2005-10-07 / Sports

“The Franchise” Mike Piazza Says Fond Farewell

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

Mike Piazza (AP/Kathy Willens)Mike Piazza (AP/Kathy Willens) FLUSHING, NY – When Mike Piazza first arrived in New York in 1998, there was a question if he would stay. He was in his walk year and some wondered if the erstwhile Los Angeles Dodgers star would be able to cut it being the main attraction in Flushing. Others felt the Mets wouldn’t be willing to pony up the money to keep him happy.

After a slow start, Piazza was able to carry the Mets on his back in the second half of that season and ultimately the team signed him to a seven year – $ 91 million dollar contract. Much like Tom Seaver a generation ago, Piazza became “The Franchise” and even more than the numbers, his name will be synonymous with the Amazins for years to come.

“That’s the ultimate honor for me,” Piazza reflected the other day. “It goes beyond numbers; it is the identification that is the biggest honor. People identify me with the Mets and not specific numbers. Everything else is secondary.”

Baring some change of heart from the organization, the future Hall-of-Fame catcher has played his last game in a Mets uniform. As a his contract runs out, Piazza will most likely seek employment from an American League team in 2006, where he can DH most days and play an occasional game behind the dish.

What he does in the future won’t matter, since his lofty numbers have already ticketed him for Cooperstown. During his almost eight years with the Mets, Piazza ranks sixth in hits [1,028], seventh in runs [523] and second only to Darryl Strawberry in home runs [220] and RBI [655]. Others may be ahead of him in numbers, but simply put, he is the greatest offensive player to ever don the blue and orange.

Yet, as Piazza said, numbers don’t tell the story; rather it’s the moments, which will define him for future generations.

“There have been so many [moments], that it is tough to think about it,” Piazza said when asked about his fondest moment, but to the Met fan, there will be moments, which will live forever.

Like May 23, 1998, when the catcher first showed up at Shea. By his arrival, he brought the fans back to Queens. The Mets sold Shea out that day against the Milwaukee Brewers and his triple made it seem like ’86 all over again.

Or in Game Six of the 1999 NLCS. Down 5-0, the Mets stormed back and Piazza put the Mets ahead in the seventh inning with a monster opposite field shot off John Smoltz. Ultimately, the bullpen blew it, but not because of Piazza.

And in 2000, his war with Roger Clemens. He may not look back fondly at that moment, but the uniqueness of the Subway Series is something Piazza was thankful to be a part of.

“I thought it was great because the synergy here and it created the whole experience the Subway Series during the year,” Piazza thought. “Going up to [Yankee] Stadium and playing there as well. It worked.”

The greater the event, the higher he rose to the occasion. His finest moment is arguably September 21, 2001. Ten days after the World Trade Center was destroyed by a terrorist attack, baseball returned. Piazza hit a home run in the eighth to put the Mets ahead. For New York, it was more than home run, but rather the first shot of retaliation to Al Quida.

“It was a very emotionally and physically draining week,” Piazza remembered. “It was tough, but it was great.”

Those moments have occurred over four years ago and Piazza has been on the decline since. He said he has accepted the move from a superstar to role player and has allowed younger players like David Wright and Carlos Beltran take the spotlight, as the catcher faded to the background.

That smooth transition made it easier for the fans to remember the Piazza that was and not the fading star who is playing now.

“The people have been amazingly supportive and I wish I could thank everyone individually,” Piazza said. “They have been very gracious to me. I haven’t had my best year, but I played pretty well.”

For a star like Piazza, it’s the way he wanted it. No messy divorces and no public headlines. Much like the rest of his Met career, he ends it with grace.

“Monday, when everything is said and done, I think I am going to exhale,” Piazza said. “Personally, I did everything I could to give them my monies worth. Sometimes I failed and sometimes I succeeded, but at the end of it I am thankful I am going out healthy and doing what I could.”

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