When I got home at about 3PM on May 22nd, 1998, I flipped on WFAN (as was my usual habit) and began listening to Mike and the Mad Dog go back and forth. I was a freshman in High School, an enormous Mets fan, and totally unprepared to deal with what I was about to hear. I don’t recall if it was Mike or Chris who teased the story, but they went to commercial by saying something to the tune of “big news coming up regarding the Mets. This is huge.” As I waited for the commercial break to end, I got the feeling that the Mets had traded for Mike Piazza. He had just been dealt to the Marlins, and everyone knew it was a matter of time before they flipped him. When Mike and the Dog came out of commercial and confirmed it, I went ballistic – running back and forth in my empty house, jumping up and slapping door-frames as I flew by each of them. The acquisition of Mike Piazza was the move that took the Mets from a nice little team to World Series contenders. Hearing the news of the trade break was an absolutely exhilarating moment – the first of many indelible Mets moments that would be due to Mike Piazza.
I made my way out to Shea the next afternoon for Piazza’s first game as a Met. It was that day, that the Mets became completely relevant again. Between May 23rd, 1998 and the conclusion of the 2005 season, Mike Piazza was a can’t miss attraction at Shea and everywhere else the Mets went. The sound of the ball coming off of his bat was deafening. He would send majestic moonshots over the left field wall, but his target area was usually somewhere over the right center field fence, where laser after laser would wind up. He was embraced by the fans, and embraced them back. In the years following the trade, Piazza led the Mets to the 1999 NLCS (hitting a game tying home run in Game 6 that would’ve been remembered more fondly if not for Kenny Rogers), and led the Mets to the World Series in 2000. He was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in the history of the franchise, his go-ahead homer at Shea in the first New York City sporting event following the September 11th terrorist attacks. He broke the record for home runs as a Catcher, and eventually started to slow down a bit as he got older. After the last game of the 2005 season, the fans serenaded Mike Piazza, knowing that he wouldn’t be back the following year. When he returned in 2006 as a Padre, I was in attendance. The ovation he was given sent chills up my spine, and Piazza accepted the appreciation with grace and humility.
Piazza retired after the 2007 season. He’s viewed by everyone who’s ever watched the game of baseball as the greatest hitting Catcher of all time. He wound up with a career average of .308, to go along with 427 home runs, and 1,335 RBI’s. He was a 12 time All-Star, and the recipient of 10 Silver Sluggers. Piazza wasn’t known as an upper echelon defensive Catcher, but he held his own behind the dish. Next year, Piazza will be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Because of the era he played in, there has been much discussion regarding whether Piazza would get in on the first ballot, or whether he would even get in at all. National writer Ken Rosenthal claimed recently that he would “punish” everyone who played in the steroid era by not voting for them the first time around. Not because of suspected steroid use, but because they “didn’t do anything to alert people of the problem.” If that’s the reason Rosenthal is using, every Manager, General Manager, and Executive should be retroactively taken to task as well.
Unlike shamed sluggers of that era such as Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and others, there is not one shred of evidence linking Mike Piazza to illegal performance enhancing drugs. His name has not appeared on any list of cheaters, and it hasn’t been outed by anyone in a book. The only writer who seems to constantly accuse Mike Piazza of using steroids is Murray Chass. What’s Chass’ evidence? A syringe with fingerprints? Prodigious numbers after Piazza exited his prime? No and no. For Chass, it was Mike Piazza’s back acne that led to the conviction. Back acne, something that afflicts 20% of healthy adult men. According to the article linked in the previous sentence, back acne can be caused by: “Anything that repeatedly rubs against the skin, such as backpacks, rough massages, tight fitting clothing, weight lifting machines which press on the shoulder area, or anything else that rubs the back area and irritates the skin can aggravate acne in that area. Acne mechanica tends to be aggravated by moisture, so if you’re sweaty and combine that with the repeated rubbing that comes with your backpack, clothing, etc., that could make the problem worse.”
Mike Piazza worked out a lot, right? And as a Catcher, he wore tons of equipment. He always had the most stuff on during the game, so he was probably sweatier than every other player on the diamond. So, Mike Piazza had back acne because he wore a tight uniform and sweat a whole lot. Or he had it because he did steroids. Or he had it for some other reason. The point, is that Piazza having back acne doesn’t prove a damn thing. Murray Chass is grasping at straws, and should really think about giving up his pathetic crusade.
Some people like to point to the fact that Piazza was drafted in the late rounds and “came out of nowhere.” Well, Johan Santana was left unprotected in the Rule V draft. If we cross over to other sports, Tom Brady was another late round choice who “came out of nowhere.” That argument doesn’t hold water. Now, there are other things that people can point to as signs that someone used steroids or other PED’s (even if there’s no proof). Lots of those who used steroids saw a dramatic increase in production after their prime years. Some others came out of nowhere to hit 50 homers after a previous high of 21 (Brady Anderson). Others became freakish looking (Lenny Dykstra). Mike Piazza looked the same throughout his career. His head didn’t grow five sizes, his arms didn’t become tree trunks, and his power numbers never drastically increased or decreased. Unlike others, he didn’t get better with age. Piazza’s first full season was for the Dodgers in 1993. That year, he hit 35 homers. Between 1993 and 2002 (save for his injury plagued 1994 campaign), Piazza hit between 33 and 40 homers each year (these were his age 23 through 33 seasons). Piazza suffered a severe groin injury in 2003, and missed most of the year. From 2004 to 2006 (his age 35 through 37 seasons), Piazza hit 20, 19, and 22 homers respectively. In 2007, his final season, he hit 8 homers in 83 games.
Contrary to how Mike Piazza’s professional career went, Barry Bonds and a host of others seemed to get better with age. Prior to his age 35 season, Bonds had eclipsed 45 homers in a season once. After he turned 35, Bonds hit 45 or more homers five years in a row (with 73 in 2001). His head grew, his body grew, his numbers grew. That’s a smoking gun. As is noted above, using back acne to accuse and convict Piazza isn’t a smoking gun, it’s an empty water pistol. Now, it’s impossible to say with certainty that Mike Piazza (or any other players who’ve played the game) never used steroids. What is indisputable, is that there’s no evidence that he did. Beyond the absence of evidence, there’s nothing obvious to point at. I’m bit perturbed that I had to devote that much ink defending Piazza, but it felt necessary given the circumstances.
Now, of all the Catchers who are in the Hall of Fame, only one (Johnny Bench) was elected on the first ballot. However, since Bench was elected, other non-Catchers have been elected on the first ballot who certainly don’t have the credentials at their position that Piazza has at his. I’m referring to Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, who were both first ballot guys. The voting has changed, and with that it’s become easier to get elected your first time around. Mike Piazza is the greatest hitting Catcher of all time. And if the greatest hitting Catcher of all time isn’t a first ballot Hall of Famer, no one is.
The Hall should call on Mike next year, but it’s a mystery as to whether or not they will. I was at Citi Field over the weekend, and had a brief discussion with Anthony McCarron of the Daily News. I asked McCarron whether he had a Hall of Fame vote this year, to which he replied that he did. When the conversation turned to Piazza, McCarron stated that he would be voting for him in 2013, but was uncertain whether or not he would get in on the first ballot. He did, however, say Piazza would eventually get in.
When Piazza gets into the Hall of Fame (next year, if the writers do their jobs), he should enter with a Mets cap on his plaque. Piazza is on the record stating that it’s his desire to enter as a Met. He had a better average as a Dodger, but more home runs, RBI’s, and hits as a Met. He spent more years with the Mets, had his biggest moments with the Mets, and was beloved by the fans. He identifies himself as a Met, as do most others. Most assume that the Mets are waiting for Piazza to get elected to the Hall before retiring his number 31, which has gone unused since he departed in 2005. When the Hall calls, Mets fans and those who admired Piazza should have two things to look forward to: watching Piazza’s induction speech at Cooperstown, and watching as his number is retired to hang where it belongs – beside the numbers of Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, and Tom Seaver.