May 11, 2003
The woman in the wheelchair had been waiting since May 22, 1998, for
her favorite 10-and-5 man-to-be to walk into her life.
"Wrote to everyone for five years," said Sue Stefano, a 34-year-old fan who held in her quivering hands irrefutable evidence that she was the luckiest multiple sclerosis victim in the house.
Her Mike Piazza jersey had been signed by the one and only. Ever since that charmed day the superstar was traded from the Marlins to the Mets, Stefano had written Mets officials in request of this one Kodak moment behind the Shea Stadium plate.
Finally, straight out of Saturday's batting practice, Piazza beamed as he took a knee next to Stefano and invited her into his rich and famous world. Someone took a photo. The exchange lasted for two minutes, and Stefano would've settled for one. Mike Piazza had spoken to her and she was too overwhelmed to remember a single word he said.
Stefano had her memory to take back to her work with the Valley Association for Retarded Children and Adults in Derby, Conn.
Piazza? He had another reminder that life as a prospective first baseman on a losing team can only be so bad.
"I have strong faith," Piazza said in a private moment, "and I think meetings like those are God's way of reminding me that no matter how frustrating my situation can be, you should be happy if you have your health and a roof over your head. When I was traded twice in one week and feeling sorry for myself, I met a kid in San Francisco who was going to die of brain cancer in two weeks. You can't take for granted how fortunate you are."
Piazza had just delivered the winning two-run homer in the 10th off the Padres' Jaret Wright. At the end of a week even Art Howe called "bizarre," a week that saw the catcher endure a health scare and a botched disclosure of an unwanted future assignment, Piazza said he couldn't feel the bases — "just running on air." — as he headed for a delirious mob of teammates at the plate.
He had dropped his bat and stared at those very teammates the second Wright's fastball began its triumphant flight. "I did that once before when I hit the ball and knew it was gone," Piazza said.
"It's good to see the dugout, just the feeling of relief and elation. I like that scene. Everyone's just like, 'Thank God. We can get out of here.'"
The Mets could breathe because Piazza is everything to everyone around this sorry excuse for a $122 million team. So don't confuse the notion of trading him with Piazza's old shampoo ad; the Mets can't just wash him out of their hair. If Piazza isn't the most popular player in franchise history, he's right there with Seaver and McGraw, Darryl and Doc.
"Mike Piazza put us on the map when he got here," said Jim Duquette, senior assistant GM.
"When you see ESPN promoting the Mets for Sunday Night Baseball, it's Mike Piazza's Mets. He made us a legitimate team, and still does."
Trade now out of his hands
At 15-21, the Mets aren't a legitimate team. That doesn't mean they should rush to trade Piazza before he buys himself a first baseman's glove or secures his 10-and-5 rights in 11 days, an artificial deadline if there ever was one.
"I let the people who make those decisions make those decisions," Piazza said, "and obviously when the time comes they'll let me know about them....If they want to do something, I've got to react at that point."
Yes, Piazza will seize the power to veto deals on May 22, when he'll hit the collectively-bargained daily double that is 10 years of big-league service and five with one team. But the Mets should wait before they attempt to trade Piazza for these half dozen reasons:
1). Steve Phillips and Roberto Alomar have to go first.
2). Piazza isn't the type to stay where he isn't wanted, and Fred Wilpon isn't the type to send Piazza somewhere he doesn't want to go. The only teams that would consider absorbing an eight-figure wage are teams with a serious chance to win. Knowing he's only got three or so prime years left, Piazza would likely waive his veto rights and accept a move to a contender rather than gamble that the Mets can somehow return to the World Series.
3). In pursuit of Piazza, teams will give up more in July than they will now.
4). How can a franchise possibly sell the hope of a brand new day in early April and then surrender by the third week in May?
5). How can a franchise possibly convince Tom Glavine to leave the Braves for a four-year commitment to that brand new day, then make him feel like a sucker less than two months into his first season?
6). Count the Piazza jerseys in the stands. Remove them from Shea, and the place would be emptier than a Rey Sanchez denial.
"We had a lot of losing years before Mike got here," Duquette said. "It would be hard to imagine him not in this organization."
Asked if Mets officials have discussed the possibility of dealing Piazza, Duquette said: "No, it's not something we've considered."
It's happened before
If the Mets can trade Tom Seaver, they can trade Mike Piazza. Heck, if the Dodgers can trade Mike Piazza, the Mets can, too.
"I just go day to day; I really can't stress that enough," Piazza said. "I just have a general acceptance that you make a commitment here and you stick it out as long as you can. I've been through change in my career, and change is part of baseball....I'm not above any player in that regard."
The divorce would be most painful. Piazza might've detested New York on arrival in '98, but he ultimately embraced the city as home. He moved downtown. He led the Mets to the Subway Series. He comforted 9/11 survivors.
He became the first-class face of New York's second-class baseball citizens.
There was turbulence along the way. Should he have attacked Roger Clemens? Should he have held that press briefing to declare his sexuality?
Should he have been more willing to try first base, if only to spare his employers the embarrassment of bungling the announced move the way everyone figured they would?
"The frustrating thing for me," Piazza said, "is a lot of the stuff isn't self-inflicted. I didn't really do anything. I'm just trying to go out and do my job."
His job is to hit game-winning home runs, not to break Carlton Fisk's record for home runs as a catcher. But Piazza can still do both for the Mets.
"Mike's always been about what's good for the organization," Duquette said.
What's good for the organization now is another two months of patience.
The Mets should try to get into wild-card contention before the franchise asks the franchise player to accept a deal to a contender with a taste for champagne.
Piazza has never won a world championship, and he'll be 35 in September. If Saturday's homer isn't the start of something beautiful, bet a full World Series share that he'd be willing to kiss the Mets goodbye.
Ian O'Connor also writes for The (Westchester County, N.Y.) Journal News
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