Mike Piazza will go into the Hall of Fame wearing a New York Mets cap. Not only did he play more games with them than with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but it also seems that most of Piazza's lasting images and memorable moments came from his Mets days. But who can forget the five games he played with the Florida Marlins?
Piazza obviously isn't a controversy-free Hall of Famer, given the PED allegations -- the primary reason he needed four ballots to get elected.
1. The post-9/11 home run
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Mets returned to the field at an emotional Shea Stadium on Sept. 21 in a game against the Atlanta Braves. With the Braves up 2-1 with a runner on in the bottom of the eighth, Piazza stepped in against Steve Karsay and walloped one to deep center field. It didn't heal the pain from 10 days before, but it gave New Yorkers a chance to celebrate and be joyful about something. Was it the greatest moment in Mets history? It didn't help win a World Series, like Mookie Wilson's grounder did, but it certainly cemented Piazza's legacy as one of the most beloved Mets.
2. Piazza vs. Clemens
This is a four-parter:
(A) In June 2000, Piazza hit a grand slam off the New York Yankees' Roger Clemens. Remember: This was in the early days of interleague play, when a Mets-Yankees series was a big deal.
(B) Clemens hit Piazza in the head in July 2000.
(C) In Game 2 of the World Series that fall, Clemens bizarrely threw the broken end of the bat head in Piazza's direction.
(D) June 15, 2002: Sweet revenge, as Piazza homered for the fourth time off Clemens. Piazza's career numbers against Clemens: 8-for-22 (.364) with four home runs.
3. Dodgers trade Piazza to Marlins
It was one of the most shocking trades in baseball history -- perhaps even more shocking than the Seattle Mariners' trading Ken Griffey Jr. to the Cincinnati Reds. Piazza loved Los Angeles. The fans loved Piazza. The Dodgers traded him.
Piazza was coming off back-to-back MVP runner-up finishes entering 1998, but he was a free agent at the end of the season. Negotiations got ugly. Then-Dodgers general manager Fred Claire said the team offered six years and $81 million. Piazza wanted seven years and $105 million, which would have made him MLB's first $100 million player.
"I don't dispute that Mike was unhappy," Claire told the New York Post's Joel Sherman. "But I had been through many negotiations. We were making every effort to get Mike signed. We were offering to make him the highest-paid player in the game."
News Corp., which had just been approved as the new owner of the Dodgers after it bought the club from the O'Malley family, interceded. The trade was done at the ownership level, above Claire and Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski. Piazza and Todd Zeile were sent to Florida for Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson and Jim Eisenreich, all of whom had helped the Marlins win the World Series the year before. It was a salary dump for the Marlins; a week later, they traded Piazza to the Mets for Preston Wilson and Ed Yarnall (Zeile was traded to the Rangers and later signed with the Mets as a free agent).
Congratulations to Mike Piazza as he enters the Hall of Fame. Mike should have been a Dodger for a lifetime. https://t.co/HC5psbhYkO— Fred Claire (@Fred_Claire) July 22, 2016
4. The best hitting catcher of all time
With a career line of .308/.377/.545 and 427 home runs (396 as a catcher, the most ever), it's not really up for debate. Among players who played at least half their games at catcher, here are the highest career OPS+ (minimum 3,000 plate appearances):
Buster Posey: 139
Gene Tenace: 136
Mickey Cochrane: 129
Joe Mauer: 127
Bill Dickey: 127
Roger Bresnahan: 127
Johnny Bench: 126
Ernie Lombardi: 126
Gabby Hartnett: 126
Yogi Berra: 125
5. The 1997 MVP race
Larry Walker won, and Piazza finished second. I've always thought Piazza should have won. These are the numbers:
Walker: .366/.452/.720, 49 HRs, 130 RBIs, 9.8 WAR
Piazza: .362/.431/.638, 40 HRs, 124 RBIs, 8.7 WAR
By WAR, the voters made the right choice. Also, Craig Biggio, who finished fourth in the voting, was at 9.4 WAR. In related news, the offensive numbers in the steroids era were insane.
Walker had other advantages: He stole 33 bases, scored 143 runs and won a Gold Glove. He hit .346 on the road that year. Voters had not yet grown immune to the crazy Coors Field numbers -- Dante Bichette finished second in the 1995 MVP voting, Ellis Burks third in 1996 and Andres Galarraga sixth and seventh in '96 and '97, and Vinny Castilla had 40 home runs in '96 and '97. In other words, as great as Walker's season was, many guys put up monster numbers at Coors Field in that era.
Meanwhile, Piazza had the greatest offensive year ever by a catcher, and maybe the greatest season period. His team won more games, though both missed the playoffs. (Piazza finished second to Ken Caminiti in 1996, when the Dodgers won a wild-card berth.)
Who knows, he might have hit .400 if he had played his home games at Coors Field. Piazza spent his best seasons at Dodger Stadium and Shea Stadium, two difficult places to hit. In his career, he hit .320 with a .960 OPS on the road, versus .294 with an .880 OPS at home. In 1997, he hit .368 on the road.
Here are the best seasons by a catcher:
Piazza, 1997: 8.7 WAR
Gary Carter, 1982: 8.6
Johnny Bench, 1972: 8.6
Joe Mauer, 2009: 7.8
Bench, 1974: 7.8
6. The swing
I always felt that Piazza was swinging a sledgehammer. While Griffey's swing was the classic, fluid left-hander's swing with the picture-perfect uppercut, Piazza ripped the bat through the zone and got the barrel on the ball, even with a little hitch at the beginning of his swing. It was the follow-through that was pure Piazza, with the bat often slamming against the back of his broad shoulders like it was so heavy he couldn't contain it.
7. A better defensive catcher than given credit for
My colleague Mark Simon has more details. Although Piazza didn't have a strong throwing arm, he wasn't as awful as people said. He had a 23 percent caught stealing rate for his career, compared to a league average of 31 percent, though runners were aggressive against him. Simon suggests Piazza was a good pitch-framer, and indeed, he caught a lot of good rotations with the Dodgers and Mets. Baseball-Reference gives Piazza a career mark of 61 runs below average for his fielding, but if you include hidden factors such as working with a staff, maybe Piazza wasn't as bad as the numbers suggest.
8. The blonde hair
We'll pretend this never happened.
9. From 62nd-round pick to Hall of Famer
Jerry Crasnick has more on how Piazza defied the odds.
10. The 'stache.
Before there were beards, there was Mike Piazza's mustache.