The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past.
General Robert E. Lee
It's often been asked, when testing someone's baseball acumen, "who is the only player positioned in foul territory?" The answer, of course, is the Catcher -- arguably the most physically demanding position in the game. Due to the incessant pounding, grinding and repeated kneeling over a catcher's lifetime (on average, MLB catchers kneel 300 times a game), the term "tools of ignorance" has come to describe the equipment needed for any catcher to survive: a mask, chest and throat protectors, shin guards, and an extra-thick glove.
Of course, such a term is nothing further from the truth given the intellectual mastery and physical skill required. Note everything a catcher does in preparation for and during the course of a game: going over the scouting report for each hitter's tendencies and weaknesses; calling a game; handling a staff; directing other players' defensive positioning; pouncing on bunts; throwing out runners in less than 2 seconds; blocking the plate on throws home; and, monitoring the pitcher's mechanics, strengths and mental fitness on a pitch-by-pitch basis over the course of every game. As a result, to say a catcher's offense is a plus is tantamount to saying winning the lottery helps pay the rent.
Which brings us to Mike Piazza-- the game's best hitting catcher -- ever. Recently, the collection of "clubby" baseball writers who vote on Hall of Fame election, otherwise known as the Baseball Writers' Association of America (or BBWAA), essentially lumped Piazza in with known and admitted steroid users, leading to the lack of any MLB superstars getting elected to the Hall for only the 8th time this century.
Arguably, in rejecting Piazza and other "suspected" users, the BBWAA acted in essentially the same manner as law enforcement with regard to the treatment of "suspected" perps without any hard evidence. While some tend to dismiss the instances of people who are falsely accused as the price of combating crime, those same people likely would have a different opinion were one of their close friends or family members falsely accused. Similarly, though not meant to be equated with the consequences of being falsely imprisoned, it can at least be said that the risk of accusing someone of being on steroids based on mere suspicion is a very dangerous precedent for the BBWAA to set. This is especially the case when those superstars are also genuinely good souls.
Which brings us to Mike Piazza in the spring of 2000...
My son's 8th birthday was coming up, and being divorced at the time, he was not going to be allowed by his mother to attend Mets' Spring Training with and miss school, at least not without an all-out argument. Instead, I decided to go with my cousin, Peter, to see our team up close and personal... getting a few photos of players roaming from field to field, like Al Leiter, who cracked that, "we lefties need to stick together" as he posed with his arm around my surgically repaired shoulder.
As the day's practice came to a close, I could see from a distance the last gathering of players emptying the field and walking across the narrow passageway from the practice fields to the clubhouse by the row of 50 or so fans asking for their autographs. Many of the fans there were, not to my surprise, young and eager for an acknowledgement of any kind from the boys of summer. The starry-eyed smaller kids raised up to shoulder level to greet players with a marker and their favorite cap or, ball, while teenagers just tall enough to peer over the fence begged for the same, no less starry-eyed. The fathers, mothers and grandparents in attendance were equally thrilled, but far more bolder in their approach to the players: "Hey, you plan on hitting more homers this year or what?" "I love you! "Go get 'em this year!" "You need to drop your arm down when throwing that cutter!"
When the last player left for the clubhouse, I noticed everyone staring out to an empty field nearby-- empty except for two individuals: Mets' catching coach -- the Dude -- John Stearns and Mike Piazza, together working on Piazza's footwork behind the dish, throwing ball after ball after ball after ball down to second for another 30 minutes after practice was over, well after showered players began heading out to play a round of golf. When Piazza was done, he began walking back to the clubhouse with Stearns, talking about his session. Stearns went off into the clubhouse while Piazza stayed to sign autographs in that passageway, but differently from all the other players who had signed before. Piazza signed only for the kids... never once signing a photo, lithograph or baseball presented to him by a pushy adult. Peter and I figured Piazza did this because the adults were collectible seekers, either working for some memorabilia company or themselves to make a profit from his rare to get John Hancock.
Earlier in the day, I had picked up a ball off a bat and put it in my pocket, saving it as my first foul ball of any kind received anywhere... ever... over the thousands of Mets games I attended since I was a little kid. As I watched Piazza, I regretted not having my father with me, who was back in New York and didn't want to go down to yet another spring training where, as he described it, "The Mets would only disappoint, pa."
The reality is there is long running joke Peter and I have about him that dates back to the 1996 spring training appearance of Generation K: Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. My father had come with Peter and me to spring training that year, and had a great time walking around like a little kid talking to and teasing all the Latino players (my father is from Puerto Rico). Peter and I got a kick out of watching the Latino players react so positively towards my father's sense of humor and tales from PR.
Then it happened.
Generation K was walking, side by side, across an open area right by fans (there was no passageway back then... players walked from field to field through the fans area). My father instantly spotted them, walked over and shook their hands, wishing them luck on what he expected would be fine season. Now, you need to envision this: my father has this way of shaking hands; sorta like the way Bill Clinton did when he met someone. It was always a handshake coupled with a hold of the shoulder or elbow with the other hand.
It bears repeating here: My father greeted Izzy, Pulse and Wilson with a handshake and grasp of each pitcher's shoulder or elbow.
The rest is history.
But back to Piazza in 2000...
I decided to bring my foul ball to Piazza for his autograph, telling Peter it would be cool if I brought my son back something from the greatest hitting catcher of all time as a birthday present. But there was this problem of Piazza rejecting adults for signatures. So, what was I do to?
Peter suggested my asking a kid to get the autograph for me, but Piazza was already making his way to the last few kids right before the entrance to the clubhouse, and would definitely disappear before I got the chance to convince a kid to do that for me. So, in a state of quasi-panic, I yelled out to Piazza as he was literally signing the last ball: "Hey, Mike... can you sign my kid's ball!?!" He initially ignored me, but I know I was close enough for him to have heard me. As he finished up and draped a towel over his shoulder for the walk into the clubhouse, I barked again, "C'mon Mike! Can you please sign my son's ball... it's, it's.. FOR HIS BIRTHDAY!" No sooner than the words "birthday" left my mouth, Piazza stopped in his tracks, and turned to find me in the crowd, asking "who wants the ball signed for his kid's birthday?"
"I did," holding out the foul ball I received for the first time in my life, presenting it to the future Hall of Famer.
Piazza came over, ignoring the rest of the fans, reached to grab my ball, and asked, "where's your son?" I told him he was in NY with his mother, and that I was divorced.
"What's your son's name?" he asked.
"How old is he going to be?"
"He's going to be 8 years old, Mike."
"No problem," as he finished inscribing the ball, "To Christopher, From Mike Piazza... You have a Good Dad."
Then, incredibly, Piazza asked me if I wanted to take a photo of him. I said sure thing, my cousin gave me the camera, and Piazza posed for the photo. Here it is:
I thanked him, telling him he was a true gentleman, and he wished my son a good birthday before heading into the clubhouse.
I can't speak to the nature of any of the other players on the Hall ballot this year (well, except perhaps the prickly and forever angry Barry Bonds), but I can speak to Mr. Piazza's. In fact, I just did. Right here; right now.
By the way, I am not blind. I realize Piazza's new book might reveal some disappointing information about his possible use of steroids. But at least for this Mets fan... because of that one spring day, I don't care.
Mike Piazza is a true gentleman and a genuinely good person who gave a father the gift of a lifetime that will forever be cherished with his son...
and now, the BBWAA can never suspect him of being anything else.
Until next time...