In 1997, the team had a surprising 88 win season with young players like Edgardo Alfonzo beginning to make his mark, accomplished players like John Olerud rejuvenating their careers, and players like Rick Reed seemingly coming out of nowhere to be good Major League players. With a brash Bobby Valentine at the helm, many expected the Mets to make the leap in 1998.
As the 1998 season unfolded, it wasn’t to be, and that was mainly because their star catcher Todd Hundley had offseason elbow surgery which was going to keep him out for a while.
The Mets did start well. On May 13th, the Mets were 19-15, albeit seven games back in the division. Then, the following day, shockwaves went through Major League Baseball, and not just because the Mets were swept in a doubleheader by the Padres. No, out of nowhere Mike Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins.
It was an absolute blockbuster with Piazza and Todd Zeile going to the Marlins, who just dismantled the 1997 World Series winning team, for Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson, and Gary Sheffield.
Everyone in baseball knew the Marlins were looking to flip Piazza for prospects, and a talented Mets farm system seemed to make them one of the favorites if they were interested. Problem was, they weren’t interested.
After this trade happened, the Mets would fall to nine games out in the division. While this was happening, Mike and the Mad Dog would take to the air day-in and day-out clamoring for the Mets to go out and get Piazza. Their assault was relentless.
While a noted blowhard, you can never discount how public pressure forces teams to act. After all if we look back to 2015, with all that happened, we did see the Mets swing a trade to obtain Yoenis Cespedes. The public pressure continued in the ensuring offseason with the team, who had already moved on from Cespedes by signing Alejandro De Aza to platoon with Juan Lagares in center, acquiescing and signing Cespedes to what was essentially a one year deal.
The team didn’t let things play out after the 2016 season. They jumped fairly quickly, and they signed Cespedes to a four year deal even with full knowledge of his heel issues. Certainly, much of this was the result of the public pressure, which was given a voice on New York airwaves by people like Francesca.
Now? Well, Francesca has gone from being an important voice to being a mouthpiece for the Wilpons.
He is now defending the Wilpons saying they are spending money. He notes how the team has the seventh highest payroll in the majors. That is patently false. Cots, Spotrac and Steve the Ump ranks the Mets payroll 12th. Really, everyone ranks the Mets payroll 12th.
The AP ranked the Yankees, not the Mets as having the seventh highest payroll. Maybe, Francesca read New York and was confused.
Putting the ranking aside, lost in that is the Mets recover 75% of David Wright‘s salary, which, according to Anthony DiComo of MLB.com, Jeff Wilpon has admitted does not get reinvested into baseball operations. That means the Mets payroll is actually $15 million less than advertised.
Dropping the Mets payroll by $15 million, the Mets payroll drops to 15th in the majors. With the $3 million saved in the Jeurys Familia trade, the payroll drops to 16th. Yes, a New York market team, who is currently refusing to give Jacob deGrom, currently the best starter in baseball, a contract extension, is in the bottom half of the league in spending.
For his part, Francesca defends this. He will say the Mets spend, but they don’t spend well. Nothing backs this up remotely. Nothing.
Instead of pointing the finger where it belongs, the Wilpons, he will continue to bash Mickey Callaway as if he is the scourge of the Mets organization. He will look at all the surrounds the Mets and mock them while failing to even consider pointing the blame at ownership.
And for all that, I’ve stopped listening to him. After over 30 years of listening to him, I’m done. And I suspect I will not be the only Mets fan who feels this way.
At the end of the month, 29 year old Tim Tebow is going to hold a showcase for all interested major league teams in an attempt to get a professional contract. The Mets should attend the showcase, and regardless of the outcome, the Mets should sign him.
There are those that will tell you he can play baseball. Former Met and current player agent Gary Sheffield called Tebow “a natural” at the plate. Mets hitting coach Kevin Long looked at tape of Tebow’s swing, and he said, “His swing is very simple. Not a whole lot of head or body movement. Chad and Tim did a nice job of simplifying and putting his swing together. It’s short and explosive.” (New York Daily News). Couple that with Tebow’s belief in his own abilities and his raw athletic talent, and Tebow may just very well prove all the doubters wrong and become a major league player.
These are all very well and good reasons why you would take a flyer on Tebow. There’s a bigger reason why you would take a flyer on him – money.
Everywhere Tebow goes, fans follow. When he became a New York Jet, fans went out and purchased his jersey. When he got one last chance with the Philadelphia Eagles, Tebow’s jersey was the 15th best selling jersey in the NFL ahead of players like Tony Romo. Whatever team winds up with him is going to get a major boost in attendance. That matters for teams that own their low level minor league affiliates.
Considering the Mets own the St. Lucie Mets and the Brooklyn Cyclones, the Mets organization should get a jolt of revenue if Tebow were to play in either location. That holds true for St. Lucie, which is in his native Florida, where he has a huge following. That also holds true for Brooklyn where Tebow has a following among Jets fans. That doesn’t even account for the people who will want to come just to see the spectacle.
Keep in mind, Tebow is not necessarily taking the spot of another prospect. Teams routinely fill out their minor league rosters with depth players who they know will never make it to the majors. However, those players don’t typically draw in revenue the way Tebow most likely will. For that reason alone, Tebow is worth a flyer.
Who knows? He may actually have enough talent to make his way to the majors in the process.
The things we are willing to tell ourselves as fans can sometimes be quite outlandish. Back in 1997, if you polled Mets fans, they would probably tell you they would rather have Todd Hundley than Mike Piazza. Why not?
The two were the same age. Both were All Stars in 1996 and 1997. In those two years, Hundley had hit 71 homers to Piazza’s 76. Hundley had 198 RBI to Piazza’s 229. Hundley’s 53 doubles surpassed Piazza’s 48. In fact, Hundley’s 127 extra base hits were actually two more than Piazza’s 125. On top of that, Hundley was a switch hitter and a much better defensive catcher. He was the homegrown Met that was afan favorite with his very own Todd Squad cheering section at Shea Stadium. Hundley’s career was taking off, and he was seen by Mets fans as a newer version of Gay Carter. When he returned from his elbow surgery in 1998, he was expected to once again be the slugging defensive minded catcher who was going to lead the Mets to the postseaon for this first time in a decade. If you took a poll of Mets fans, they may begrudging admit Piazza was the better player, but overall, they would also state their belief that they would rather have Hundley as he was their guy. It was all a moot point anyway because there was no way the Dodgers would ever get rid of Piazza.
Until they did. There wasn’t a baseball fan alive in 1998 that was utterly shocked when Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins along with future Met Todd Zeile for a package that included future Met Gary Sheffield and former/future Met Bobby Bonilla. Once Piazza was a Marlin, the world over knew the team that sold everything except the copper wiring after winning the 1997 World Series was going to trade the impending free agent Piazza. All of a sudden, the very same Mets fans who loved Hundley, desperately wanted Piazza. Myself included.
It was certainly possible. In that offseason, the Mets had acquired Al Leiter and Dennis Cook. There was a reporte there. Even with those trades, the Mets still had a good farm system headlined by Mookie Wilson‘s stepson, Preston Wilson, who could justifiable headline a Piazza trade. Without Hundley, the team was languishing around .500, and they needed a shot in the arm if they were ever going to earn a postseason berth. You could tell yourself that when Hundley got back he could either play left field in place of the struggling Bernard Gilkey or in right in place of another fan favorite, Butch Huskey. At least, that is what you told yourself.
Amazing, it actually happened. On May 22, 1998, the 24-20 Mets actually pulled off a trade to acquire Piazza. Perhaps just as a amazing, when the Mets activated Hundley from the disabled list on July 22nd, they put him in left field. Very rarely in life does things happen exactly as you imagined it would. This did.
Except it didn’t. While Piazza was originally greeted with a hero’s welcome, he would then become roundly booed by the very same fan base who was desperate to acquire him. Hundley would be a disaster in left field. As uncomfortable as he was in the field, he was equally uncomfortable at the plate hitting .162/.248/.252 with only one home run. He eventually forced Bobby Valentine‘s hand, and he became the backup catcher to Piazza. In retrospect, how could it have ever worked? Piazza was a star in Los Angeles, which is nowhere near the hot bed New York was. Hundley was a catcher out of the womb as he was taught the position by his father Randy Hundley.
But then on a September 16th game in the old Astrodome, it all worked according to plan. In the top of the ninth, with the Mets trailing 3-1, Piazza, who had been 0-3 on the night, stepped in the box against Billy Wagner with two on and two out. He would launch a go-ahead three run homer. After Cook blew the save in the ninth, Hundley would be summoned to pinch hit in the top of the 11th. He would hit a game winning home run. It would be the first and only time Piazza and Hundley would homer in the same game. In fact, it was Hundley’s last homer as a Met. At that point, the Mets seemed to have control of the Wild Card, but they would eventually fall apart, thanks in LARGE part to Mel Rojas, and they would just miss out on the postseason.
Going into that offseason, the Mets had to make a choice. Do you stick with your guy Hundley behind the plate, or do you bring back Piazza. To everyone’s delight, the Mets made Piazza the highest paid player in the game giving him a seven year $91 million dollar contract. When the Mets re-signed him, the Mets seemed assured of returning to the postseason.
And they did with the help of both Piazza and Hundley. With Piazza back in the fold, the Mets had to move Hundley. That spurned two shrewd moves by Steve Phillips that helped build a supporting cast around their superstar. Hundley was traded for Roger Cedeno and Charles Johnson, the same Johnson who was traded by the Marlins to acquire Piazza. Cedeno would spend 1999 being tutored by Rickey Henderson, and he would set the then Mets single season record for stolen bases while manning right field. Phillips would then flip Johnson for Armando Benitez, who would become a dominant closer out of the bullpen.
Piazza was dominant that year. He hit .301/.361/.575 with 40 homers, a Mets right-handed batter single season record, and 124 RBI, which is the Mets single season record. He led the Mets throught the play-in game and into the NLCS. His seventh inning opposite field home run off John Smoltz in Game Six of the NLCS tied the game at 7-7. In a game they once trailed 5-0 and 7-3 and a series they had trailed three games to none, it seemed like the Mets were on the verge of pulling off the impossible. With a Kenny Rogers walk, they didn’t. The Mets came so close to making the World Series, but they fell short. Even with as much as Piazza gave them, they would need more in order to make it to their first World Series since 1986 and to play in consecutive postseasons in team history.
Amazingly, Piazza had another gear. He would hit .324/.398/.614 with 38 homers and 113 RBI. It remains the highest slugging percentage in team history. The 78 homers and 237 RBI over two years stands as the team records over a two year stretch. He would tie the Mets single season record with three grand slams. In 2000, the Mets would go to the World Series, and they would fall agonizingly close as his shot to center field fell just short of tying the game.
It was a start to an amazing Mets career and part of a Hall of Fame career. Before Piazza left the Mets after the 2005 season, he would hold many records. He would have the most home runs by any right-handed Mets batter and second most all time to Darryl Strawberry. He would also be second to Strawberry in team RBI. He would be passed by David Wright in those catergories. However, Wright wouldn’t pass Piazza in some other catergories. Piazza has the third highest team batting average, and he has the highest slugging percentage in Mets history. He would also hit the most home runs all time by a catcher surpassing Johnny Bench. It was one of many memorable home runs in Piazza’s time with the Mets, which included the June 30, 2000 home run capping a 10 run eighth inning rally that saw the Mets overcome an 8-1 deficit against the Braves, and the most important home run he would ever hit:
Now, Piazza is going to be a Hall of Famer. He is going to be a Hall of Famer in a Mets uniform. It never seemed possible.
Years ago, Mets fans would’ve picked Hundley over Piazza. Almost twenty years later, Piazza chose us when he chose to enter the Hall of Fame as a New York Met joining Tom Seaver as the only Mets in the Hall of Fame. It was an incredible ride that has seen Piazza become perhaps the most beloved Met to ever wear the uniform. He deserves that love and much more. He deserves every congratulation and accolade the Mets, Mets fans, and all of baseball can throw his way.
Thank you Mike Piazza.