s swan-song in Queens, he deserves to win. A Mets career that began with so much promise has just about come full-circle. It’s time to close that last loop and add the crowing achievement to his Hall of Fame career.

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