One week ago, Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson opened an envelope and told us all that no one would be inducted into the Hall of Fame this year. Those years, that clouded era of baseball in the late 90's and early 2000's, that was the wrong time to play baseball, and that is their crime. A week later, I finally feel like I'm able to put together a coherent response to the situation that isn't made up of a bunch of angry, jumbled letters in caps lock. And for me, it's very simple, and very personal: I became a sports fan during that era because of Mike Piazza. They were great years because of Mike Piazza. They were my years. And I will not let them be erased.
The New York Mets are not a team that brings an immediate vision of glory or happiness to anyone's mind -- especially not to the mind of an actual Mets fan. It's a lot of misery. A lot of head pounding. A lot of me threatening to impale myself with a spork. But there was a time in my life when being a Mets fan was glorious. I wasn't alive in 1969 or 1986, so I can't speak for those times.
I can, however, speak for the time dominated by the Met who defined my childhood as a sports fan. The guy who I had a semi-terrifying-but-awesome- life-sized cardboard cutout of in my basement for years. The guy who inspired me to play catcher in Little League games while everyone else was vying for first base or trying to avoid getting placed in "second outfield." The guy who, when 11-year-old me was frantically waving a blank piece of paper in the air and shouting his name during batting practice at Shea, turned around and walked all the way back to where I was sitting so that he could sign it for me. The guy who never let us down. The guy who led a less-than-stellar team to a stellar World Series run. The guy who made a crying city smile with one swing of the bat. "The catcher. Number 31. Mike Piazza."
Spoiler Alert: I think he should be in the Hall of Fame. Of course I do. I could sit here and write out every stat ever that proves he is the greatest offensive catcher in the history of the game. I could also write out every fact ever that proves he was involved with steroids. (And I will! Ready… here comes the list of facts…aaand the list of facts is over. Because there can't be a list of facts when there are no facts.) Either way, it doesn't matter. Suspicion and association have usurped facts and numbers, and that is a shame. But that's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about just a couple of the many moments Piazza created for his fans, those small moments of wonder in my childhood that will not be pushed aside and rendered irrelevant simply because of the time they occurred in. We treasured those moments. And we, as fans, deserve the acknowledgment of those moments. It is not our fault that we grew up when we did.
Moment 1. June 30, 2000: I was 10 years old, and sat on my couch at home watching the Mets trail their arch-rivals the Atlanta Braves 8-1 in the 8th inning. My brother and dad had given up on the game, sighing depressingly while I had my face buried under a white pillow that I occasionally would shift back and forth in hope for some spark of luck. All of a sudden, Melvin Mora and Jay Payton and all of these guys that no one remembers, but who I will never forget, started getting on base, and soon started rounding home plate, and all of a sudden it was 8-8. Tie game. Two men on, two men out. And Mike Piazza up to the plate.
I kept the pillow on my face, but moved it slightly below my eyes, because I knew this was going to be something I wanted to see. Even as a 10 year old, you can recognize greatness. And you know it will deliver. And, as always, No. 31 did. A few seconds later, I was throwing that pillow in the air and swinging my arm in the same exact motion Piazza did as he watched the ball fall over the fence. My brother was screaming, my dad was jumping, I was throwing random things in the air. That was an event that happened. That was a game that existed. That is a memory that will never fade, regardless of whether someone decides it is a story worthy of being told inside the walls of a building in upstate New York.
Moment 2. Sept. 21, 2001: Somber. Quiet. I don't remember where I held the pillow this time as I watched from my house just outside of New York City. It was day after day of candlelight vigil in my neighborhood and I didn't need superstitious pillow-placement -- I needed some kind of sign to tell me that it was OK to watch this game. That it was OK to root for something, to cheer for something, to smile again, to care about something as trivial as a baseball game. And in the 8th inning, down one run, that reassurance came from the guy it always came from: No. 31.
"And it's hit deep to left center ... Andruw Jones on the run ... This one has a chance ... Home run! Mike Piazza. And the Mets lead, 3-2!" That hit is part of baseball's history. Maybe it happened to take place in what people are now calling the Dark Ages of baseball, but the moment itself was the bright spot in what on that day, was a dark city and a dark world. Thanks to Mike Piazza, for just a moment, Shea Stadium was bright. That moment, that glimpse of light, will not be blacked out.
For now, I'll take it upon myself to do what the Hall of Fame is supposed to do -- spread the legacy of an all-time great. I'll continue to tell people the stories of when he walked back over to give me his autograph, of when he swung his arm in celebration after taking the lead in the game against Atlanta, of when one solitary swing helped to heal an entire wounded city. Because maybe for the BBWAA writers he played at the wrong time. Maybe he played at a time that they will try their very best to make us think never existed. A time where mistakes of others became penalties for all.
But for all the kids like me, holding our breath with his every swing -- and for all the jaded Mets fans who for once just needed someone to count on -- and, more than anything, for all the mourning New Yorkers who, on Sept. 21, 2001, so desperately needed Mike Piazza to do what he did so often -- hit home runs—for all of them, who, if only for a few precious minutes, were able to cheer again -- Mike Piazza played at exactly the right time.
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