Legendary catcher returns to Cooperstown for first time since 1993
By Mark Newman
COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- When Mike Piazza visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum on Aug. 2, 1993, half a lifetime ago, things were a little different.
Piazza was an All-Star rookie catcher for the Dodgers, and they were scheduled to play the Indians in the Hall of Fame Game the day after Reggie Jackson was inducted. The exhibition game was rained out, but Piazza still got a good look at the place through a young man's wide eyes.
On Tuesday, Piazza walked into the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery room again, and he was surrounded once more by the greatest players ever. This time, however, he belonged among them.
"It's a little overwhelming, actually," Piazza said while looking around the room.
His moment and his Gallery wall space awaits.
Piazza was here for his Hall of Fame orientation, something the institution has been doing for its electees since Steve Carlton's enshrinement awaited in 1994. Ken Griffey Jr. will be here soon for his orientation, and then both of them will return for their induction on July 24.
The day began with a full tour of the museum, starting with the chronological exhibits that show the evolution of the national pastime since the 1800s. Erik Strohl, the Hall's vice president of exhibitions and collections, narrated the tour for Piazza and wife Alicia, and then took him down to the basement archives to see rare artifacts, including some of Piazza's own.
"It's the first time in a long time, and it's so incredibly powerful," Piazza said. "This whole year for me has been so euphoric. It's such an honor to be put in the Hall of Fame, but it's also the amount of people who have reached out and given me their good wishes. When you come here and you see the history and you see the exhibits -- the players you played against and with as a kid -- it all circles back here today."
During the tour, Piazza walked into the "One for the Books" exhibit, highlighting player records. "There you are," Strohl told him, pointing to the display of most home runs by position.
On May 5, 2004, Piazza went opposite field at Shea Stadium for his 352nd career homer as a catcher, passing Carlton Fisk for the most from that position. The Mizuno bat he used that night normally would be right there where he was looking in this display, but on this day, it was removed to join the still-expanding collection of Piazza artifacts that will be shown to patrons this summer.
Once the tour went to the basement and Piazza put on the traditional white gloves, that's where he was reunited with the special homer No. 352 bat. He also was reunited with the bat he used to go deep off Charles Nagy in the second inning of the National League's shutout win during the 1996 All-Star Game, leading to Most Valuable Player honors that night.
Other key artifacts included: an Italy cap that Piazza wore to manage its World Baseball Classic team, representing his heritage; a ceremonial first-pitch baseball he signed before the first home game at Citi Field in 2009; and a "FDNY" cap that Mets teammate John Franco wore the night when baseball came back after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Of course, it was Piazza who hit the home run against Atlanta that symbolically signaled that baseball was back and it was OK to cheer. Piazza said Tuesday he has "started to work on the speech" -- he will "try not to go too long" -- and given its place in his history, it would be a surprise if a reference to those post-9/11 days are not included.
"I just saw [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani had an interview on the Golf channel," Piazza said, "and he was talking about when he first came to Shea Stadium the first game back, how we didn't get permission from the Commissioner's Office to wear the hats. Well, we were wearing them, obviously, just from an emotional standpoint, and we wanted to wear them in the game. So I think defiantly we said we were just gonna wear 'em. ... On my catching helmet, I had the equipment guys cut out 'NYPD' and I wore it on the back.
"We were so emotionally drained and broken, that we needed something. . . . It's unfortunate that you had to have a tragedy to see those positives, to see the way the city came together and just realized that we're just human, and at times like [those], it's about being together."
Piazza's highlight on the tour was the "bat rack" in the archives, being able to see and handle the magic wands waved by legends before him. He had fun doing batting-swing impersonations, spinning stories about his boyhood hero Mike Schmidt and Ted Williams, who once visited Piazza at his home and pronounced him as someone who "will hit" in the Majors.
"The cool thing is the bat rack, because it's kind of in our DNA as a player," Piazza said. "As soon as you see bats, you start thinking about who's pitching today, all these thoughts that go into it. When you retire, it's almost like this Kryptonite in a way, because you realize you can't do it anymore, so you almost have to consciously stay away from it. Because those are the things you miss most about the game -- the sights, the sounds, the smells.
"I see pine tar on the bat, and I just remember putting it on my bat in a specific way. The rituals involved, the superstitions. If I had one bat that had a lot of hits in it, I would use it, and when it broke, I was just [upset]. That's the thing about it. It comes back instantaneously. I start going into those games, and looking at stuff I used was cool, seeing it alongside the great stuff."
Piazza will be off to the New York state legislature on Wednesday to be honored with a resolution. Then he will resume working on his speech, send the Hall curators some more precious items from his parents' storage, and the countdown to July 24 will be on.
"I can't wait to get to the hotel this summer, and sit on the deck, on the porch with these guys, and have a cigar and talk with these guys," Piazza said. "[Hall of Fame president] Jeff [Idelson] had a great expression -- 'Your fastball gets a lot faster, and the home runs you hit get a lot longer.' Those big moments take on Paul Bunyan-esque levels. But as a player, that's something you've only ever known. It hits home."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.