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August 10, 2006

A Night at Shea

Piazza's Return to New York

by Alex Belth

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The good times are rolling these days at Shea Stadium. Last night, Met fans came out in full-force for the second-straight night to pay homage to Mike Piazza, who for seven-and-a-half years was the face of the franchise, propelling the team to the playoffs in 1999 and to the World Series the following year. They also came to see Pedro Martinez who, despite being slowed by injuries, makes an event out of each home start. And they came out to see their first place Mets, who entered the game with a 13 1/2 game lead in the NL East. When all was said and done, they got everything they could have wished for: a memorable night from Piazza, a fine start from Pedro, and yet another Mets win.

It was an uncommonly pleasant night in New York, absolutely ideal for a game in mid-May or June, never mind August. The air was clean, with little to no humidity. A steady breeze swept through the open ballpark for the duration of the evening. There were more Piazza jerseys in the crowd than any other current Met, and the Padres' catcher, rounder in the face since he left New York, received ovations whenever he stepped onto the field. A crowd just shy of 50,000 came to their feet when Piazza led off the second inning. Pedro Martinez dispatched him on four pitches, catching him looking at a beautiful curve ball for strike three--and Piazza was showered with cheers as he returned to the dugout.

But the fun was just starting. Piazza threw the fans for a loop in the bottom of the inning when Endy Chavez reached first base. Two middle-aged men with New York accents straight out of Damon Runyon sat in field box seats down the third base line. One said, "This guy is running here. They can steal all day off Piazza." Sure enough, Chavez took off for second, but to the surprise of nearly every paying customer in the joint, Piazza's throw nailed him by plenty.

"He never does that," said the guy. "Now he can throw?" said another. The Mets would swipe two bases off Piazza in the next inning, including one by Chavez. "Now, that's more like it," said a voice as Piazza's throw bounced on its way to second.

The Mets had a 4-0 lead when Piazza came to bat for the second time. Pedro had cruised through the first three innings but he left a 1-1 sinker over the plate and Piazza crushed a line drive home run over the wall in right center field, a patented Piazza blow. "I wanted to get it in," Martinez told The New York Post after the game. "It didn't quite [make] it, but was still a good pitch. He deserves a lot of credit. He's strong like a mule and to get his hands inside and still hit it out that far to the opposite field, hey, that's Mike Piazza."

The crowd would not stop cheering. After the next batter, Adrian Gonzalez, was retired to end the inning, Piazza stepped out of the dugout for a curtain call and the place erupted. Padres manager Bruce Bochy and Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca later told reporters that they have never seen an opposing player get a curtain call.

An orange moon, one day shy of being completely full, hung low in the sky like a giant peach, and lingered in the opening between the center field scoreboard and the right field stands when Piazza came up again in the sixth. As he walked to the plate, he received another ovation. Martinez stepped off the rubber and Paul Lo Duca stood up and smoothed over the dirt in front of home plate, killing time, affording Piazza another moment. Respect due. Then Piazza crushed a first-pitch curve ball from Martinez over the wall in left. Shea it ain't so, baby. As he rounded the bases, many of the cheers turned into happy boos. There was no curtain call this time. After the game, Piazza grinned when he told reporters, "I think the support was dwindling a little bit."

The good will was virtually gone when Piazza came to hit again in the eighth, representing the go-ahead run. After recording the first out, Martinez walked two consecutive hitters and would not be allowed to face Piazza for a third time. (The headline on the back page of Thursday's Daily News read, "Who's Your Padre?") "London Calling," by The Clash blared through the P.A. system as reliever Aaron Heilman warmed up, and Piazza was greeted by more cheerful booing as he approached the plate.

The moon had moved quickly through the night sky and was now practically behind the upper deck in right, its color having changed to a yellowish-white. Piazza swung at Heilman's first offering and crushed the ball to the deepest part of the ballpark. The crowd gasped as center fielder Carlos Beltran comfortably moved back for the ball. Piazza put some kind of charge into it, but the ball fell just short of the fence. Beltran hauled it in on the warning track, and the crowd cheered with relief, before showering Piazza with yet another ovation.

The blast was reminiscent of Piazza's drive off of Mariano Rivera in Game 5 of the 2000 Subway Series. It looked good off the bat, it sounded crisp and true, but the ball died short of the wall. "It just wasn't meant to be," Piazza told the New York Times. "That's all you can do. Like I said, I was satisfied till that point. And even then it was a good swing. It's a frustrating game. This stadium, this field, is unforgiving."

It was a tantalizing moment. Even if the ball didn't go out of the park, Piazza reminded Met fans of all the big hits he delivered for them during his reign as the marquee player in Queens. The fact that it fell short also signaled that the Piazza era is over and the Mets have moved on. They are enjoying a charmed season, with new stars like Reyes, Wright and Beltran. Even if closer Billy Wagner insists on making the fans squirm in their seats, evoking their worst fears, these are games that the '06 Mets find a way to win.

Still, for one night, Piazza was the Prince of the City again. He admitted to being nervous before Tuesday's night's game, but seemed completely at ease last night. He appeared genuinely humble, smiling easily, at the reception he got. Piazza was clearly touched, if slightly uneasy with all the attention.

"Being on the home field," he told Jay Greenberg of the New York Post after the game, "the last thing I want to do is show up the other team, but the bottom line is that this game is nothing without the fans. So when they ask you to go, you hope [the Mets] understand. I had so much history with those fans." It was a virtual Love-In, with one joyous moment after another, and it was endearing to see the locals show their appreciation so effusively.

The feeling was captured nicely before the game even began. A small boy missing his right leg threw out the first pitch. He could not have been older than ten, and looked like a little tadpole as he hopped towards the mound, using a single crutch with his left arm. He was wearing a baseball cap and a smile. A determined young man, he delivered a strike to Paul Lo Duca, and then proudly hopped back to the catcher and shook his hand firmly, his smile now impossibly wide, as they posed for a picture. As the boy disappeared into a crowd of public relations people and security guards near the Mets dugout, he steadied himself with his left crutch, and confidently flipped the ball into the air with his right hand and swiped it. He continued to do this, an act of pure, unadulterated joy, signifying simple bliss.

It was a fitting start to a night where Mike Piazza played the role of returning hero as if he just stepped out of central casting, while the Mets won another game. For the moment, even the most cautious Met fans had to just sit back, soak it all in, and acknowledge that the good times are right now, quite possibly with more to come.

Alex Belth is a co-author of Bronx Banter, a writer for SI.com, and is the author of Stepping Up: The Story of Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights. He can be reached by clicking here.

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