By Ernie Palladino
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When it comes right down to it, Mike Piazza’s election to the Hall of Fame Wednesday went beyond a victory for Mets fans or those who believe suspicions of PED usage do not equal hard evidence.
It was a victory for the underdogs, for if Piazza’s career stood for anything, it was about rising above the doubters.
He had plenty of them.
Piazza wasn’t supposed to happen in the first place, you see. It wasn’t just that he very nearly didn’t become a Met in that 1998 midstream trade with the Marlins, when Nelson Doubleday won that argument with Fred Wilpon. No, the doubts started before Piazza ever stepped on a professional diamond.
Most know the story. The Dodgers drafted him in 1988, not as a highly-touted prospect, but in the 62nd round as a shot-in-the-dark favor from Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s millionaire dad. A total of 1,389 names were called before the 19-year-old catcher’s.
This is not the usual scenario for a Hall of Famer. Indeed, he took a far different path from his Hall of Fame classmate Ken Griffey, Jr., who grew up around the professional game. Many were the days in the old Bronx ballpark when Junior could be seen playing catch with the pros as his father, Ken Griffey, prepared to do battle for Billy Martin’s Yankees. Martin, in fact, once shooed the kid away from the old man’s locker and out of the clubhouse after a particularly tough loss.
Martin might have been surprised to see that precocious 14-year-old grow into a Mariner and Red whose 630 homers made him the sixth greatest power hitter of all time. But he would have been absolutely floored that Piazza would go on to hit 427 of them as baseball’s greatest hitting catcher.
Sixty-second round draft picks just don’t do that. Most of those guys hang out in the low minors for a couple of years and then become gym teachers.
Not Piazza. He worked his way up and started knocking down the Dodger Stadium fences in 1993, his first full year in the majors.
He already had 177 homers when the Dodgers shipped him and another future Met in Todd Zeile to the Marlins for five players on May 14, 1998. He became a Met just eight days later. But that was only because Doubleday, convinced that this powerful entity might actually benefit a lineup that already had a serviceable catcher in Todd Hundley, unilaterally overrode partner Wilpon’s veto.
Doubleday put the exclamation point on it by locking up the impending free agent for a franchise-record $91 million over seven years.
Even a decade before the Bernie Madoff scandal wrecked the Mets’ financial structure, Wilpon undoubtedly choked a little at that one.
The lowly draft pick continued hitting, continued leading. He helped take Mets fans on a wonderful pennant ride in 2000. But it wasn’t until the next year that he hit his signature home run, the one that epitomized a downtrodden city’s resiliency.
In the town’s first professional game 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Piazza faced Braves reliever Steve Karsay in the eighth inning, a runner on, the Mets down a run, and 41,000 New Yorkers desperately needing something to feel good about.
With one epic swat — that perfect home run swing — the kid the Dodgers drafted as a favor to Lasorda’s friend, gave them everything they needed. Well after the ball landed somewhere over the center field fence, after the Mets walked off with the thrilling comeback win, manager Bobby Valentine summed it up.
“For Mike to do what he did when his team needed him, his city needed him, and baseball and the country needed him…I mean, I don’t want to make it bigger than a game. But it was bigger than a game,” Valentine said.
Piazza lifted everybody who had ever been picked on or criticized as unworthy, or just plain beaten up that night.
He became a hero to the underdogs.
Eighty-three percent of the voting baseball writers returned the favor over the past month. They put aside the unfounded PED rumors and turned that 62nd round draft pick into a Hall of Famer.
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