Beaned and Beatified, Mike Piazza Arises as City’s New Mr. Baseball

The Yankees took three out of four games with the Mets. And the Mets won the series.

They won it because over the course of the weekend their catcher, Mike Piazza, became the most dominant ball player New York has seen since Tom Seaver. (Don Mattingly had several great seasons in the mid-1980′s, but unlike Mr. Piazza, he didn’t have the good fortune to be a franchise player on a legitimate contender.) For a few terrible moments on July 8, as he lay in the Yankee Stadium dirt, fans had a chance to compose the tributes that might have appeared on his plaque in Cooperstown. They realized suddenly how good this guy had become. And Roger Clemens, a resentful redneck in pinstripes–pinstripes!–had beaned him because Mr. Piazza had had the audacity to hit for a .583 average in his 12 previous at-bats against him.

The rising fastball that struck Mike Piazza square in the helmet was like a bolt of lightning. It knocked him silly but imbued him instantly with a surge of charisma, if not new supernatural powers. As he rose from the dirt, he underwent a stirring transformation in our eyes: from just another great baseball player to the most explosive and potentially totemic athlete this city has seen in decades. From now on, every time he comes to bat, the city will be watching. His glare back at the mound following every inside pitch will be ours, too.

The next day, after a trip to the hospital, Mr. Piazza held a news conference and, in the measured tones of a man who knows his case requires no rhetorical flourishes, called Mr. Clemens a coward. “I wish I could remember him as a great pitcher, as a Cy Young award winner,” Mr. Piazza said of Mr. Clemens. “But I know that I can’t do that.” Miraculously, one future Hall of Famer had been empowered to cast judgment on another. It was like a change in the hierarchy on Olympus.

The news conference was a public-relations masterstroke–Mets’ general manager Steve Phillips understood that when a player of Mr. Piazza’s stature, still groggy from what could have been a career-ending injury, calls out a Roger Clemens, decent fans will ask discomfiting questions about the pitcher and his employer.

Mr. Piazza’s quiet rage was irresistible. His plain-spoken accusation of barbaric intent, combined with a season and a half of sterling play, not only made him a sympathetic figure, but announced his primacy as New York’s foremost baseball star. This 31-year-old bachelor with a surfer’s banter and a Dodger pedigree now owns this town. Even George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ principal owner, refused to criticize him. “I don’t blame Mike Piazza for thinking what he wants to think because he’s the one who got hit in the head,” Mr. Steinbrenner said. The fact that Mr. Steinbrenner, who doesn’t think his pitcher intentionally beaned Mr. Piazza, saw fit to address the controversy speaks to the public relations nightmare Mr. Clemens has created. This was no ordinary hit batsman. This was Mike Piazza, the National League’s leading vote-getter in this year’s All-Star balloting, the best player in New York, a man with a chance to become the first New York National Leaguer to win the Most Valuable Player award since Brooklyn’s Don Newcombe in 1957. And this was Roger Clemens, a man with a reputation for throwing fastballs at opposing players–like current teammate Derek Jeter, who was hit by Mr. Clemens a couple of years ago. Baseball may not be beanbag, but it isn’t hockey, either. The pitch directed at Mr. Piazza’s head was shocking, dangerous and unworthy of New York baseball.

Very suddenly, the Yankees, like Rudy Giuliani, seem out of fashion. An excerpt from Mr. Piazza’s condemnation of Mr. Clemens was deemed the quotation of the day in The New York Times on July 10. A headline in the New York Post , a reliable guide to fan sentiment, declared that Mr. Clemens was “rotten to the core.” The excellent Mark Kriegel wrote in the Daily News that “Clemens got the win. And Piazza got a trip to the hospital. It didn’t feel right.”

Last year, the gluttonous Yankees, with two World Series championships in three years, traded delightful everyman David Wells, who once wore a cap that Babe Ruth had worn, to Toronto in order to further stack their pitching staff with Mr. Clemens, a five-time Cy Young winner. Mr. Clemens came to New York with a reputation for surly, egocentric behavior–the kind of player who would have fit in on Billy Martin’s Yankees two decades ago, but not on Joe Torre’s quiet ensemble cast. But that didn’t seem to matter. The Yankees of the 1990′s, like the Mayor who shamelessly posed in Yankees jackets and even his own set of pinstripes, were about results. The team and its principal owner and its fans wanted more World Series championships. So Mr. Clemens was brought in even after the Yankees had won 114 regular-season games in 1998–an American League record–and the Mayor, who poured raw officers into the Street Crimes Unit so that the city might keep bragging about record reductions in crime, cheered on from his box seat.

There have been terrible, savage beanings in baseball. Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox was a star on the rise when his face was shattered by a fastball in 1966. He was never the same, and his death at a young age may not have been unrelated to his injury. Had Mr. Piazza not reacted as quickly as he did, he might have taken Mr. Clemens’ fastball between the eyes, and the 2000 Subway Series might have been remembered not for the quality of play (it was high) but for the end of Mr. Piazza’s brilliant career. As he lay motionless in the batter’s box for a few seconds, with an unrepentant Mr. Clemens nowhere in the vicinity, the 50,000-plus fans in Yankee Stadium were speaking to each other in whispers, if they were speaking at all. Though Yankees partisans, they knew what they had just witnessed. A player with a .348 average, 24 home runs and 72 runs batted in at mid-season–statistics worthy of the great New York baseball legends of the 1950′s and 60′s–had just had his career pass before his eyes.

Mike Piazza missed the All-Star Game because of Roger Clemens. And while he was in uniform for the series finale with the Yankees on July 9, there is no telling whether he will return whole, whether doubt and fear will turn him into a merely good player, rather than one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history, better than Yogi Berra, better than Roy Campanella–two New Yorkers who dominated the position in the 1950′s. Mr. Piazza admitted that he doesn’t know how he’ll feel. “I know it’s going to take me a little while to get comfortable in the [batter's] box,” he said. “You cannot do the job if you’re not completely comfortable in the box.”

New York sports fans will be following, and rooting for, Mike Piazza as he tries to become comfortable once again in his place of business over the next few weeks. For the rest of the summer, his plight will overshadow the Yankees, who are reduced to trying to explain away Roger Clemens.