One simple phrase stood over the doorway as I entered one area of the Hall of Fame: “Entrance to Sacred Ground”.
Welcome to the Hall of Fame. It’s not where legends are made. They’re made out on the field with each pitch, with each swing of the bat, with each epic catch that gets talked about for decades. It’s not where they are just acknowledged. It’s where they are presented to the world of baseball as the elite baseball had to offer the fans. It’s where America’s pastime is shared with generations to come.
Two of Major League Baseball’s greatest were inducted into this exclusive club this past weekend. Plaques with their faces and highlights of their careers now hang with the baseball gods like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and so many others. Every crash against a wall to make a catch, every home run hit and every take out slide at the plate was worth it to get onto this the most “sacred ground”.
Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Piazza are among the players who will forever be called the greatest and most inspiring baseball had to offer. These two players are so different, yet so much alike. They each worked hard and came from hard working families from the state of Pennsylvania. One player was the number one draft pick and the other was drafted so low it was a miracle he even made it to the big leagues.
Since this is primarily a Mets blog, give me a moment to talk to about the greatest catcher to have ever played the game.
Mike Piazza wasn’t your ordinary catcher. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers at the bottom. Almost like an afterthought. Maybe something like, “Well there isn’t anymore options. So why not?” type of draft choice. We all know the story. Who knows what would have become of the catcher if Tommy LaSorda had not been around.
He worked his way through the minors and hit the majors with the Dodgers. He became a stud. Then he was traded to the Florida Marlins because of a contract dispute.
From there he would go to ew York. Flushing, New York. Not the Bronx. Piazza was sent to a franchise that was dying and may as well have never existed. It seemed nobody cared about the blue collar team anymore. Attendance was down. Fans were angry and frustrated. Management and ownership seemed to be in disarray. There seemed to be no hope in sight until the Italian slugger came.
Piazza was already established as a great player, but he hit superstar status with the New York Mets. He single handedly made the Mets relevant, formidable and appear ready for a battle for New York and the National League East. The Mets fought the Atlanta Braves for a couple of years. In 2000, the battle for New York City began when both the Mets and the New York Yankees made it to the World Series.
We know the story. We know the results.
Fast forward to a year later. An event that would no longer allow Piazza to just be a catcher for the New York Mets. It was the worst thing New York City would ever experience. It was a nightmare for the country. It was an event that brought the world together. September 11, 2001. It was the day the world stood still and cried together. Lives lost. Families torn apart.
At a roundtable discussion in Cooperstown, Piazza said:
“The one thing they said to us was ‘Look guys we’re not going to play for awhile. You don’t have to do anything. You can go home. Obviously we’ll have you workout, stay in shape. Eventually we’re going to get back, but we don’t know when. And it was almost like we all looked at each other like ‘what do you mean we’re not going to do anything? What can we do?’ It was so genuinely sincere from the guys, helping. And obviously Shea, at that time, was a staging area.”
“Baseball has so much, it’s just a way for people to heal and come together. So much in our society, what we equate to…it took on much more of a significance after 9/11…We should definitely never forget that sacrifice.”
September 21, 2001 will always be a topic when discussing Piazza’s career. On that day, baseball resumed after the events of 9/11. Fans gathered at Shea Stadium. Some say they went as an escape from everything happening around them. This was the day a Mets catcher was no longer playing for just New York. He was playing for the United States of America. With one swing of his bat, the mighty Piazza began to heal a nation in mourning.
So here I was on Saturday night, July 23rd, 2016 in the presence of Mike Piazza at a party the New York Mets had thrown for him. I stood there in awe of the man who few believed would go anywhere after being drafted at the bottom of the draft totem pole. Here I was looking up at the man, who was no longer just a man, but a legend and all I could say was “thank you”. Thank you for all that you did for the New York Mets, their fans and for this country.
On Sunday, induction day, I sat with two wonderful ladies, Donna and Suzanne, just one section behind the families of the inductees. I could see Alicia Piazza
from where I sat. When Mike Piazza walked to the podium to give his speech, there are no words to describe what I felt. Proud? Yes. In awe? Definitely! Admiration? Without a doubt.
I wanted to record his speech for posterity on my phone not thinking, “Hey it may just be on YouTube at some point”. So I knelt on the grass in my royal blue dress. I do not recommend doing this for anyone who is giving a half hour speech.
Mighty Piazza stood there, humbled and almost bewildered that he was sharing the stage with legends as he himself was becoming a legend in that moment. Through sniffles he said:
“The only way I ever thought that I would be here with you, is if I bought a ticket.”
The catcher continued to thank those who helped his career move forward. When it came time to thank the fans, I knelt there thinking, “Why is he thanking us? What did we do for him? What he gave us was so much more than we could ever give him.”
I began to think about what Piazza gave me, personally. Watching him play in the hardest city in the world of sports, inspired me. It did not matter what was done to him or said about him, he came to the ballpark and gave fans everything that he had. He never gave up. He hardly ever, if ever, had a bad word to say (unless of course you talk about he-who-shall-not-be-named). It was just him, his bat, his glove, the love of the game and the fans.
The lessons I learned from him were many. Never give up. Work hard for what you want. Sure you could learn this from almost any athlete. But with Piazza it was different. He took his lumps, learned from them and pressed on.
During his speech, he paused, took a deep breath and looked at his dad, the man who helped make him the player he was and the man he is today. He credited Vince Piazza for his induction into the Hall of Fame. As Piazza says, his father believed in him when he himself did not have enough faith. Tears came down his father’s face as Piazza thanked him and praised him for his sacrifices.
I knelt on the ground picturing a little Piazza with a bat to fit his size. His father is standing with him. With his own dreams of playing baseball in America, this father shows his son how to hit a ball. Little Mike would make both the dreams of his father and his own come true. As he stood there thanking his father, I saw a little Mike telling his dad:
“We made it dad. The race is over. Now it’s time to smell the roses.“
Through sobs Vince Piazza raised a fist to the air. It was his way of saying, “Yes we did son. I’m proud of you”.
Just one more lesson. Love and appreciate your family.
Often times we as fans are hard on players. We think that because they make millions, they have it easy. What we fail to think about it, is what it took to get to where they are. The hard work that was put in. The sacrifices their families made for them. The sacrifices the players make to be away from their families to make their dreams a reality.
During the roundtable discussion, Piazza talked about complaining to LaSorda about the food being bad and the water being cold in the minors. LaSorda’s response was:
“‘Great. I want it to be terrible. The food is great in the big leagues.'”
“‘Great. I told them to turn the hot water off. There’s hot water in the big league stadiums.'”
Both Griffey and Piazza spoke about having a great support system. Family, friends and coaches are all there to help you along as you strive for your dreams.
Maybe that is the greatest lesson of all. As I walked through the Hall of Fame, I didn’t just see legends with plaques on the walls or memorabilia in cases. I saw mere mortals who had a dream to play a game they loved. I saw sacrifices that were made. Times taken away from being with their parents. Times taken away from being with their children. I saw men who made history. I saw men who paved the way for others like them to be able to play a game with a stick and a ball.
I stood on the most sacred ground of baseball and thought, “Dreams do come true“.
This weekend I was not just proud to be a fan of the New York Mets. I was not just proud to write about the team. I was proud of a man from Pennsylvania who was drafted at the bottom as little David and grew up to be a King among all catchers in the history of the game of baseball. It was a privilege and an honor to be a part of history as Mike Piazza became only the second New York Met to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.