Mike Groll
March 08, 2016

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. (AP) Mike Piazza stared at the bare space that soon will be his in the Plaque Gallery at baseball's Hall of Fame and was struck by the moment.

''It's a little overwhelming,'' Piazza said Tuesday after touring the shrine in preparation for his induction in July. ''You kind of feel like the race is over. It all starts to hit home. It's your career and many people have touched it. It's pretty crazy to think about.''

Elected in January on the fourth try, Piazza joins Tom Seaver as the only players elected to the Hall as New York Mets. Piazza will be inducted July 24 with Ken Griffey Jr.

It wasn't Piazza's first visit to the Hall of Fame. It was certain to leave a lasting impression, as it usually does.

''It's incredibly powerful. This whole year for me has been so euphoric. It's such an honor,'' said Piazza, clad in a light blue shirt, jeans said sneakers. ''When you come here and you see the history here, the players that you played against and with, it all sort of trickles back. It's a powerful experience. The game has given me everything that I have.''

Piazza was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and spent parts of seven seasons with the team. When the Dodgers were unable to agree to a long-term deal with Piazza, they traded him in 1998 to the Florida Marlins, who dealt him to the Mets eight days later. Piazza remained with the Mets through 2005, then played one season each with San Diego and Oakland before retiring in 2007 at age 39.

''Getting to New York in 1998 was one of the greatest blessings of my life, a challenge in my life and my career that I needed at that time,'' Piazza said. ''When I first got there, it wasn't the easiest introduction because I think 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 Dodgers drafted Piazza at the recommendation of then-manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a friend of Piazza's father, Vince. Naturally, Piazza stopped at Lasorda's plaque as he strode through the gallery. That came moments after a visit to the basement and the room that houses thousands of artifacts not on display.

On this day, Piazza donned the customary white gloves and swung bats once wielded by the Splendid Splinter, Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams, and Philadelphia Phillies icon Mike Schmidt.

''To come back and then to see Mike Schmidt's bat, I mean, I grew up watching the Phillies in the 70s,'' said Piazza, who lived in Norristown, just north of Philadelphia. ''That was the team that I loved to watch and followed. Coming full circle with the Mets and seeing Tom Seaver (in the Hall of Fame), it starts to hit home. It's very exciting for me.''

Piazza is the 17th catcher elected to the Hall, and it was his power at the plate that propelled his career. His 396 home runs as a catcher are the most in major league history. He hit 30 or more homers in a season nine times, totaling 427 altogether, and 157 of those long balls (36.8 percent) came when his team was behind.

''I just believed in myself. I knew I had a unique ability to hit,'' said Piazza, whose No. 31 will be retired by the Mets a week after his induction. ''When I finally found a home behind the plate, it allowed me to not only be in a premium position, but also utilize my hitting. That was obviously very important in my career.

''But more importantly, I think it shows the diversity of this game. It shows that there are so many aspects of this game that you can excel in. I tell kids all the time that if you can do one thing very well, refine that.''

Perched on a director's chair in the Plaque Gallery and with statues of Williams and Babe Ruth seemingly staring at him from one side, Piazza embraced the moment as he contemplated the history and evolution of the game.

''It's something as a player you only sort of think of the window you played in,'' he said. ''This goes back to the 1860s, the first professional team. That's what's special about baseball, its connection to history.

''Even though the players were different and the equipment was different and the pace of the game was different, it is very much of important significance in the life of being an American. It's a uniquely American experience.''

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