I have personally covered every Subway Series game since the inception of the Mets and Yankees squaring off for real in 1997. That first game was special for Met fans as Dave Mlicki spun a complete game shutout with Met fans cheering up a storm in the Bronx.
But the Mike Piazza/ Roger Clemens subplot remains the signature theme of this series. These were 2 players who could not have been more different. From the moment I met Mike Piazza, he was so respectful of the needs of the media and every year in spring training I would have great chats with him about a variety of things including our mutual love for the country, baseball, and Jesus Christ–not necessarily in that order.
Meanwhile, Clemens was distant and often not accessible to the media and more than that he tried to intimidate people who did not blindly agree with him. One day at Yankee Stadium, I asked him about how Piazza seemed to dominate him time and time again. He stared in my direction trying to intimidate me and I just stared right back at him like I would any bully in the park growing up in the Bronx. And the same result–he looked away.
Even the way they negotiated contracts were like night and day. Piazza made it clear to the Mets after the ’98 season that he would sign and NOT test free agent waters if they met his price. And he was a man of his word. Meanwhile, Clemens squeezed every penny out of the Yankees–often times getting a full season of pay only pitching for half a season.
Time and time again, Piazza hit Clemens hard and as these at bats became commonplace, Clemens became more and more agitated. And then it happened. Clemens threw at Piazza’s head and sitting in press box I said, “What a punk–He ran out of ideas on how to get him out.” Reporters who covered the Yankees turned around and try to scold me but I was furious. Those of you who know me know I am usually pretty reserved but this was a horrific act by Clemens.
The post game press conference began with Bobby Valentine taking the podium and he did not hold back. After the presser, I ran into Bobby V in the hallway and I asked him,”Do you think he threw at Piazza on purpose?” Valentine told me that I was a good reporter so what did I think? I said, “All I know is Piazza stands far from the plate and that is a pitcher with great control who ran out of ways to get him out.” The Met manager nodded his head and said, “As usual Rich you got it right.”
The days following the beaning of Piazza brought out the worst in the Yankee organization as even Don Zimmer criticized Piazza for not getting out the way of the pitch. I would think Zimmer of all people would understand as he was the victim of a baseball hitting his head and had serious damage to his brain that required surgery.
Of course the teams would meet in the 2000 World Series and Clemens did the unthinkable-he threw a sawed off bat towards Piazza and was not thrown out of the game. In fact, Joe Torre in the post-game presser kept asking us all “Why would he do it?” Until many of us shouted at Torre–that is what we are trying to figure out Joe-why did he do it?
Years later the Yankees finally pitched Clemens in a game at Shea Stadium forcing him to bat and the Mets botched the chance to throw at him. But Piazza homered off Clemens ONCE AGAIN that day running around the bases like it was a normal home run.
I covered Mike Piazza from his first day as a Met until his final day as a Met and likely have seen more of his games than any current Met beat reporter. And he was class all the way. I think a big reason for that was he had to fight to get to the big leagues and knew the journey could only be achieved with the help of others.
Roger Clemens gave the word I a new definition–it was always all about him from the 86 Series when he begged out of Game 6 to his appearance in court where he had no problem lying through his teeth even if it meant he threw his own wife under the bus or called his teammate Andy Pettitte a liar.
How much humility does Mike Piazza have? I gave him a copy of my book and he asked me to sign it for him. I told him that it felt strange signing a book for a Hall of Famer. He responded by saying to me he was sure the people close to me consider me a Hall of Famer. That’s Mike Piazza in a nutshell–class all the way.