By Jason Keidel
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Mike Piazza is more than a catcher, more than a home run hitter, and more than a newly-minted baseball immortal.READ MORE: Bodycam Video Shows Moments Before NYPD Lieutenant Was Shot In Ankle Apprehending Suspect In The Bronx
He doubles as a social experiment, a perfect emblem of the steroid era.
Not because he clearly took PEDs, but because we clearly can’t say he didn’t. He played much of his career in a forest of suspicion. Between his bulk, epic home runs, and bacne, Piazza’s resume was full of italics.
It’s hard to think of anyone who entered the Baseball Hall of Fame under a wider cloud of questions. He played right in the vortex of the baseball’s Wild West, and had the requisite, superhuman strength. Yet he was also clutch and class, never had a toxic entourage, media meltdown, or Page Six fodder. He was so understated in the testosterone-drenched world of pro sports, he actually felt compelled to hold a press conference to announce he wasn’t gay.
Though he was enshrined as a Met, this is way more than a New York City story. He made his bones as a Dodger, played in Miami for about five minutes, and then pretty much finished his bejeweled career in the Big Apple, a place fitting of his talent and colossal homers.
Piazza has been quite clever when discussing steroids. He says he never indulged, yet admits taking amphetamines and Andro, the drug Mark McGwire made famous and infamous. So Piazza concedes that he ingested things that were subsequently branded PEDs. Which makes him perfectly neutral. Indeed, Piazza has always seemed to play ball in that opaque space between fair and foul.
If forced to choose, we probably lean on the PED side. But with a dearth of direct proof, no witnesses, confessions, or dripping syringe, Piazza snuck under the limbo pole of enshrinement, on his fourth attempt, with 83 percent, just enough to get in, but far away from unanimity, a perfect microcosm of the public’s opinion of him.READ MORE: Several People Shot Outside Queens Laundromat, Police Investigating
Fittingly enough, Piazza was flanked by Ken Griffey, Jr. who garnered over 99 percent of the votes, the closest to a unanimous choice in MLB history. He is, if you will, the anti-Piazza. Griffey is the golden boy of that time, a beacon in the dim world of cheating.
We’ve always assumed Griffey played sans steroids because, well, of entirely circumstantial evidence (which is all we have on Piazza). Helping his case was the fact that he was always slender by the epoch’s bloated standards. He never ballooned into comic book contours, only to shrivel back to anorexic dimensions once the sport started testing in earnest. But is that proof he never did PEDs? Like everyone else, I’m pretty sure Griffey played the game clean. But how scientific is that?
Griffey was our closest iteration of The Natural. His hypnotic grace on the field was evident the moment he jogged onto a diamond. Like all the greats, he made it seem easy. His baseball tool belt was always full. It was just as enjoyable to bask in his swing or his smooth, outfield gait. He could chase down almost any fly ball and, if needed, leap up walls to snag homers. His dad played ball. He played ball. His dad played for the Reds. He played for the Reds. They even shared a dugout as players and peers. It’s tough not to root for the Griffeys, perhaps the closest thing MLB has to the Mannings.
Junior was always injured, which, in an odd way, helps. Folks who take PEDs tend to recover more quickly from the scars of summer. Griffey seemed to have his mail forwarded to the DL.
Unlike Griffey, Piazza was not a great fielder, often heaving hand grenades toward second base. But, with all due respect to Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench, Piazza was the best-hitting catcher in history.
There’s zero doubt his deeds should land him in the Hall of Fame. The elongated wait surely came because the voters couldn’t decide on his PED guilt or innocence. There is no player who straddles our conscience more than Piazza. We want to believe him and believe in him.
Is he naturally the greatest hitting catcher in history? Or was he a juiced-up behemoth who got his thunderous power from jamming a needle into his bulging buttocks? Is he the icon who hit the most important homer in Mets history or the vulgar capitalist who monetized it and thus profited from the worst day in American history?
Mike Piazza was a great ballplayer, a beloved Met, and a Hall of Famer. One thing he isn’t is simple. Nor are the myriad ways we view him.MORE NEWS: COVID In New York: Mask Mandates Not Being Re-Imposed Just Yet As Concern Grows Over Delta Variant
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel