Like most Mets fans, Mike Piazza is hoping Yoenis Cespedes, who is expected to opt out of his contract for free agency as soon as the World Series is over, will be back with the club next season. As a ballplayer, he also knows how the off-season financial game is played.
“Obviously, he’s a great player and I don’t know what his status is now, but it’s part of the game,” the newly minted Hall of Fame catcher told CNY in an exclusive interview following the ArchCare 2016 Gala at Gotham Hall Oct. 27.
“I don’t know if he’s leveraging. I look at it this way. Mets fans love him. I know they would welcome him back with open arms, but ultimately it’s up to him,” Piazza said. “Maybe he’ll realize how much he’s obviously loved here. But again I was that same guy. I thought I’d be a Dodger. I ended up being a Met. So we’ll we what happens. He has an out, so there’s a chance he could leave, but he’s been very productive here and I hope he stays.”
Piazza was the special guest at the annual ArchCare dinner. Attended by 450 people, the gala raised $1.2 million for ArchCare, which provides Catholic healthcare services to the elderly, the sick, the poor and vulnerable in the archdiocese.
At the gala, ArchCare honored Dr. Thomas Kalchthaler, chief of geriatrics and director of the geriatrics program for family practice residents at St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, with the Ann Mara Community Service Award for his support of retired religious to Catholic health care.
In receiving the award, Dr. Kalchthaler thanked St. Joseph Medical Center for many years ago hiring a neophyte “geriatrician who thought he knew it all. Fortunately they allowed that neophyte to mature and I thank them for that.”
Piazza was introduced by Cardinal Dolan, who took the opportunity to poke some good-natured fun at the existential angst of Mets fans by pointing out that it was the eve of the feast of St. Jude, “the patron saint of impossible causes. And Met fans always have a deep devotion to St. Jude, right?” the cardinal cracked.
Cardinal Dolan thanked Piazza for declaring the importance of his Catholic faith at the Cooperstown induction ceremony. “Folks, this is what I’m most grateful to Mike Piazza for, the witness that he gives to faith,” the cardinal said. “You heard his stunning remarks in Cooperstown when he was admitted into the Hall of Fame last summer. What did he do? He paid tribute to his deep and enduring Catholic faith...Mike, not only are you admitted to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, you’re also admitted to the Hall of Fame in the Sistine Chapel.”
In his own remarks, Piazza said he was merely making good on a promise he made a long time ago. “When I was youth and I was struggling to try and find a way in this game of baseball, I made a deal with God that ‘If you bless me and help me become a Major League player, I’ll always honor you. So, when I got to Cooperstown, I remembered that deal.”
Piazza acknowledged his road to Cooperstown was not typical. Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers as the 1,390th pick in the 1988 MLB draft, mostly as a favor to family friend and then-Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, Piazza overcame the resentment of some early teammates for seemingly getting preferential treatment. He had to earn their respect and he did, making stops in Dominican and Mexican baseball, enduring punishing road trips by bus over tortuous roads, even though, as the son of a highly successful Philadelphia businessman, he could have stepped away at any time and found a comfortable position in any of his father’s enterprises.
“I come from an entrepreneurial family,” he said. “My father built a great business with not a lot of education. We had car dealerships and various entities, but there was always this thing inside me that made me want to forge my own path. Do what I wanted to do.”
Piazza went on to become the best offensive catcher in baseball history, compiling 427 homeruns, 396 as a catcher, with a .308 lifetime batting average. He came to the Mets from the Dodgers via the Miami Marlins in 1998 leading the Mets to the World Series against their cross-town rivals in 2000.
But there was a time he considered stepping away from the game.
“I actually walked away from the game in A ball in 1990,” he recalled. “I was in the Florida State league and it was a rough league for me. I started off in spring training and I had a really bad case of the flu. And then the second week of the season, I caught mono. So, it was a double whammy, and I really struggled that year. I was a 20-year-old kid playing against guys that were out of four-year schools and here I was one year out of junior college. So, it was a trying time, but it gave me a lot of character. It gave me the perseverance to stick it out.” Piazza specifically mentioned Reggie Smith, the great switch-hitter of the Boston Red Sox and Dodgers and a minor league coach, with keeping him from walking away. “He basically said, ‘You’re not going to quit.’ You have something (power) that you can’t teach and you have the ability to play in the major leagues.”
Retired from baseball for almost a decade, married with three children and living in Florida, the 48-year-old Piazza remains passionate about the game. He’s served as hitting coach for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic and pops up occasionally on the Citi Field scoreboard to exhort Mets fans to take their rooting to a higher decibel level.
Piazza credits his mother with giving him the gift of faith that has carried him throughout his life.
“My mother was such an influence on me,” he explained. “When I was in minor league baseball, there were times before the internet when we’d have to find churches in the Yellow Pages and look for Mass times, and I’d grab a friend on Sunday and go to Mass. If we had a day game, we’d to Mass Sunday evening.
“I find it’s easy to talk about faith when it’s true and that’s how it’s been in my life. I know it’s a different time today, but I have no worries. I remember reading (Catholic philosopher and apologist) G.K. Chesterton and there was this whole movement of Atheism in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I mean, it comes and goes. But the rock that is the Church will always be there. So I feel confident. I’m parking my car here.”