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Piazza's post-9/11 shot became iconic

Piazza's post-9/11 shot became iconic

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NEW YORK -- The home runs Mike Piazza hit at Shea Stadium were many, and most of them traveled great distances. Some were parabolic, others resembled a clothes line pulled taught. Few were cheap. Some pelted the scoreboard, endangered television cameras, foul poles and spectators alike. Some dented the bleachers, ricocheted off brick or a distant girder. At least one landed atop a tent that appeared to be in a different time zone. Some were academic, a few were pedestrian, others quite dramatic, or decisive or, better yet, memorable.

One was iconic.

And therapeutic and, perhaps more than any of the other 96 home runs Piazza hit at Shea during his tenure as a Met, symbolic.

It had genuine baseball impact, providing runs that were the difference between a one-run defeat and a one-run victory in a game that the Mets hoped would have far-reaching pennant race implications. It did not. The home run did have long and sturdy legs though. Some seven years after it splashed down, the ripples it created remain conspicuous. It still stands among the most memorable hit at Shea, perhaps the most memorable. Others, struck by Al Weis, Lenny Dykstra, Darryl Strawberry, Ray Knight, Todd Pratt and Piazza himself, did more to fuel Mets success.

This one, the one Piazza crushed on Sept. 21, 2001, accomplished more in a greater, more significant arena.

The country had been assaulted 10 days earlier, rocked to its constitutional foundation. The world had changed on 9/11. Braves at Mets, staged 10 days later, was an early step in recovery and toward accepting our altered reality. It was the first professional sporting event in the five boroughs after the attacks that pierced the city's sense of safety. And the home run by the Mets catcher and most political member was the keynote address of the evening.

Farewell Shea Stadium

In its own way, the home run was as powerful as the "God Bless America" evening. The Mets were a long shot before the evening began. Piazza's long shot made them less of one. But its greater effect was as a release.

The public had dared to gather again en mass -- 41,235 people paid the price of admission, 7,000 of them purchased their tickets that day.

A Braves victory, a common element in Mets seasons in those days, probably wouldn't have spoiled the evening. But Piazza made the evening an indelible entry in the memories of any who witnessed it.

The evening was like no other at Shea -- a catharsis in every way -- well before he swung at a 1-2 fastball delivered by reliever Steve Karsay. His formidable power launched a fly ball that caromed off an elevated television camera beyond the outfield wall just left of center.

"I'm so happy I gave these people something to cheer," Piazza said. "So proud to be part of it."

"It was like Casey coming to the plate. It's one of those moments everybody on the bench thinks it's going to happen," teammate Todd Zeile said.

Piazza made many memories in his time with the Mets -- May 23, 1998 through the 2005 season, most of them with his bat. He drove in at least one run in 15 consecutive games in 2000, the longest streak in the big leagues since 1922. A year earlier, he had established a franchise record for single-season RBIs, 124. Though he played in merely eight seasons with the Mets and ranks ninth in at-bats in their history, he hit the second-most home runs -- 220. Only Darryl Strawberry (252) has hit more.

The home run Piazza hit at Shea on May 5, 2004 was the 352nd he had hit as a catcher and made him the No. 1 slugger at his position. By the time he retired after last season, he had hit 394 as a catcher and 427 in his career.

The numbers he has produced, the power that produced the numbers and his often heroic hitting earned Piazza a characterization that almost has become an official part of his baseball identity -- the greatest hitting catcher of all time. When his retirement became official in May, former teammates and adversaries used the phrase matter of factly and raved about their personal experiences with Piazza.

"But you knew when he was in the park," Billy Wagner said. "You could hear him take BP. There are about six or seven guys in my time you could hear the difference when they stepped into the cage -- Mike, [Gary] Sheffield, Mo [Moises Alou], Big Mac [Mark McGwire], [Barry] Bonds."

"If you made a mistake to Mike Piazza," Curt Schilling said, "it wasn't like a mistake to anyone else ... it was like committing suicide right on the mound."

His adversaries and colleagues often were in awe of him. Witness the words of John Stearns, a Mets coach in 2000. A television microphone picked up Stearns' comment after a typically scorched hit by Piazza during the NLCS: "The monster is out of the cage."

"He's a tank and the rest of us are pea-shooters," Lenny Harris once said. "That thing they say about 'You can only hope to contain him' ... that had to start with Piazza. You can't stop him, you know that. He's done some things, hit some balls you have to see to believe and even then you don't believe them."

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

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