Catch This!

Mike Piazza isn't just the best-hitting backstop of all time. He's also the leading man on baseball's hottest team
Mike Piazza isn't just the best-hitting backstop of all time. He's also the leading man on baseball's hottest team
August 20, 2000

When Mike Piazza left the New York Mets' clubhouse last Friday night, he looked as if he were living out the parlor game in which everyone imagines how they would spend the perfect day. He had just hit a game-breaking home run in yet another Mets win, he had the Playmate of the Millennium, Darlene Bernaola, awaiting him on the other side of the clubhouse door, and in his right hand were the complete works of Led Zeppelin, digitally remastered and fresh out of the box's shrink-wrap, ready to rattle the windows of his Cadillac on his commute home. Talk about your hitters on a hot streak.

These are heady, lamp-rubbing good times for Piazza, whose at bats at Shea are greeted with music to the metalhead's ears: Led Zeppelin riffs and booming chants of "MVP! MVP!" Further, by taking three straight games last weekend from a possible playoff opponent, the San Francisco Giants, New York affirmed itself as the hottest, and perhaps most balanced, team in baseball. The Mets are built like what Piazza left with on Friday night. (No, not her.) New York is a boxed set, with nothing left out.

"There's not one part that we're leaning on," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said after a 2–0 win on Sunday. "That means that if one area of our game slips, we can still win another way."

At week's end the Mets had ripped off a 16–3 run that left them, at 69–47, with just one more loss than the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East and with six fewer losses than their closest pursuer in the wild-card race, the Arizona Diamondbacks. All but four of the wins in this spurt have come after the Mets closed the last two obvious holes on their roster. On July 28 they obtained sure-handed shortstop Mike Bordick from the Baltimore Orioles to replace the unproven Melvin Mora, who was filling in for Rey Ordonez (out for the season with a broken left forearm). That day they also traded for Tampa Bay Devil Rays righthanded reliever Rick White to add depth to what was already a good, but taxed, bullpen. Bordick hit .300 in his first 15 games for New York while providing defense that instills confidence in pitchers. White allowed only one run and six hits over his first nine innings with the Mets.

"Before, there were questions of how long our bullpen could last and what kind of development Melvin would have this year," Valentine says. "Those questions are gone now. When Mike makes an error, it's, Ho-hum. When Melvin made an error, it was, Oh, god. Can he do it? Can he make the plays down the stretch? That affects the team psyche."

The Mets are also winning tightly played rehearsals for October. They won three playoff-quality games against San Francisco last weekend: 4–1, 3–2 and 2–0. Their pitchers suffocated the highest-scoring National League team outside of Colorado. The Giants never put together back-to-back hits in 94 at bats, scored only one earned run, went 2 for 20 with runners in scoring position and batted .043 (1 for 23) in seven scoreless innings against a Mets bullpen that hadn't lost a game since July 13.

New York, meanwhile, showed the opportunism that San Francisco lacked. Piazza's 411-foot rocket on Friday night, a two-run homer that broke a scoreless tie in the fourth inning, came with two outs and first base open. "Why would they pitch to him?" asked Todd Pratt, Piazza's backup. "I don't understand why anybody would pitch to him. He's that good."

The Mets won the next two days with rallies in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively, that began with leadoff walks and climaxed with two-out hits. "We have no glaring weakness," lefthander Al Leiter said after he dominated San Francisco on Sunday with 12 strikeouts over eight shutout innings. "I like what I see. Now let's see how far it takes us."

As complete a team as they may be, these Mets—like the Led Zeppelin oeuvre—do have a signature piece: Piazza, 31, is their stairway to playoff heaven. "What does he mean to this team?" Leiter says. "Everything.

At week's end the Mets were 37–13 when Piazza drove in a run and 32–34 when he didn't. He ranked fourth in the league in batting (.351), seventh in home runs (31) and fifth in RBIs (97), extraordinary numbers for any player, but phenomenal for a catcher. "Look at this," Piazza says, offering his right index finger as proof of the hazards of his job. The finger zigs and zags like a lightning bolt.

Mike is a man with intense pride. He never wants to be embarrassed. Not even for one at bat. That's why he plays the game so hard.
Mets pitcher Al Leiter

Piazza is not a smooth receiver, but his efforts behind the plate, considering his enormous offensive production, recall what Samuel Johnson remarked about a dog's walking on two legs: The wonder is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all. "It's incredible to think what he would do [offensively] if he weren't crouching every night," says Mets catching instructor John Stearns.

Piazza is embellishing his legacy as the greatest hitting catcher ever, even as fresh evidence of the position's daily danger emerges, as it did last month when the Texas Rangers' Ivan Rodriguez, whose bat has begun to rival Piazza's, broke his hand. Piazza has the best batting average, slugging percentage and rates of home runs and RBIs among all catchers who have caught at least 1,000 games. What makes Piazza so exceptional, however, also makes him and the Mets vulnerable, as last season proved. "Once you get around 100 games caught," Piazza says, "that's when you hit a wall you have to break through."

Piazza was batting .323 at his 100-game mark last season. He hit only .231 thereafter, including .182 while wobbling through the postseason with the sad stagger of a beaten prizefighter. Valentine started Piazza in all but two of New York's final 32 regular-season games. "I had to," the manager says, referring to a pennant race in which the Mets needed to win a one-game playoff to clinch the wild card. They lost the National League Championship Series in six games to Atlanta.

"I went home after the season and did absolutely nothing for three weeks," Piazza says. "I couldn't. It was basically just sleep and massage. Thank God for satellite TV. I'd watch NFL games all day and night on Sundays without getting out of bed. It was just complete exhaustion. Complete body soreness. It was the feeling you get after running a marathon, but feeling that way every day.

"Mentally, it was as draining as the physical part. It's like you just got out of the room after taking the SATs and there are little dots floating around your brain. Which guys are low-ball hitters? High-ball hitters, first-pitch fastball hitters, breaking ball hitters, what to throw in certain situations, and after all that you still ask yourself, What could I have done differently?"

The Mets have looked for ways to keep Piazza fresh this season. Stearns moved Piazza closer to the plate in spring training to cut down on the high incidence of foul balls that hit him. "It has worked a bit," Piazza said on Sunday after taking a foul off his left thigh. Stearns also helped Piazza kick the lazy habit of catching pitches backhand, with his left thumb pointed down, which often caused late-breaking pitches to smack awkwardly against the meaty base of the thumb. Stearns taught him how to tuck his left elbow against his body, rather than stick it out to the side, as he caught the ball. That maneuver, which Piazza does not always employ, keeps his thumb pointing upward and out of harm's way. Piazza's difficulties catching and throwing the ball are exacerbated by his smallish hands. "I have very small hands for a catcher," Piazza says. "It's harder for me to throw. People get on me about my throwing. [He has caught only 15.4% of base stealers this season.] I have a good arm. It's just that a lot of times I don't get a good grip on the ball because my hands are so small."

What is imperative in order to keep Piazza healthy is rest, which is why a September lead for a playoff spot is more important for the Mets than for any other club. "Sure, everybody wants to finish first," Leiter says, "but I've won a World Series [with the Florida Marlins, in 1997] being a wild card. If we have a lead in the wild- card race, I say, rest, rest, rest people."

Says Valentine, "We have the bench to do that. I have a lot of faith in Todd Pratt."

Valentine has played Piazza slightly less often behind the plate this season (88 games) as compared with the same point last year (94). The manager resisted using Piazza last Saturday, for instance, even though San Francisco started a lefthander, Shawn Estes, and Piazza was hitting .400 against southpaws this year. Piazza, however, still influenced the game. With first base open and Todd Zeile at the plate in the seventh inning, the Giants opted not to intentionally walk Zeile because Piazza was limbering up in the dugout for a possible pinch-hitting appearance, and Zeile banged a game-winning two-run double.

"You know Mike Piazza's over there," Giants manager Dusty Baker says. "You want to face anyone over there but him."

"Mike's stronger this time of year than he's ever been," Valentine says. "He looks to me like he's more driven. It may be just that time in his career."

Piazza's made-for-Cooperstown career also includes pockets of unfulfillment. He has finished in the top four in the batting race four times, yet never won it. He accumulated more points in the National League MVP voting during the 1990s than anyone except three-time winner Barry Bonds but never won the award. (He finished second twice; no Mets player has ever won it.) His teams have lost three of four postseason series and never reached the World Series. Each year the whispers grow a bit louder that he and his teams would prosper more if he would switch to a less strenuous position, such as first base.

"Dude, I can honestly say there is no concern on my part about my legacy in the game," Piazza says. "That's not in my consciousness. I love to catch. It's that simple. I like walking to the mound after the last out of a win and shaking hands and knowing maybe I called for the right pitch in the right spot or blocked a pitch with a man on third or, even though I was 0 for 4, did something to leave an imprint on the game. Don't get me wrong. Hitting a home run is a great feeling, but there's no greater feeling than that [catching]. I'm not ready to give that up."

"Mike," Leiter says, "is a man with intense pride. He never wants to be embarrassed. Not even for one at bat. That's why he plays the game so hard."

Teammates have seen him attack clubhouse furnishings after a three-hit night in which the fourth at bat wasn't to his liking. More often, they've watched him hit baseballs as hard as any player in the game. Piazza walks to the batter's box slowly, even sleepily, as if he's been jostled from a nap. He swings a big bat (34 1/2 inches, 33 ounces) with an unusually thick barrel that gives it the appearance of a club. His swing is frighteningly fast, though controlled.

"Almost never do you see him take a swing in which he's not in balance," San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti says. "He used to be a guy you'd try to get to chase a pitch, but he hardly does that anymore. Sure, you have to get the ball in on him, but you'd better not miss. He's got great hands. You just watch him hit, and you know he could do anything that requires great hands, like hitting a golf ball, shooting free throws, whatever."

Last week in Houston, Piazza hit a ball so hard off the leftfield wall at Enron Field that the shortstop fielded it and nearly threw him out at second. The Mets chuckled and added it to their own boxed set of Piazza's greatest hits. Pratt's favorite is the 480-foot home run Piazza blasted in 1998 that was the longest ever at the Astrodome. Third baseman Robin Ventura prefers the line drive homer Piazza crushed in July off Atlanta's Terry Mulholland that "never had a chance to curve foul. It was out before you looked up." Piazza has hit a ball out of Dodger Stadium and another nearly out of Coors Field, but he selects a home run he pounded in 1995 that flew into the centerfield tunnel in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium.

"I remember it was the perfect swing," he says. "I'm telling you, Dude, it's just a feeling in my hands. I can tell you if I'm going to have a good day or a bad day at the plate just by the feeling in my hands. It comes and goes. When it's there, I feel like all I have to do is drop the barrel of the bat on the ball and boom!"

He looked at his hands, as if they were a riddle he couldn't expect to solve. What becomes of the Mets, however complete they seem, may very well rest in those hands.