Finale a day to remember for Piazza

Season finale a day to remember for Piazza

NEW YORK -- The end of Mike Piazza's time with the Mets had no real elements of surprise to it. Long before the first bead of sweat appeared on the catcher's mask in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in February, Piazza knew what likely was his final run with the Mets was approaching.

When the end arrived Sunday, it may have looked like a surprise to the untrained eye. The Mets hadn't promoted it as anything other than Fan Appreciation Day -- come to Shea Stadium and get a woolen winter hat. In the end, though, those who came turned it into Piazza Appreciation Day, an afternoon, unique in the club's 44-year history, in which Shea tipped its woolen hat and others to one of its elite performers.

In the seventh inning of an otherwise forgettable 11-3 loss to the Rockies, the Mets put it on pause and then applause, saluting the player who has been the team's most prominent, dynamic and productive player for nearly eight seasons. With a planned video tribute and a warm, spontaneous response from 47,718 patrons, the Mets performed a different kind of seventh-inning stretch.

"To stop a game for 15 minutes in the seventh inning, you've gotta be a bad man," Mike Cameron said. "And Michael Piazza is bad man. He's been so good."

"I thought it was tremendous," manager Willie Randolph said. "It was nice to see that outpouring of affection and love for a player who's meant a lot to the city in general. Mike Piazza's a Hall of Famer, and he's a player who's succeeded in New York in a lot of ways."

The crowd -- larger than anyone could have imagined for a 162nd game for teams not bound for the postseason -- embraced Piazza one last time with a degree of affection that exceeded what he had expected. He had been called from the home dugout dozens of times since May 22, 1998 -- his first game with the Mets. But those curtain calls were prompted by something he had done -- almost always a home run. When he was called from the dugout Sunday afternoon, he had done next to nothing -- three ground balls to the shortstop and seven innings of receiving.

"I was hoping for something better," he said.

They hadn't come to cheer his deeds, though a home run would have been appropriate. They came to celebrate him. Piazza recognized the distinction. It made his eyes moist and caused him to sniff.

"I'm pretty sure he lost it, or almost lost it a few times when he was out there," Cliff Floyd said.

And it prompted Piazza to bow. He couldn't recall the last time he had.

"They love him here. They love guys who dominate in this city," Floyd said. "So they really appreciate his greatness. You always knew that. But this was something more. This is a tough place to play. And he's played great for them. They're on his side now till the day he dies."

And that's how it felt for a 37-year-old catcher who doesn't know where his next deal is coming from.

"Overwhelming," Piazza said. "An amazing day for me."

Then he clicked on his mental thesaurus and mentioned several more adjectives -- special, flattering, neat, rewarding, emotional. And when he was done describing it, he called it indescribable.

He took his position for the eighth inning, but Randolph had Mike DiFelice replace him after a few warmup pitches. Piazza couldn't have played.

"My tank was on empty," he said.

Other adjectives -- undetermined, undecided and unsigned also came into play on this day. The door to Shea Stadium remains open, the Mets say. And Piazza never said flatly he won't be back. Neither he nor the Mets anticipate the other party walking through it, though.

"You mean we're not going to do this again next year?" Cameron asked facetiously.

The Mets have to get younger. And Piazza said he is "kinda looking forward to becoming a role player." The club's need and his desire don't match up. This was a final farewell, one that Shea Stadium had never seen -- not for a player of Piazza's magnitude, certainly.

The departure of Tom Seaver in 1977 was an act of exile. When Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter played their last game as Mets in 1989, the team was on the road. Darryl Strawberry left in a huff after the 1990 season. And Dwight Gooden was under suspension when the strike ended his time with the club.

Each left with no semblance of celebration.

Piazza left with no semblance of regret or rancor, he left with respect. His colleagues were proud to have played with him.

"You gave a whole lot of footage," Gerald Williams told him.

"To play with a Hall of Famer your first years in the big leagues ..." David Wright said. And he didn't have to complete the thought.

Not all Piazza's days with the Mets qualified as the best of times. He wanted to get to the postseason and the World Series. The Mets reached the postseason in successive seasons -- 1999 and 2000 -- for the only time in their history with him as their most formidable force. But in neither year did they win their last game. Piazza wasn't complaining. He knew he was the primary reason the club enjoyed some best-of's in those seasons. He always knew his place, his role and his importance.

Regret might have come if he had simply retired. He spoke with his friend and former teammate, Eric Karros, about it.

"He told me, 'If you're not a thousand percent sure, don't quit,'" Piazza said, adding that he'll be "all ears" when another club approaches him.

For now, he plans to do some European touring with his wife ("When you hit home runs, you get the babe," he said in his only piece of immodesty.) His agent will handle the listening.

His Hall of Fame resume all but complete, Piazza said, "What's left is just the icing."

For nearly eight seasons, he had his cake.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.