During a lunch break when working customer service at Home Depot on May 22, 1998, I answered a persistent phone call from my mother.
"Did you hear," she started, sounding overly excited. "The Mets traded for that pizza guy!"
I laughed, because I knew exactly who she was referring to…
Mike Piazza was selected by the Dodgers with their last pick during the 1988 MLB Amateur Draft. It was the same year the Dodgers stunned New York by beating the Mets in seven games during the National League Championship Series.
Piazza's dad, Vince, who once built his son an indoor batting cage, lobbied his friend, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, to have his team draft Mike.
"The Dodgers didn't want him," Lasorda told USA TODAY Sports during July, 2016. "Nobody wanted him. I kept telling our guys, 'I want him drafted. I don't care where or when, but draft him.' So they draft him."
However, because he was their 62nd pick that season, and essentially a courtesy pick for Lasorda, the Dodgers didn't reach out to Piazza until late in the season.
According to Lasorda, the Dodgers had no intention of keeping him, though they were impressed with his ability to hit. However, when Lasorda said Piazza could could be a catcher, not a first baseman, the Dodgers signed him to their basic $15,000 contract.
The only problem was that Piazza wasn't a catcher. Lasorda made it up, knowing it was the only way his team would give Vince's son a chance. Piazza then caught a flight to the Dominican Republic, where, at 20 years old, he was the first American player to ever be in camp. He worked out at the organization's training facility to learn how to be a backstop.
"You have no idea what this kid went through," Lasorda told USA Today Sports. "They never wanted him. They held it against him because of my relationship with him. They wanted to break him."
Piazza nearly quit the next summer with Single-A Vero Beach in Florida, where he struggled to learn his position and found himself in confrontations with the team's coaching staff, who resented how he was drafted through his relationship with Lasorda.
"It was a difficult time, but it helped get me to where I needed to be," Piazza told me during an interview at Tradition Field in 2016. "It made me stronger, mentally and physically, and taught me how to be patient."
Piazza made his major league debut in 1992. The next season, he made the All-Star team as a catcher and won the National League's Rookie of the Year award as a catcher -- four years after first putting a mask on.
By 1997, he was widely considered the best hitting catcher in baseball, and on his way to being the greatest hitting catcher of all time. He hit .362 that season, with 40 home runs and 124 RBI, while finishing second in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award. It would be his last full year in Dodger blue.
The next spring, with less than a year to go before being a free agent, Piazza was was traded to the Marlins.
He had reportedly been on the trade block since rejecting an $84 million contract offer from the Dodgers, and the Mets were among teams that were showing interest in acquiring him. So, it was a shock to baseball when he ended up in Miami, where the Marlins were 15 games below .500, in last place and in the process of dismantling their team -- not rebuilding it -- after a World Series run the year before.
The Mets had the National League's worst winning percentage from 1993 to 1996. However, after hiring Bobby Valentine in 1997, they surprised Mets fans by winning 88 games, while chasing the Wild Card deep in to September. Immediately after winning the World Series, the Marlins began trading away their most expensive players, including sending pitchers Al Leiter and reliever Dennis Cook to the Mets.
So, the next season, when the Marlins acquired Piazza with the intent of flipping him for prospects, it made sense to ring back the Mets, since both organizations were quite familiar with one another's farm system.
"Piazza was a marquee-type guy and we needed that type of player," then-GM Steve Phillips told me in 2015 about the decision to pursue Piazza. "We were a good little team, but we needed to get a superstar. At the same time, we know from previous discussions that the Marlins liked our top outfield prospect, Preston Wilson, as well as some of our young pitching talent."
The opportunity for the Mets to acquire Piazza was in place, the prospects needed were available, Phillips and his front office were ready to make a deal and the team's fans were hungry for something to get done. However, ownership still needed to sign off on the acquisition, knowing Piazza was a free agent and would be seeking a multi-year, record-setting contract the next winter.
"The legend that has built up around the trade is that Nelson Doubleday wanted to do the deal and Wilpon did not, but that public pressure, particularly from WFAN's Mike Francesa and Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, moved Wilpon to change his mind," New York Post columnist Joel Sherman wrote in an article during July, 2016.
According to Sherman, five former-members of the 1998 front office confirmed to him that Wilpon needed to be convinced.
"Fred loves prospects, and he really loved our pitching prospects," an anonymous source from the 1998 staff told me. "He was frustrated by what happened with Generation K -- actually, we all were -- and I don't think he wanted to send our remaining top pitching prospects to a division rival for a guy that might leave as a free agent in a six months. It was a fair concern, but Phillips, Doubleday, Dave Howard, even Bobby Valentine all helped to change his mind. And thank God they did."
Finally, eight days after leaving Los Angeles for Miami, the Marlins traded Piazza to the Mets for Wilson, and pitching prospects Geoff Geotz and Ed Yarnall.
"I think we invented the chest bump," Phillips said, when I asked him in 2015 how he reacted after completing the deal to bring Piazza to the Mets. "It was so exciting, especially knowing we were about to make an announcement that was going to rock New York City."
In his first game with the Mets, 20 years ago today on May 23, 1998, which was also the day I first kissed the woman who would eventually be my wife, Piazza hit an RBI double through the right-center field gap. It gave the Mets a 2-0 lead as they went on to defeat the Brewers, 3-0.
"I'm on cloud nine right now, but I need some sleep," Piazza told New York reporters after the game, which was totally understandable considering his three-team, four-city tour during the previous eight days.
Piazza immediately began hitting with the Mets, though it took him time to find his power stroke at Shea Stadium. He was frequently booed in June and early July for struggling at home and not hitting in the clutch. However, after announcing that he wanted to postpone contract talks with the Mets until after the season, Pizza got hot at the plate in August and never looked back.
"It was a little stressful for a while," Phillips admitted to me about the early going of Piazza's time in a Mets uniform. "But, once it clicked, and when the fans accepted Piazza, it became everything we thought it could be."
In his 106 games with the Mets that season, Piazza hit .348 with a .419 OBP, 23 home runs, 33 doubles and 76 RBI. Unfortunately, despite a spike in attendance, the Mets ended up missing the postseason by just 1.5 games.
The season ended with no postseason and Piazza eligible to be a free agent, leaving Mets fans to wonder whether his time in New York would be reduced to just four months.
"It had been going so well and the way we hoped it would, and so we felt there was a chance we could bring him back," Phillips told me, though he admitted to also being nervous in advance of restarting negotiations.
Thankfully, it took just four days for the two sides to agree to a seven-year, $91 million deal, which included a limited no-trade clause -- making it the most lucrative contract in baseball history at the time.
"This tells the fans that we appreciate the fact that they came back to watch us play after we acquired Mike," Mets co-owner Nelson Doubleday said the day the deal was announced. "They wanted a marquee player, we needed a marquee player and we got them a marquee player."
Sadly, on October 2, 2005, Piazza played his final game with the Mets. Later that night, Mets manager Willie Randolph replaced Piazza after the eighth inning so the 47,718 fans in Shea Stadium could give him one last cheer.
Piazza bowed toward the stands blowing kisses to fans around the stadium and then slowly jogged down the dugout steps.
"They never should have traded him," Lasorda told USA Today Sports in 2015, when asked if he regrets seeing Piazza leave Los Angeles. "They made the biggest mistake of their lives. But look who got the last laugh, and now the rest is history."
In the end, Piazza played 16 years, half of which for the Mets, and most all of them behind the plate. He hit .308 for his career, made the All-Star team 12 times and played in eight postseason series, including five with the Mets.
It took 18 years, but I finally caught up with Mike in the Port St. Lucie dugout during Spring Training, where he talked with me about his love of wine, soccer, what made him a successful catcher, and the importance of hard work and focusing on details in life and baseball.
This was an obvious thrill for me. It's sort of an off-beat, non-baseball interview, where I clearly try to psychoanalyze my favorite Mets player of the last 30 years.
I hope you enjoy it! Listen here...
Matthew Cerrone (Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Contact) is lead writer of MetsBlog.com, which he created in 2003. He also hosts the MetsBlog Podcast, which you can subscribe to here. His new book, The New York Mets Fans' Bucket List, details 44 things every Mets fan should experience during their lifetime. To check it out, click here!