By Paul Post
The little kid in Mike Piazza came out during his recent Orientation Visit to the Hall of Fame, where he’ll join other baseball immortals during induction ceremonies scheduled for July 24.
The former Mets and Dodgers All-Star catcher gazed with awe at the spot his plaque will hang in the Hall of Fame gallery.
One of his favorite experiences was a chance to hold the bat his boyhood hero, Mike Schmidt, used to hit his 536th home run and tie fellow Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle on the all-time career homer list.
“I grew up watching the Phillies in the ’70s,” said Piazza, a Pennsylvania native. “That was a team that I loved to watch and followed. Then seeing Tom Seaver, his plaque as well, it starts to hit home. It’s very exciting for me.”
Piazza couldn’t help smiling as he looked at some of the earliest pieces of catcher’s equipment in the museum’s 19th Century Room. The display includes old-fashioned mitts, chest protectors, masks, spikes, balls and long thick-handled bats.
“As a player you only think about the window you played in, but when you see how equipment has changed and the amount of history here, that’s what is so special about baseball, its connection to history,” he said. “Even though the players were different, the equipment was different, the pace of the game was different, it still very much had an important significance in the life of being an American. It’s a uniquely American experience.”
Piazza has a very impressive memorabilia collection of his own that includes items from his big league career and the years leading up to it.
“That’s what we’re going over now,” he said. “I’m going to try to give the Hall of Fame some cool things. I found some old jerseys, I have some older bats that I’ve kept, some equipment. It’s funny. I’ve got to get to my mom and dad’s house and start going through the old storage. It’s amazing. You start going through stuff and you never thought it would be worth anything when you were using it.”
“Now it’s like, ‘You found that! We would love to have it,’ ” Piazza said smiling. “It’s important because even though you know it’s your career, it belongs to everyone. It belongs to the fans, to everyone who followed you and supported you to enjoy it as well. So I feel good about donating stuff to the Hall because you know it’s going to be safe here. It’s nice for kids and grandkids to be able to come back and share it.”
Piazza was arguably the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. He holds the record for most home runs at that position (396) and drove in 1,335 runs – fourth among catchers all-time behind Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench. He also posted a .308 career batting average, a member of 12 All-Star Games, was named 1996 All-Star Game MVP, captured 10 Silver Slugger Awards at catcher and finished in the top five of the NL MVP voting four times, including back-to-back second-place finishes in 1996 and 1997.
He was the first player whose primary position was catcher to get 200 or more hits (201) in a season, which he achieved in 1997.
One of Piazza’s most memorable, emotionally charged home runs was the blast he hit during the Mets’ first home game following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. (For more information about the jersey from this game, click here.)
John Finger, a retired state Department of Transportation engineer, was part of the packed house at Shea Stadium that night. “It was the most patriotic night in my life,” he said. “It was incredible. On 9/11, I was actually in Lower Manhattan. It was bad.”
Finger and his wife, Cynthia, now live in Little Falls, N.Y., where the Mets previously had a Class A team in the New York-Penn League, about an hour’s drive from Cooperstown. They heard through the grapevine that Piazza was going to be at the Hall of Fame, so they made a special trip over to meet him.
“This is the chance of a lifetime. My wife just had her picture taken with Mike. Her life is complete now,” Finger said with a big grin. “That’s her favorite ballplayer.”
“Just amazing!” Cynthia exclaimed. “I’ve been a Mets fan since 1969. What a wonderful man Mike is. I actually believe he was the most exciting player to watch, whether you were there in person or watching on TV.”
Piazza’s election to baseball’s shrine holds a unique place in Hall of Fame history. He is the lowest draft pick ever elected to the Hall. He was chosen No. 1,390 overall by the Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft.
In a twist of fate only the gods of baseball could have orchestrated, Piazza will be inducted with the only No. 1 draft pick to reach the Hall of Fame – Ken Griffey Jr., whom the Mariners chose first overall in 1987.
“I never consciously tried to prove anybody wrong,” said Piazza, whose plaque will show him wearing a Mets cap. “I just believed in myself and I knew I had a unique ability to hit. The clichés are said for a reason because they’re true. They say catching is the fastest way to the big leagues.
“It just shows what a great gift this game was for me because it allowed me to refine my talents and find my niche,” he said. “I just never gave up.”
His father, Vince, was the first person Piazza called after learning that he’d been elected to the Hall in early January. It’s a well-known story about how Vince Piazza asked Dodgers General Manager Tommy Lasorda, a childhood friend from Pennsylvania, to draft Mike as a personal favor.
It’s an opportunity that Piazza obviously made the most of. He turned to catching, with encouragement from Lasorda, after starting out at first base.
“I finally found a home behind the plate,” he said. “It shows the diversity of this game. It shows that there are so many aspects of this game you can excel at. I tell kids all the time — if you can do one thing very well, refine that; try to bring up your weaknesses.”
Piazza gives equal shares of credit to his mom, Veronica.
“You talk a lot about fathers, but I’ve said many times mothers are very supportive – when I was a kid, washing my uniform, making sure I got to practice,” he said. “All these memories come back to the forefront.
“As far as congratulations, when you get a text from Johnny Bench and Mike Schmidt, it’s like, ‘How’d you get my number?’ ” Piazza said. “It’s like a big fraternity here in a way. I can’t wait to get to the hotel (Otesaga Hotel where Hall of Famers gather in Cooperstown) this summer and sit on the deck, have a cigar and talk with these guys.
“The home runs I hit will get a little longer,” Piazza joked. “Those big moments will take on a Paul Bunyanesque-type of feeling.”
He said joining baseball’s immortals has made him more aware of his own mortality.
“Not in a bad way, in a good way because you see the Babe Ruths and Ted Williamses,” Piazza said. “It’s powerful, knowing that it’s going to be here even after you’ve passed. Life is quick.”
His unpublicized visit was the thrill of a lifetime for long-time Mets fan Roger Kaufman of Lynbrook, Long Island, who just happened to be touring the Hall of Fame the same day as Piazza’s visit.
“It’s just unbelievable, amazing,” he said. “My son, Bradley, and I just decided to come on a road trip. This is the best road trip we ever could have made.”
In 1998, after starting the season with L.A., Piazza had a brief five-game stint with the Marlins before going to New York. The last two years of his career were spent with the Padres and A’s, respectively, in 2006 and ’07.
Piazza said breaking in with the Dodgers and being surrounded by the team’s many Hall of Famers at Dodgertown during spring training “was a huge part of my development.”
“But getting to New York in 1998 was truly one of the greatest blessings and challenges of my life,” he said. “When I first got there it wasn’t the easiest introduction because there was a lot of trepidation. They didn’t know if I was going to stay and I was a free agent. But once I decided to become a Met and embrace the city, things changed for me for the better.
“The most unique aspect of my relationship with Mets fans is that they usually don’t embrace people that don’t come up through the organization,” he said. “They don’t let people in their family quickly. You have to earn it. That allowed me to challenge myself and I feel made me a better player.
“Baseball has given me everything that I have,” Piazza said. “A great career, memories that will remain with me forever, meeting my wife. If it wasn’t for friends I have in the game, we never would have met. Having a family now and passing that on to them, it’s powerful, it’s emotional. It all kind of circles back here today.”
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.