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One Line Summary: Catch as catch can—dishing up Piazza behind the plate.

The Steve Phillips style was to spin players who could be good for those who are—or too often the case—were good. When this system worked, it was beautiful. And in the offseason, Phillips used prospects to bring in Al Leiter and Dennis Cook from Florida, the team that had won the previous year’s World Series yet was rapidly dismantling. The biggest trade Phillips ever made, however, landed a superstar who played the same position as his top slugger.

Mets All-Star catcher Todd Hundley was out the first three months of the season with a knee injury. Phillips used quantity to cover up the lack of quality at the position. Tim Spehr, a career .195 hitter, was the Opening Day catcher. By May they’d also used Alberto Castillo, who drove in the only run in the 14-inning marathon win on Opening Day, plus Jim Tatum, Rick Wilkins, and Todd Pratt, who’d inexplicably begun the year in the minors after a solid 1997 season in New York. The Mets played well for a team without its top slugger, remaining almost even with Chicago and San Francisco for the wild card heading into Memorial Day weekend. Yet Shea Stadium was dead.

When the Yankees were forced to play a day game at Shea on April 15 because a concrete slab fell at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees drew almost 25,000 more than the Mets, who played a regularly scheduled game at Shea that night. The Mets had drawn one crowd of more than 22,000 in the 23 home dates since Opening Day. When superstar catcher Mike Piazza became available immediately after he landed in the Florida Marlins clearinghouse, Phillips initially said the Mets weren’t interested; they already had a catcher. Word came from the owner’s box, from co-owner Nelson Doubleday specifically: Get the superstar first and figure out what to do with Hundley later.

Piazza arrived to the type of attention that Shea hadn’t seen in a decade. Fans held up “Piazza boxes” and other signs of devotion while cheering his every move. Whisked from LaGuardia Airport to Shea by police escort in time for a nationally-televised Saturday game against the Brewers, Piazza doubled and caught Leiter’s shutout in his Mets debut. When Hundley came back a few weeks later, the Mets him in left field. No Hundley, neither Todd nor his father, Randy, had ever played another position besides catcher in 1,769 career games. In a situation not unlike the one Piazza would face at first base in 2004, Todd Hundley found plenty of trouble at his new position. So Hundley became a backup to the best-hitting catcher in the game. Yet when the season ended, it seemed like Piazza would be the one to leave.

The people who filled the previously empty seats at Shea weren’t satisfied with a superstar who wound up hitting .348 with 23 homers, 76 RBI, and a .601 slugging percentage in just 109 games as a Met. The boos eventually, rightfully, faded as did the Mets in the last week of the season. Still battling the Cubs and the Giants for the wild card, the Mets dropped their last five games of the season and wound up on the outside watching the Chicago and San Francisco play a one-game tiebreaker (the Cubs and “Slammin’ Sammy Sosa won, only to be swept by Atlanta in the Division Series).

The cloud at Shea had a silver—make that platinum—lining: Piazza signed a seven-year deal worth $91 million to stay at Shea. The Mets may have missed out on the wild card, but they locked up the greatest hitter to don a Mets uniform. Better days were ahead.

 

By Matt Silverman
 

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Tagged:
1998, Al Leiter, Alberto Castillo, Dennis Cook, Jim Tatum, Mike Piazza, Shea Stadium, Steve Phillips (GM), Tim Spehr, Todd Hundley

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