Friday, July 22, 2016

Mike Piiiazza & The Night of September 21, 2001

I'm a lifelong Mets fan.  I spent my first forty six years of life on Long Island, New York before moving to Columbia, South Carolina in August 2012.  My family would join me in February, 2013.  But we have remained true to the Metropolitans.  Helps that the Mets South Atlantic League farm club, the Fireflies, are now in Columbia.

My allegiance to the orange and blue started in 1973 at the ripe old age of seven years old.  It's the first major league or minor league baseball game I ever went to, or certainly the first game I can ever remember.    That night, September 21, 1973, the Amazin Mets took on the Pittsburgh Pirates, known back then as The Lumber Company with Willie Stargell , Manny Sanguillen and Richie Zisk. Tom Seaver pitched a complete game that night. The Mets got three home runs from John Milner (who would eventually join the Pirates and be a part of their 1979 World Champion team), Wayne Garrett, and Rusty Staub to win the game 10-2 and take over first place from the Pirates.

I was hooked that night and became a huge Mets fan, especially of Tom Seaver.  Despite facing a legendary hitting team, Tom obviously had the stuff, but even more importantly, the will to shut them down.  I believe it's my admiration of Seaver that has always ingrained my philosophy that pitching and defense wins championships (and if you look at the '73 Mets, they were built on pitching with Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack and George Stone).

By the way, look at the box score in the link in the second paragraph and notice Seaver's ERA after the game was 1.88.  He'd finish the regular season with a 19-10 record and a 2.08 ERA.   The Amazin Mets would win the NL East that season with an 82-79 record and then upset the Big Red Machine, aka the Cincinnati Reds, to win the National League Pennant.   The Mets went up 3-2 in the World Series to the Oakland A's, only to lose the series in seven games.

It would be the last Mets playoff appearance for more than a decade until the '86 Mets won the World Series.  After the Mets made the playoffs again in 1988, winning the NL East and then losing to the eventual World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, the Mets were not relevant again for another decade.

So if you are a Mets fan of a certain age, you went through decade long droughts to see your team make the playoffs.  I went through two of them. One that lasted from the single digits of age through my sophomore year of college.  The next went from my first steady girlfriend (of course now ex) to three years into marriage with my wife. 

Year two of my marriage, 1998, is where Mike Piiiazza, as legendary Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy used to call him, came into Mets lore.   Piazza was traded by the Marlins to the Mets for Ed Yarnall and Preston Wilson.  Only a few days prior, Piazza had been traded by the Dodgers to the Marlins.  If you want to get Piazza's take on those few days, read my friend Jerry Beach's wonderful new blog, Floppy Disk Files for an interview he had with Piazza during that time. 

Piazza would help the Mets become relevant again, as the Mets made the playoffs in 1999, advancing to the NLCS, losing to the Braves in six games.  In 2000, Piazza led the Mets to the World Series, losing to the Yankees in five games.  Outside of two World Series games, I went to every playoff game at Shea Stadium those two years. 

After 2000, Piazza would spend five more years with the Mets, his last being in 2005.  Piazza would play two more years with the Padres and the Athletics.  He would eventually set the record for most home runs by a catcher and hit 427 career home runs with a lifetime batting average of .308.

But it was one game and that one game in particular where Piazza will always have a place in my heart.  

From August 1993 to August 2012, I worked for Hofstra Law School,  overseeing their technology department.   I got the opportunity to work with a lot of great faculty, staff, administration and students/now alums, many of which are my friends.   In 2001, I did a lot of work with the Hofstra Labor Law Journal, a terrific group of students, many of whom I became friends with.   The night of the journal dinner back in April 2001, as a way of saying thank you and knowing how big a Mets fan I was, the journal gave me two tickets to a Mets/Braves game. 

The date of the game was September 21, 2001...twenty eight years to the day that I first became a Mets fan.

It was also be more importantly, ten days after September 11.  

I remember September 11, 2001 all too well.  Hofstra Law School had our bi-annual Legal Ethics Conference going on up at the time up in Room 308, our Moot Courtroom.  I was making sure that the conference was being recorded properly and making sure any technology needed,including wireless access (yes we had wifi back in 2001) was working well.    It was my friend Frank Quatela, who I believe emailed me and said a plane hit the World Trade Center.  I figured it was a Cessna at first when I saw the email.  Then I went down to the second floor student lounge and saw everyone gathered around as footage was shown of the smoke/fire and the hole made by the first hijacked airliner in the first tower.   We all then saw the second tower being hit by the second hijacked airliner.

The world has not been the same since.

As you all now know, access to New York City was shutdown.  Airports, bridges etc. were closed.  Up in Room 308, the conference was still going on and if you remember, this was back when people didn't get notifications of breaking news.   I had to go up there and tell the director of the conference, Professor Roy Simon, what was going on.  He stopped the conference and made the announcement to the stunned audience.   After careful deliberation and knowing that all the out of town conference attendees had nowhere to go with all the bridges and airports closed, we went on with the conference.

I was fortunate in that no family members and friends I knew were killed or hurt in the attacks. But I knew others that did.  

New York showed a lot of heart during that time.  I remember the large numbers of fellow Hofstra staff, faculty and students in the Hofstra Arena to give blood a couple of days after 9/11.   I knew a couple of students who were first responders who went into the city to help.   New York was at the brunt of the terrorist attacks and people were hurting. 

That's why September 21, 2001 is so important not to just Mets' fans, but to the people of New York as well.  It was the first public sports event to take place in New York since 9/11.

I remember Chelle and I getting to the game as early as we could.   But it was the first night of security measures and the lines were incredibly long.  By the time we finally got to our seats, the game was about to start.   

If you remember the Mets in 2001, they were a shell of the team of the previous two seasons.  They were actually thirteen games below .500 on July 13, 38-51, thirteen games back of the Braves.  Yet they had started making a run, going 36-22 during that span to get to within five games of the Braves at 74-73 the night of September 21, 2001.  

There was a feeling of anxiousness in the crowd.  At Shea Stadium,  there were police snipers on the roof, police everywhere. Heavy security and rightfully so, given what had happened.    The crowd was looking for anything to believe in.  The Braves had just taken a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth thanks to Brian Jordan's RBI double off Armando Benitez,    

Piazza came up in the bottom of the eighth with one out and Desi Relaford, pinch running for Edgardo Alfonzo, a terrific player but bereft of speed, on first base.    When Piazza belted that ball off the second level of the camera tower in center field, the crowd roared and the stadium rocked, even more than it did the year before when the Mets beat the Cards at Shea to win the NLCS.  I had been there that night as well when the fans jumped up and down as much as Timo Perez did before he caught that ball.

But as special as that night in October of 2000 was, this moment was even more special.  It had been as if the entire city of New York had let out this one huge roar, this was one true moment of jubiliation that was so sorely needed.    As Howie Rose so eloquently noted "What have the last 10 days been like for those guys? They lost friends, colleagues, God forbid other family members. And now they look like this. Baseball did that for them.  Mike did that for them."

The Mets would win the game 3-2 and win the next night to get within 3 1/2 games before Benitez melted that Sunday afternoon, giving up three runs and the Mets lost and never really got any closer, finishing third in the NL East. 

But that fateful September 21 evening, Piazza's home run gave many hope.  For me, it was another night of true amazement, eighteen years to the day of my first one.  This was more special though.  The stakes were much, much bigger than a National League Pennant.  It was a time for much need healing and Piazza delivered that.

This weekend Mike Piazza finally and rightfully enters the Hall of Fame.  As a Met.  Just like Seaver. Two players who share a common bond with me, exactly twenty eight years apart.

Congrats Mike and thank you.