On the streets of Cooperstown, during Hall of Fame induction weekend, one New York Mets loyalist wore a T-shirt adorned with the names of every Hall of Famer who ever played for the Mets. The list featured 17 men, most of whom built their candidacies long before becoming Mets—Roberto Alomar! Willie Mays! Warren Spahn!—or after leaving the Mets. Nolan Ryan is the one that stings most, there. Another fan strolled through town sporting a promotional David Wright jersey featured a Hospital for Special Surgery patch on one of the sleeves.
On Saturday afternoon, 32 former players signed autographs at the Tunnicliff Inn—31 Hall of Famers and Dwight Gooden. Earlier in the week, George Foster—whose disastrous free agent contract with the team is as emblematic as Gooden's star-crossed, self-thwarting career—signed autographs at the Cooperstown Bat Factory. Take it all together and you pretty much have the story of the Mets: homegrown stars that flame out before reaching their potential, or the big-name acquisitions that prove ill-prepared for the task of carrying New York's other team. But Mets fans were in Cooperstown to celebrate the exception to all this. Mike Piazza was going into the Hall of Fame, and he was going in as a Met.
"How can I put into words my thanks, love, and appreciation for New York Mets fans?" Piazza said Sunday, when he was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame before a crowd of 50,000 at Clark Sports Center. "You have given me the greatest gift and have graciously taken me into your family."
Piazza joined that family by way of a blockbuster deal with the Florida Marlins on May 22, 1998. It was the second trade for Piazza in a matter of eight days, and all he had to do was adjust to the demands of playing for East Coast fans while immediately carrying a franchise dwarfed in its own hometown by a dynastic Yankees squad on the way to winning the first of three straight World Series crowns.
"That was one of the most remarkable times to flip the city upside down," Steve Phillips, the Mets general manager at the time, told VICE Sports last week. "The Yankees are winning 114 games and it stole the spotlight and gave the Mets fans a superstar and a reason to brag [to] Yankees fans."
For a few weeks, it appeared as though Piazza's impact might be a fleeting one. Fans booed the catcher for his perceived inability to deliver in the clutch, even though he hit .336 with 24 extra-base hits in his first 56 games with his new club.
"We didn't get off on the best foot, but we both stayed with it," Piazza said during his speech Sunday. "At first, I was pressing to make you cheer and wasn't doing the job. You didn't take it easy on me, and I am better because of it."
Said Phillips last week, "When he struggled initially and then the fans booed him, I thought, 'Oh boy, this is not going the way we anticipated it was going to go.' He didn't look happy. He wasn't performing. We weren't getting the jolt out of it yet."
And then Piazza started to hit like Piazza, and that made the relationship a lot less complicated. He ended the season by hitting .361 with 32 extra-base hits in the final 53 games—for comparison's sake, Yoenis Cespedes hit .287 with 35 extra-base hits in 57 games following his acquisition last year—and signed a seven-year deal with the Mets shortly after filing for free agency.
Piazza hit a combined .313 with a .972 OPS in 1999 and 2000 as he led the Mets to the National League Championship Series and the World Series. He also came to understand the psyche of Mets fans, and realized that more was expected of him while he shouldered their burden.
"Look, the one thing I love about Mets fans is that it's tough being in the same town as the Yankees, with obviously all their World Series and their accomplishments," Piazza said Saturday.
There were awkward moments between the Mets and Piazza as both declined over the final seasons of the deal. In 2003, beleaguered manager Art Howe told reporters the team was going to begin transitioning Piazza to first base, which was news to Piazza.
"I was never going to be the guy that traded Piazza," said Phillips, who was fired during the 2003 season. "I was only going to be the guy that brought him there. I don't care how bad it would have gotten. If I'd been there the whole time of his contract, I would not have dealt him. I wanted no part of that on my resume."
By 2005, Piazza had been relegated to the background by the emergence of Wright and Jose Reyes and splashy free-agent signees Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez. But unlike so many of his peers and predecessors, Piazza finished out his contract with the Mets. Only 23 big-league players have completed a deal of seven years or longer. Piazza is one of just 12 to remain with his team for the life of the contract, and only four players had an OPS+ or ERA+ better than his +133. Piazza left the field at Shea Stadium for the last time as a Met on October 2nd, blowing kisses in every direction.
"He was a great player for us," said Ed Kranepool, who played his entire 18-season career with the Mets. "He brought the franchise back. He gave it instant credibility and performed well. It was one of the long-term contracts that worked out for both people."
He is the second Hall of Famer to wear a Mets hat on his plaque, but in shedding tears Sunday, Piazza—the 62nd-round draft pick who sported a mullet deep into the 1990s and is forever unapologetic about his preference for the hard rock of the 1980s—proved that he resonated with fans in a way the imperial Tom Seaver never could, all the while burying the ghosts of Bobby Bonilla, Mo Vaughn, and other high-priced busts who didn't make it as Mets, for one reason or another.
"Looking out today, at the incredible sea of blue and orange, brings back the greatest time of my life," Piazza said. For a franchise that hasn't always parted on good terms with its legends, the feeling was mutual, and all the more valuable for how rare it has been throughout the team's history.
"The thing I noticed was the Dodgers had this history and they bring back their core players," Philips said. "The Yankees would have Old Timers' Day with all these core players. And it didn't feel like we celebrated, or had the same sort of legacy, because of the whole Seaver ending, where he was traded and then brought back. It was awkward, right? So we needed that sort of love affair with a player and the fan. And Mike really became that."
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