Jul 23

What I Will Always Remember About Piazza

PIAZZA AND SEAVER

                                         PIAZZA AND SEAVER

In thinking of my favorite Mike Piazza memory, I always go back that one swing against the Braves, Sept. 21, 2001, in the first professional sports event in New York City following the terrorist attacks that leveled the World Trade Center.

I was in Baltimore at the time, covering the Yankees and Orioles, and in the back of the press box was a television tuned to the Mets and Braves. The pregame ceremonies were moving, and like most of the Yankees writers, my eyes kept darting back to the game at Shea Stadium.

After all, this was our city, and history was being made at the stadium whose parking lot a few days before was used as a staging ground to shuttle food and other supplies to the hundreds in need in lower Manhattan.

During such times it is cliché to say sports are insignificant, but they also have a way of diverting our attention and making us feel good when things are black. Piazza’s dramatic home run off the Braves’ Steve Karsay didn’t heal New York’s pain, but for one moment it made things seem normal.

It wasn’t the greatest moment in franchise history, but it definitely was one of the most significant. For that reason, it is my favorite Piazza memory.

The following are my other most memorable Piazza moments:

Piazza vs. Clemens: This was more a soap opera than a singular event and the first domino was a grand slam the one-time 62nd-round draft pick Piazza clubbed off Roger Clemens in June of 2000.

A month later, in one of the classic punk moves of all time, Clemens hit Piazza in the head with a fastball in a night game at Yankee Stadium.

Then, in Game 2 of that year’s World Series, Clemens’ broke off Piazza’s bat, and grabbed the barrel end and disgustedly threw it at the Mets’ catcher.

A few days ago, former Yankees manager Joe Torre said he doesn’t believe Clemens threw the bat at Piazza intentionally.

I covered that game and couldn’t believe not only what I saw, but that Clemens wasn’t ejected. Knowing what I know now, a case can be made for steroid rage.

Of course, Torre wouldn’t throw a former player of his under the bus. However, as somebody who oversees disciplinary cases for Major League Baseball, what Torre would do if faced with a similar incident?

In the end, Piazza’s career numbers off Clemens were 8-for-22 (.364) with four homers.

A footnote to all this was Shawn Estes’ lame attempt at payback when he lobbed a ball behind Clemens’ back. To this day when I think of that pitch, I just shake my head.

Mauling Mendoza: The year before Clemens, on July 10, 1999, Piazza hit a three-run homer off Yankees’ reliever Ramiro Mendoza that measured 482 feet and hit a party tent behind the visitor’s bullpen at Shea Stadium.

Piazza’s swing uncoiled into a ferocious crack when bat met ball. This might have been one of the hardest hit, if not longest, of the 427 homers Piazza hit during his career.

Letting go – twice: Funny, considering the debate as to which cap Piazza would have on his plaque – Dodgers or Mets – is both teams let him go.

Piazza was in the prime of his career, and there was already talk of him being the best hitting catcher of all-time, when the Dodgers foolishly traded him to the Marlins in May of 1998.

The Dodgers and Piazza were in negotiations to keep him from leaving after the season as a free agent. That a contender such as the Dodgers would trade a marquee player like Piazza was beyond stupid. However, in hindsight, it must be remembered Piazza was traded not by the O’Malley family, but News Corp., which helped run the team into the ground.

A week later, the Marlins, in a salary dump, traded Piazza to the Mets for Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall.

Piazza’s good-bye at Shea: On Oct. 2, 2005, it was clear Piazza’s eight-year run with the Mets would not be extended. As it usually is with the Mets, it was about money.

He went 0-for-3 in his final game with the Mets, but we all knew he wasn’t going to return and finish his career in New York. The crowd would not let him go and gave him standing ovations throughout the game.

Really saying good-bye at Shea: On Aug. 9, 2006, the Mets were on their way to the playoffs, but the sellout crowd couldn’t resist showing its love for Piazza one more time.

In a 4-3 victory over San Diego, the crowd roared the way it used to for Piazza when he hit a pair of solo home runs off Pedro Martinez. It was fun to see Piazza unload off Martinez in the fourth, but to see him do it again in the sixth was surreal.

Setting the HR record for catchers: Piazza set the record for most home runs by a catcher with 396. The former record was 351 by Carlton Fisk, which Piazza passed on May 5, with a blast by San Francisco’s Jerome Williams, at Shea.

Saying good-bye with Seaver: The Mets know how to throw a party. There was that sensational night against the Braves, and there was also the final Sunday afternoon of the 2008 season when they closed the doors at Shea forever.

All the greats were trotted out, but watching Piazza walk through the center field gate with his arm wrapped around Tom Seaver is something I will never forget.

Treated unfairly by the press: I covered Major League Baseball for over 20 years, and usually support that profession.

However, two things made me ashamed.

The first was the crass and obnoxious articles questioning Piazza’s sexuality, which is nobody’s business.

The second were the persistent, unfair attacks and insinuations of PED’s.

My basis in voting for the Hall of Fame is: 1) Has he ever failed a drug test administered by Major League Baseball? 2) Was he ever named in an official document such as the Mitchell Report? 3) Did a player, manager or coach ever accuse him on the record?

The answer to those questions have always been NO.

Piazza was again asked that question by long-time New York baseball writer who has an unreasonable vendetta against Piazza based on a few pimples. It was embarrassing to hear the issue raised again, but Piazza answered with class, as he usually did.

That he would be treated so shabbily by the New York press, and yet still want to be inducted representing the Mets is a testament to how you treated him for eight wonderful years.

I only wish it could have been longer.

I hope you’ll share your favorite memories and thoughts about Piazza.

Jun 22

Mets Need To Be Cautious Regarding Gourriel

The Mets working out Cuban defector Yulieski Gourriel is one thing. Signing him to a multi-year, exorbitant salary is another, regardless of Yoenis Cespedes‘ endorsement. The Mets are among a half-dozen, major league teams interested in the 32-year-old infielder. The group includes the Angels and Dodgers, Giants, Astros and Yankees.

Gourriel is MLB’s latest flavor of the month in its voyage into international waters. He’s a hot name, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right fit for the Mets. It also doesn’t mean he isn’t the right fit.

“We’re going to do our due diligence on that player,” Mets GM Sandy Alderson told reporters. “So we’ve made arrangements to do that. At the same time, this player hasn’t seen live pitching for weeks if not months. It’s not clear how long a player in that situation would take to be ready. And, of course, there is the investment and all the other issues – and making an evaluation currently of the player based on workouts and not game competition. But we’re going to go through that process.”

Here are the red flags in signing Gourriel:

* The Mets are without David Wright for an undermined period, and while Gourriel could plug the hole at third base, a quick sign smacks of panic. Nobody knows if Gourriel is the right answer. By the same token, nobody knows if Wilmer Flores won’t develop into the right answer.

* Regardless of what numbers Gourriel put up in Cuba, it wasn’t against major league pitching. Nobody knows for sure how good he can be. To compare Major League Baseball to leagues outside the United States falls under the guise of political correctness. It’s baseball, so isn’t it all the same? Not even close. On that note, that’s why it is insulting to suggest Ichiro Suzuki should be the all-time hit leader. Nope, that’s Pete Rose. Period.

* As good as Cespedes has been, remember the world was once Yasiel Puig‘s oyster, too That quickly soured. There are no sure things when it comes to Cuban shopping. Speaking of Cespedes, what’s his endorsement really worth if he’s able to walk after this year? If he said, `Sign him and I’ll stay,’ that would mean something more.

* Gourriel is listed as 32, but as often the case with Latin players reported age is often not accurate as there are widespread incidents of them lying about their age, stating they are younger as to not scare away major league scouts. Birth records, when available, aren’t always accurate.

* There’s been nothing reported as to Gourriel’s salary expectations, but we can assume it won’t be cheap. If the Mets are willing to shell out big bucks, I would rather they spend it in two ways: 1) to lock up some of their young pitching, and 2) on proven bats in the free-agent market on players with proven talents.

Clearly, there’s a lot for the Mets to consider in signing Gourriel. In the big picture, I don’t know how good Gourriel can be. Nobody does. Signing him is akin to walking down a flight of stairs in the dark. Better be careful.

Jun 03

Wright To DL; Here’s Appetizing Options To Replace Him

The anticipated is now reality and for the second straight season the Mets will place David Wright on the disabled list for an extended period. They are saying possibly six weeks, which could mean a return in late July or August, or maybe not at all this year.

WRIGHT: Who is behind him? (AP)

WRIGHT: Who is behind him? (AP)

Knowing Wright’s condition entering the season, the Mets had to have several contingency plans, including Wilmer Flores and Eric Campbell – enter your scream here – or possibly moving Neil Walker to third and bringing up Dilson Herrera.

Those don’t sound appealing, but how excited are you at giving Matt Reynolds a real chance? I’m warmer to that because I want to see if Reynolds can be a viable player. Wright’s injury seems the only way he’ll get a chance.

The trade market includes getting Kelly Johnson back from the Braves – they should have re-signed him in the first place – or going after Milwaukee’s Aaron Hill, San Diego’s Yangervis Solarte or the Angels’ Yunel Escobar.

* Hill, 34, is making $12 million and is a free-agent after the season, so there won’t be a long-term commitment. He’s hitting .274 with six homers and 21 RBI.

* Solarte, 28, is making $525,500 and is arbitration eligible this winter. He’s hitting .339 with three homers and 13 RBI.

* Escobar, 33, is making $7 million this year with the Angels holding a team option of $7 million (with a $1 million buyout). He’s hitting .306 with three homers and 13 RBI.

All are serviceable and none should be too expensive.

Thinking outside the box, the Yankees would probably love to unload the underperforming Chase Headley, who making $13 million this year in exchange for hitting .232 with three homers and 11 RBI. However, scuttling any chance of him coming crosstown is that he’ll make $13 next year and in 2018.

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May 04

If Issue Is 2015 Innings, Harvey Deserves Responsibility

I couldn’t help but laugh after hearing Terry Collins last night talking about Matt Harvey’s problems.

Collins, who admitted the Mets don’t have a real answer as to Harvey’s mechanical issues, but threw out it could be “one of those years where it’s due to all of the innings last year, we’re going to see the effects of it.’’

HARVEY: Must accept responsibility. (ESPN).

HARVEY: Must accept responsibility. (ESPN).

Apparently, one of the effects is a loss of memory, at least by Collins.

If we can rewind a moment to the end of last spring training, I wrote how the Mets needed to come up with a definitive innings plan for Harvey and offered a couple of suggestions, none of which they adopted.

Instead, GM Sandy Alderson – echoed by Collins – a “fly by the seat of his pants,’’ approach. Their approach was to acquiesce to Harvey’s whims, from where to do his rehab and delaying when to have surgery.

I made a big deal about this at the time how important it was to have a concrete plan, which included limiting his innings in blowout games, skipping occasional starts, and definitely pulling him out of games in which he was hurting or ill.

Do you remember the start against the Yankees when he insisted on going after a complete game shutout when he had a huge lead?

And, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the strep throat game when he wanted to pitch and Collins gave in when the smart thing would’ve have been to skip him.

Then, fast-forward to late August when agent Scott Boras leaked out the limit was 180 innings. Harvey first said he would follow his agent, then after the backlash against him he said wanted to pitch.

This made everybody connected with the Mets look bad.

Neither Alderson nor Collins had the backbone to stand up to Harvey, which ultimately brings us to the ninth inning of Game 5.

Harvey threw 216 innings last year – 36 more than Boras’ number. I estimated skipping one start a month would have saved Harvey at least that number, and even more if they pulled him early from blowout games.

So now, Collins is telling us Harvey threw too many innings in 2015. Well, whose fault is that? If Collins stood up to Harvey, this wouldn’t be an issue.

Now, we learn Harvey was ill before he pitched Tuesday night. Didn’t Collins learn anything from last year?

Obviously not.

 

Apr 22

Mets List: Mets-Braves Magic Moments

Unlike the Yankees, who always had the Red Sox as a historical sparring partner, the Mets haven’t had what you’d consider a for-the-ages rival. In their infant years, they had the Dodgers and Giants for obvious reasons, then in 1969, they developed a brief rivalry with the Chicago Cubs. Later, it was the Pirates, then the Cardinals, and eventually the Braves.

I have always wanted to run a weekly Mets List feature and plan to do so on Friday.

NO STRANGER GAME

NO STRANGER GAME

With the Mets in Atlanta today for the start of a three-game series, I have come up with five of the most memorable Mets-Braves moments. If you have others, please share.

Post Sept. 11 homer: On Sept. 21, in the first professional sporting event in New York following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, the Braves were in town. Emotions ran high, but boiled over when Mike Piazza hit a go-ahead homer off Steve Karsay.

The Mets trailed by a run entering the eighth when Piazza delivered.

The 1969 NLCS: The Mets’ reward for overtaking the Cubs was to face the powerful Braves in the first year of divisional play.

The Braves were loaded with the likes of Hank Aaron, Rico Carty and Orlando Cepeda, but the Mets swept the series, winning 9-5 and 11-6 (at Atlanta) and 7-4 (at Shea Stadium).

Tom Seaver, Ron Taylor and Nolan Ryan were the winning pitchers. From there, the Mets continued to stun the sports universe by beating Baltimore in the World Series.

The Grand Slam single: The Mets trailed in the 1999 NLCS 3-to-1 in games and 3-2 entering the bottom of the 15th inning. The Mets tied it, 3-3, when Todd Pratt drew a bases-loaded walk.

Robin Ventura followed with what appeared to be a grand slam, but was only credited with a single when the Mets stormed the field to congratulate Ventura. In the process, Mets’ runners passed each other on the bases necessitating the call. VIDEO

The Mets would lose Game 6, 10-9, when Kenny Rogers issued a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the ninth.

The Subway Series against the Yankees would have to wait another year.

Late night fireworks: On July 4 and 5, 1985, the Mets had one of those games. The Mets tied it, 8-8, in the top of the ninth on Lenny Dykstra’s RBI single off closer Bruce Sutter.

The teams slogged around for several innings before Howard Johnson’s two-run homer off Terry Forster in the 13th inning. However, Atlanta tied it, 10-10, on Terry Harper’s two-run homer off Tom Gorman. The Mets regained the lead in the 18th on Dykstra’s sacrifice fly off reliever Rick Camp, but the Braves tied it again on Camp’s homer off Gorman.

The Mets seemingly blew open the game with five runs off Camp in the 19th, but pesky Atlanta pulled within 16-13 off Ron Darling.

The game ended shortly before 4 a.m., but the Braves went ahead with their fireworks night. That prompted many calls to police claiming their neighborhood was under attack.

Double-header treat: In a night that might have symbolized the passing of the torch was near, Mets started prize pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler combined for a double-header sweep on June 18 in Atlanta.

Harvey, who would pitch in the All-Star Game that year but eventually wind up on the disabled list and need surgery, won the first game, 4-3. Wheeler, who grew up near Atlanta, won the second game. 6-1.

Rarely had the Mets won in Atlanta, but sweeping a double-header was unfathomable.

ON DECK: Matt Harvey Tinkers With Mechanics

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