Fair warning, everybody: this post has nothing to do with Israel. It has to do with baseball, and with one player in particular.
Today’s NY Times features a thoughtful piece on the decline of two fine ballplayers: Bernie Williams, center fielder for the NY Yankees, and Mike Piazza, catcher for the NY Mets. My natural aversion to all things Yankee precludes me from waxing lyrical about Williams, although I do admit to a quiet appreciation of his spectacles-sporting, classical-guitar-playing style, which goes pleasingly against the grain of your typical major-league ballplayer. No, this post is about Mike Piazza: the man who singlehandedly revitalized the NY Mets right around the time I left my beloved New York City for Israel.
Picture this. You’re in the batter’s box at Shea with a full count, two men on and two outs. The pitch is in the air. You can see from the moment it leaves the pitcher’s glove that it’s low and way outside. In the few seconds the ball takes to reach you, your body decides not to go for the walk. You lean forward at the waist and stretch your arms out. To make contact with the ball, your hands must actually separate, so that at the moment the bat strikes, it is being swung by only your left hand. You instinctively flick your left wrist. This ball, which in the hands of a normal mortal would be a sad little dribbler that barely makes it out of the infield, explodes off your bat and down the first base line for an extra-base hit and two RBIs.
Thus were the physics-defying spectacles to which we Mets fans were regularly treated by Piazza, that marquee combination of brawn, brains and bod, in those heady early days when he first came to town and on into the days of glory – the trip to the World Series, the unprecedented hitting numbers, the surpassing of Carlton Fisk’s record for most home runs by a catcher. Piazza parlayed a modest assortment of natural talents into a full-throttle legend by never, ever taking no for an answer. Michael Joseph Piazza is a walking testament to the sheer power of will.
It would be difficult to find another future Hall of Famer whose provenance is more underwhelming. He had a tepid, abbreviated college career in which his hitting prowess was evident but his slowness a constant liability. His professional prospects seemed dim to hopeless by the 62nd round of the 1988 major league draft. Indeed, Piazza would almost certainly now be just a regular Joe had he not gotten a major break at that moment: Family friend Tommy LaSorda stepped in to urge the Los Angeles Dodgers to give Piazza a shot. He was reluctantly picked up late in that round, with the Dodgers so skeptical about him that they wouldn’t pay his plane fare to L.A.
Piazza took this phenomenal piece of luck not as an end in itself, as many other well-connected, moderately talented young men would have done, but as a chance to drive himself with the utmost seriousness toward greatness. Piazza hurled himself into the project of professional ball with the same single-minded determination that had led him to spend winters shoveling snow out of the makeshift batting cage his father built for him in his Pennsylvania backyard. Partly to justify LaSorda’s faith in him and partly to counter constant accusations that he’d been given a free ride, Piazza did everything imaginable to mold himself into a major-leaguer. He went total immersion, becoming the first U.S. player to attend the Campo Las Palmas baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, and put himself on a course of relentless weight-training and batting practice. At the very beginning of his career, Piazza didn’t even qualify for flash-in-the-pan status. But his work ethic led him to eleven seasons as an All-Star, batting numbers that are practically unheard of for a catcher, and a facility for the clutch home run that had Mets owners Doubleday and Wilpon turning cartwheels and then-GM Steve Phillips looking like a genius.
Piazza had the pluck to stick it out in New York, not in spite of the ferociousness of the impatient New York fans but because of it. And he was rewarded, after a year of snippy phenom-baiting, by an outpouring of adoration from fans of both genders and respect from the press: for the most part, journalists exhibited a remarkable lack of prurient interest in his guarded social life, and he was even given a pass on his intermittently disastrous facial hair. That warmth may reflect the fact that he has always been not only available but articulate: he employs more polysyllabic words, more complete sentences, and fewer references to the Almighty in his interviews than just about any active player in the bigs.
And then, of course, there’s the hottie factor. With all due respect to Derek Jeter fans, this is no aw-shucks, pretty-pretty teen fantasy we’re talking about. And it wasn’t just bridge-and-tunnel babes with astrological decals on their fingernails and black lipliner who felt the Mike Effect in those early days. More than one glasses-wearing, mousse-free New York girl found herself growing thoughtful at the spectacle of all that luscious, coiled-up power, to say nothing of the suburban moms who suddenly, in a flash of insight, saw the appeal of major league baseball. When the trade was sealed and delivered in May 1998, there was much sober yakking among commentators about the power of Mike’s long ball to put tushes on seats at Shea. True, of course. But it was straight-talking New York relief pitcher John Franco who added the obvious: “He’s single.”
Professional sports engage us because they provide a legitimate flight of fantasy into which we can happily fling ourselves. They give us a bridge to an earlier time in our lives when superhuman feats – or even proximity to superhuman feats – seemed a perfectly reasonable expectation. It is a warm, delicious feeling to be returned to that state, even if only for an afternoon. But you can’t be escorted there by whining, churlish, mean-spirited, joyless creeps, as professional athletes increasingly are. Good-looking, hard-hitting, enigmatic Mike Piazza fascinates because he represents the righteous, all-American value of hard work – but also because he is just sexy enough to plug into our less righteous, equally American lust for celebrity. You are a warrior, Mike, and an honorable man. You’ve done us Mets fans proud. May your steps down from the pedestal be easy.
See you in Cooperstown.