On This Date in Sports May 23, 1998

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

For the first time in years, there is a buzz at Shea Stadium, as Mike Piazza plays his first game with the New York Mets, a day after he was acquired from the Florida Marlins. It is the second time Piazza is traded, as he was traded by the Los Angeles Dodgers a week earlier. Piazza would deliver an RBI double in four at-bats, as the Mets beat the Milwaukee Brewers 3-0.

After taking over New York at the end of the 1980’s the Mets fell on hard times, suffering seven straight losing seasons. No season was more embarrassing than 1993 when they lost 103 games, and had players like Bobby Bonilla, threatening a sports writer, Brett Saberhagen using a super soaker loaded with bleach on the press, and Vince Coleman throwing firecrackers at autograph seekers. The New York Yankees retook the Big Apple in 1996, by winning the World Series, as the Mets expected young pitching core labeled Generation K, imploded on the launch pad, with Bill Pulsipher, Jason Isringhausen, and Paul Wilson all getting hurt. The Mets did manage a winning record in 1997, finishing 88-74 but were not considered a serious contender. As the 1998 season began the Mets added Al Leiter from the Marlins fire sale, but their offense was severely lacking as catcher Todd Hundley was out recovering from elbow surgery.

Mike Piazza was the premier catcher in baseball since winning the Rookie of the Year in 1993 with the Los Angeles Dodgers. One of the most unlikely stars in the history of the baseball, Piazza a family friend of longtime manager Tommy Lasorda, was picked in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft. After finishing second in MVP voting in 1996 and 1997, Piazza came into the 1998 season as a potential free agent looking for a contract extension. However, the Dodgers recently purchased by Fox, expected a hometown discount leading to a bitter contract dispute.

The Florida Marlins won the World Series in 1997, but like an angler who catches a fish and releases him after posing for pictures, began a massive fire sale right before the champagne even dried in the clubhouse. As the 1998 season, the Marlins only had a few pieces left from the team that became the first Wild Card to win the Fall Classic. While the Marlins were negotiating for regional sports contract with Fox Sports, the discussions of a deal took place, and on May 15th the Marlins and Dodgers stunned the baseball world as Mike Piazza was traded with Todd Zeile to the Marlins for Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield.

As Mike Piazza arrived in Florida, it was clear he would not be with the Marlins more than a few games. The Marlins began fielding calls from other teams for Piazza right away, with the Mets publically saying they were happy to wait for Todd Hundley to return. This created outrage as fans flooded talk radio with angry phone calls. The Mets and Yankees were both playing in town during the week, with the Mets hovering near .500 while the Yankees were flying high and celebrating David Wells’ Perfect Game. The Mets had a nearly empty Shea Stadium for a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds, while the Bronx was buzzing as the Yankees rallied to beat the Baltimore Orioles in a game highlighted by a crazy brawl.

With fans unhappy, and worse apathetic, with the Mets barely even being noticed while the Yankees were making history, co-owner Nelson Doubleday decided the Mets needed a major boost and ordered General Manager to make the trade to get Mike Piazza. After playing five games with the Marlins, Piazza was on the move again, just seven days after the initial deal. The Mets got a star they lacked since Darryl Strawberry left and Dwight Gooden faded away, while the Marlins got Geoff Goetz, Preston Wilson and Eddie Yarnall in return.

The buzz created by the Mike Piazza deal was a jolt of new life into Flushing. Players were just as excited as the fans to see Piazza coming to New York. Longtime Mets reliever John Franco, who had been with the team since 1990 agreed to give up his #31 for Piazza, taking #45, which he wore for the rest of his Mets career. Al Leiter who the Mets acquired in the off-season was on the mound opposing Jeff Juden of the Milwaukee Brewers, as the Shea Stadium was filled with a big walk-up crowd, waiting to get the first look of Piazza in a Mets uniform. Batting third, Piazza grounded to short in his first at-bat in the first inning and struck out in the third inning. The Mets scratched out a run in the fourth. Piazza came up again in the fifth inning with and a runner on first. This time Mike Piazza would deliver with a laser to center, scoring Brian McRae from first as Piazza advanced to third on the throw. The Mets added a third run on a double by Butch Huskey in the sixth and Piazza struck out again in the seventh. However, the three runs were enough as Leiter pitched a complete game shutout, allowing four hits with seven strikeouts as the Mets won 3-0 to improve to 25-20 on the season.

The acquisition of Mike Piazza is just what the Mets needed and fans desired, they went on a nine-game winning streak and thrust themselves into the Wild Card hunt. While Piazza struggled his first few weeks with the Mets, he soon found his groove and had a monster summer, batting .348 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI in 103 games with New York. The Mets would battle for the Wild Card until the end of the season, but a five-game losing streak including the final three games of the season against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field left them one game behind the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants at 88-74.

The Mets would go on to give Mike Piazza a seven-year contract making him the face of the franchise as they made two straight playoff appearances and battled the Yankees in the 2000 World Series. Mike Piazza’s most notable moment with the Mets came on September 21, 2001, when he hit a two-run home run in the first sporting event in New York after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Mike Piazza would rank among the top offensive players in Mets history in several categories, as he became the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher. He would go on to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 2016, becoming just the second player with a Mets logo on his cap as his #31 was retired.