Slugging Piazza hopes Hall voters catch on
On ballot for first time, backstop put up stellar stats from demanding defensive spot
NEW YORK -- In the final game of their 2005 season, the Mets halted play in the seventh inning. For a quarter of an hour, the crowd serenaded one of the best offensive catchers in Major League history, as a video tribute replayed his accomplishments in his final home game at Shea Stadium.
"To stop a game for 15 minutes in the seventh inning, you've got to be a bad man," teammate Mike Cameron said at the time. "And Michael Piazza is a bad man. He's been so good."
Piazza played for two more seasons before retiring, making him eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2013. Along with Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling and Sammy Sosa, he is now part of one of the deepest Cooperstown ballots in history.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from eligible Baseball Writers' Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Shortstop Barry Larkin (86.4 percent) earned his ticket to Cooperstown on the 2012 ballot. Starting pitcher Jack Morris (66.7 percent) and first baseman Jeff Bagwell (56 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year's ballot.
In many ways, Piazza's eventual induction seems a foregone conclusion. He finished his career with a .308 batting average, 427 home runs and 1,335 RBIs, all standout numbers for a player at any defensive position -- let alone for someone who played the bulk of his career at the most demanding spot on the diamond. Piazza slugged .545 for his career, the 32nd-highest mark of anyone in history, and reached base 38 percent of the time.
He also hit 396 of his homers as a catcher, the most in big league history, appearing behind the plate in 85 percent of his games.
Though five different teams employed Piazza during his 16-year career, including the Dodgers for 6 1/2 seasons, no place was his home longer than New York. So perhaps it is little surprise that in the years since his retirement, Piazza has said on more than one occasion that he would like to enter the Hall of Fame with a Mets cap on his plaque.
Coming to New York in a blockbuster trade in 1998, just one week after the Dodgers dealt him to the Marlins, Piazza quickly fashioned his new team into legitimate contenders. He fueled the Mets' World Series run in 2000, clashed with Roger Clemens that October and was in Flushing when he set the all-time home run mark for catchers.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of Piazza's career occurred in 2001, during the first game in New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. With his team trailing the Braves by a run in the eighth inning, Piazza hit a go-ahead, two-run home run. In the words of then-manager Bobby Valentine, "at the crack of the bat, spontaneously people stopped mourning and started cheering."
But Piazza's Hall of Fame credentials were not limited to his time in Queens. Famously selected by the Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 Draft only because manager Tommy Lasorda was a family friend, Piazza cracked the Majors four years later and won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1993.
He hit at least 32 homers in four of his five full seasons with Los Angeles, twice leading the league in OPS+, a ballpark-adjusted measure of overall offensive worth. And he did it almost exclusively as a catcher, long considered the game's most important -- and physically demanding -- defensive position, even if the one knock on Piazza has been his questionable defensive resume.
"He was one of those hitters who could change the game with one swing," Tom Glavine, Piazza's teammate on the Mets, said upon his retirement in 2008. "He was certainly the greatest-hitting catcher of our time, and arguably of all time."
Piazza also played in an era that has prompted questions. Though he never tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, Piazza became implicated in Jeff Perlman's 2009 book, "The Rocket That Fell to Earth," which cited anonymous sources accusing the catcher of steroid use.
How that affects Piazza's chances to enter the Hall remains to be seen.
All that is clear is that on the merits of his statistical career, Piazza is a Hall of Fame lock. He managed to stand out in an offense-heavy era, and not only because of the position he played.
Whether Piazza is the greatest offensive catcher of all-time may always be up for debate. But come next year, whether he is a Hall of Famer may no longer be.