The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!
Russ Hodges’ broadcast of Bobby Thomson’s home run is the most famous call in Major League Baseball’s long history. On August 11, 1951, the Dodgers held an insurmountable 13 game lead over their arch enemies. Down the stretch Brooklyn played well, 26-22. The Giants, however, were a team possessed. They went 37-7 and New York’s 2 NL teams ended the season tied, 96-58. A three-game playoff was held to determine who would oppose the AL in the Fall Classic.
The first two games were split. But then in the deciding game, Thomson’s 3-run homer in the bottom of the ninth gave the Giants the win, the pennant and the birth to that iconic phrase shouted by Hodges.
Baseball historians refer to the Thomson blast as ‘The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.’
The world? A bit of an exaggeration really. It was a decisive home run to settle a pennant race between two teams whose stadiums were only 15 miles away from each other. The World???
Almost 50 years to the day, there would be a home run hit in New York, a home run that truly would be a shot heard ‘round the world. It would occur in a stadium not yet even built, by a team not yet even in existence, off the bat of a player not yet even born.
Michael Joseph Piazza was born to Vince and Veronica in Norristown, PA on Sept 4, 1968, the second oldest of five boys. Vince had dreamed of making the majors but dropped out of school at age 16 to help support his family. Vince’s childhood friend, Tommy Lasorda, became Dodgers manager and Mike’s Godfather. When LA played in Philadelphia, young Mike frequently served as bat-boy. Vince also asked his friend Ted Williams to work with his son. Williams praised the young man’s talents and advised him, ‘Don’t ever let anyone change your swing.’ Growing up in the cold harsh winters of the northeast, Mike could be found clearing snow in the backyard so his father could pitch to him. Winters be damned.
In 1988, Lasorda’s Godson was drafted number 1,390 overall. He convinced Piazza to forego his position, first base, and learn to catch, claiming catchers were always in higher demand. On Sept.1, 1992, 23-year old Mike Piazza made his major league debut. And doubled in his first official at-bat.
Piazza not only became one of the best hitting catchers in the game, but additionally one of the games’ best righthanded hitters. Period. In 1993, he hit .318 with 35 home runs and 112 RBIs and won the NL Rookie of the Year award. There was no sophomore slump for the young kid and the following season he would bat .319. In five years with Los Angeles, Piazza clobbered 168 HR’s, averaged .336, knocked in 526 RB’s and slugged at a .582 clip.
There are good players, great players, and very great players. And then there are players who simply instill fear in their opponent. For my grandfather, a young man and Brooklyn fan in the 1920’s, it was the likes of Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch. For my father, there was nothing more frightening than Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra bringing their big bats to little Ebbets Field every October. For me, in the 1970’s, I was fearful every time Willie Stargell windmilled his bat and Joe Morgan cocked his back arm, something my friends and I mimicked in schoolyards and makeshift baseball fields in Queens. By the 90’s, names like Bonds, Griffey Jr, Gwynn and Piazza could be added to the list. But now, for the first time ever, one of these players would be on my team.
Mike Piazza arrived in New York on May 22, 1998 in exchange for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, Geoff Goetz and Nick Daly. He would hit .348 the rest of that season while going deep 23 times and knocking in 78 RBIs. The Mets played .542 baseball after his arrival, missing the wildcard by just a game and a half.
With Piazza behind the plate for the entire ‘99 campaign, the Mets returned to the post-season for the first time in more than a decade. In 2000, they did it again, capturing the NL pennant. For the one and only time in our history, the Amazins were in the playoffs two consecutive years. This, in and of itself, is a true testament to the value and importance of Mike Piazza. One player can—and did—make a difference.
In the 70’s, the Mets had the most formidable trio of starters in the league. Yet, we never made the post-season two straight years. We had a ‘dynasty’ in the 80’s, but failed to play into consecutive Octobers. And let’s admit it; the 98-00 Mets did not even come close to possessing the talent of previous successful clubs. Al Leiter was good…but he was no Seaver. Timo Perez? Not a bad lead-off hitter, but Lenny Dykstra he wasn’t. We liked Benny Agbayani, but we loved Darryl Strawberry. The difference: Mike Piazza.
During the 2000 NLCS, as the Mets handily defeated STL in 5, Mets coach John Stearns was caught on camera screaming defiantly, “The monster is out of the cage! The monster is out of the cage!” in response to Piazza getting a big hit.
Over eight seasons in New York, Piazza established himself as one of the premier hitters to wear the blue and orange. He stands at or near the top of every offensive category. His slugging percentage of .542 is highest ever. His 655 RBIs rank third, 220 HR (3rd), .296 BA (4th), .373 OBP (5th), 193 doubles (7th), 1028 hits (8th), 532 runs (10th).
Loved by fans and feared by opposing pitchers, his stint in Flushing is best remembered for two events.
In 2000, Mike was the recipient of a Roger Clemens fastball to the head. Shattered helmet. Concussion. A missed All-Star Game. In October, the Piazza-led Mets were in the World Series for the first time since 1986. When these two men faced each other, Piazza broke his bat. The sheared off edge landed close to the mound. As Piazza trotted to first base, Clemens angrily scooped up the broken piece of wood and tossed the weapon at Mike. Piazza shouted to Clemens. Clemens shouted back. The two men approached each other. Both benches emptied and although there were no punches thrown, the Mets-Yankees rivalry nearly became an all-out brawl.
Clemens claimed he thought the bat was the ball and was simply tossing the ‘ball’ out of play. After 17 years in the majors and tossing 3,600+ innings, one would think Clemens would know the difference between a baseball and a bat…but that’s another story.
As inconceivable as Clemens actions were, 11 months later something even more unimaginable transpired.
Like our grandparents on December 7, 1941 and like our parents on November 22, 1963, it was now our generation that lost its innocence. This wasn’t a navy base 3000 miles off the coast of California in a place called Pearl Harbor. This didn’t occur on a grassy knoll in Dallas. This happened in our city, to our home. This wasn’t an attack on the military, nor was it centered around one man who happened to be President. This was an attack on fellow Americans. Citizens. Regular people like you and me. Americans who kissed their spouse, said good-bye to their children and went to work downtown like it was any other Tuesday. This time the weapon was not a Japanese Zero or a cheap Carcano Rifle. This time the destruction came from hijacked commercial airlines.
On one beautiful weekday morning, everything we knew changed. Forever. The nation we grew up in would, from this day forward, be unlike the nation our children would grow up in. The US constitution would be bent, our way of life altered eternally. We found ourselves giving up freedoms and privacy so we could continue to maintain our freedom and privacy. President Bush urged a weary and panicked nation to go on. Failure to do so would mean the terrorists won. But how?
Did anyone really give a damn about Barry Bonds’ pursuit of a silly home run record? In the overall scheme of things did it really matter if best friends Ross and Rachel got together? Regis asking contestants, “Would you like to use a lifeline?’ seemed trivial.
We were advised to return to our lives as if nothing happened. Impossible. Even the national pastime had come to a halt. For a while…
But on September 21, 2011, the game we cherished, was back. It was the first post- 9/11 sporting event to take place in grief-stricken New York. A late September contest against the Braves should’ve garnered undivided attention and exuberant chants of “Lets Go Mets.” But it didn’t.
Fans at Shea kept one cautious eye on the field and one wary eye to the sky as planes landed at nearby LaGuardia. A few miles west powerful lights representing where the Towers once stood shone a pristine white glow toward Heaven.
When Mike sent a Steve Karsay offering over the wall to left-center in the bottom of the 8th, it gave the Mets a 3-2 lead and ultimately the win. It moved us within 4 ½ of the first place Braves. But it was more than just that, much more.
It was the first step on a long road back. We could begin healing. We could, albeit slowly, return to living our lives once again.
The world? If there truly was a Shot Heard ‘Round the World, it occurred in 2001, not 1951. Thomson’s homer brought hope to a team’s fans. Piazza’s home run brought hope to an entire city. And returned a sense of normalcy to a frightened nation that now stared into the abyss of an uncertain future.
The location of Thomson’s HR was long ago replaced by apartment buildings. The stadium where Piazza hit that significant blast no longer stands, a parking lot now in its place. Two towers have been replaced by one.
The Polo Grounds, Shea Stadium and the Twin Towers have been forever erased from the landscape. However, they, like Piazza’s stint in New York, continue to live on in our hearts, our minds and our collective memory.
We ask you to leave your best memories and most heartfelt recollections of Mike Piazza in our comment threads s we cross our fingers and hope for some great news by way of Cooperstown, New York on Wednesday, January 8th.