day 31: mike

Today is 31 days, which is three days and four weeks of the omer: tiferet she’b’hod.

For some reason catcher Mike Piazza was one of the first players whom I knew I wanted to talk about. I’m so grateful I got to see him play at Shea Stadium during his last year as a Met. He didn’t play his whole career with that franchise, but when he was set to become a free agent after the 1998 season, he simply asked the Mets to meet his price and signed on to stay with the club. (No Scott Boras for him.) And I guess I’ve always liked him for being a thorn in the side of The Rocket.

We all know the story: In the July 8, 2000, game in the Subway Series, Roger Clemens threw a two-seam fastball right at Piazza’s head, almost hitting his forehead, smacking his helmet, and leaving him with a concussion. Clemens called the Mets dugout during the game to apologize. Piazza replied, “Tell him to go f*ck himself.” (You can read here a loooong explanation of the buildup of Clemens’ anger at Piazza, starting with the latter’s 3-run-homer off of him in the first game of the 1999 Subway Series, on a night when the Mets beat up on Clemens with 5 runs on 9 hits in 6 innings.)

And then Piazza apparently spent the next few months fantasizing about getting back at Yankees pitcher, taking karate and visualizing the fight that he would instigate on the field. But when it came to it, he didn’t do it, even when he had good reason to.

The pair faced off again later that fall, in Game 2 of the World Series. Piazza just got a piece of the fourth pitch, splintering his bat into three pieces; one of them bounced up towards the mound. Clemens “caught” it and then hurled it towards Piazza, who was running to first. Video showed Clemens telling the home plate umpire, “I thought it was the ball,” an incredibly transparent lie. (The Rocket was later charged with “inappropriate conduct’ and fined $50,000.)

It’s Piazza’s role in all of this that endears him to me. He doesn’t charge Clemens, which probably every other player in his position would have done — and which he had been psyching himself up to do. Instead, still looking shocked, Piazza saunters over the Clemens and is intercepted by the umpire and Yankees catcher Jorge Posada. No punches, no brawling, no ejections. The benches empty, but everyone just sort of stands around. Piazza would later explain in his autobiography that he didn’t want to be embarrassed in a fight. “There were complications. The least of them was the realization that Clemens was a big guy, and I stood a pretty fair chance of getting my ass kicked in front of Yankee Stadium and the world. That was a legitimate concern.”

The other thing that everyone knows about Mike Piazza is that he’s the lowest draft pick by far to reach the Hall of Fame — he was taken by the Dodgers as the 1,390th pick in the 62nd round — and he will always be so, because there is no 62nd round anymore. (John Smoltz is the second lowest draft pick to reach the Hall of Fame, and he went as the 474th pick in the 22nd round.) And when the Dodgers took Piazza, they had no intention of signing him: It was just a favor for père Piazza, who was best friends with Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. And yet eventually he become the greatest power-hitting catcher in baseball history, a 12-time All-Star and 10-time Silver Slugger, posting a .308 career batting average.

And then the last thing that everyone knows about Mike Piazza is the home run he hit in the first baseball game played in New York City after 9/11. On September 21, 2001, the Mets took on the Braves, and with the Mets down 2-1 in the eighth inning, Piazza slammed a two-run homer over the center field fence. As sports writer Justin Birnbaum explains, “Mike Piazza will be forever remembered as the man who brought hope to New Yorkers at a time where there wasn’t much hope to be had.”

Neither that home run nor the Mets victory that day made the lives lost 10 days earlier any easier to take, and our country’s ultimate legacy of 9/11 is ugly: war, death, torture, drones, surveillance. But moments like these are the reason I love sports and believe in their transcendence. As I type I am sitting in my apartment in the city that is the global center of the COVID-19 pandemic. 80,000 Americans have died, with 1.33 million confirmed cases. Sports (along with many, many other things) are suspended, and my friends and I are counting the days of quarantine, of the Omer, and until sports resume. What will be, I wonder, that transcendent moment that gives hopes to all of us when there isn’t much hope to be had?

Mike Piazza was calm when threatened, persevered as an underdog, and came through when desperately needed. For all of this, we count Day 31 in honor of “humility that manifests as beauty.”

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