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Are the Mets Cursed?

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Not that he's ignoring the papers. "There's a couple of clowns in our market where if I win the World Series, they're going to say that I didn't sweep," Valentine says. "And if we sweep, they'll figure out a reason why we didn't shut everyone out. It's petty, ridiculous. "

In one sense, he's right to be worried. Though the Mets have plenty of players who've endured the New York media blitz, some Mets executives are fretting about the newer arrivals. "You don't know if they can handle the pressure," says one Mets boss. "Derek Bell and Mike Hampton didn't do well when they were in the playoffs with Houston; how are they going to perform in the New York playoff atmosphere? And Zeile was one of those Texas Rangers hitters who the Yankees shut down completely. So we don't know how they're going to react."

Who let the dogs out?

Who?

Who? Who? Who? Ahh-who?

Exuberant barks and growls are shaking the locker room in Cincinnati. The Mets had started the day 0-for-September; Dr. Allan Lans, the team shrink, has suddenly appeared and is making his availability for consultation very visible. But a home run in the top of the tenth inning by Zeile has restored the smiles and celebratory beers to the clubhouse. It's hard to distinguish the recorded guttural woofs of the Baha Men's lead singer from those of Mets utility man Lenny Harris, who gets the credit -- or blame -- for installing this song as the team's new lucky anthem.

Who? Who? Who? Ahh-who?

Perhaps it's another singer, Garth Brooks, who is the real lucky charm. The country megastar played for the Mets during spring training this year, as a charity-fund-raising gimmick. Last night, Brooks phoned Leiter and Robin Ventura from his home in Oklahoma to offer his encouragement during the slump, and the veterans told Brooks to drop by and catch a game sometime. Brooks hopped in his private plane and flew to Cincinnati, strolling into center field during batting practice and surprising the Mets, who greeted him with bear hugs.

"What's unique is that on a road trip, you'll see fifteen guys out together," says Leiter. "It's not segregated, and that's a good thing."

Now Brooks is in the locker room, hollering giddily at Piazza, "You're the man! You're the man!"

Piazza grins, but his eyes search the floor. He's being praised by one of the biggest stars in the world, but Piazza looks bashful. "Yeah," he says quietly. "I guess. Sometimes."

At times, it's possible to look at the massive Piazza and glimpse the gangly suburban kid who found refuge in baseball and heavy metal. Piazza still regularly cranks up bands like Pantera and King Diamond, and he contributed a "death-metal scream" to his buddy Zakk Wylde's most recent album.

Piazza grew up outside Philadelphia. His childhood, and the strange route he took to a pro contract, helped form Piazza's determination not to stand out. His father, Vince, is a self-made multimillionaire who turned a couple of used cars into a Pennsylvania empire of auto dealerships, a computer-service company, and real-estate holdings. Vince made sure all his children learned how to work hard for a living -- when he built a vast mansion atop a hill in Valley Forge, Vince Piazza sent his sons out to break boulders alongside the construction crew -- and he was obsessed with turning Mike into a baseball player. Vince built Mike a lighted backyard batting cage, but the father's greatest gift turned out to be his friendship with Tommy Lasorda.

When Piazza went undrafted out of high school, Lasorda steered him to college coaching pals, then engineered a private audition for Piazza at Dodger Stadium in front of the team's head of scouting. Then Piazza earned his way up through the Dodgers system, loading on muscle in the weight room and doing hours of monotonous drills to learn a catcher's footwork. Still, he was regularly taunted as "Tommy's boy."

Piazza won the National League Rookie of the Year award with the Dodgers in 1993 and just kept getting better. He loved playing and living in Los Angeles, becoming a hugely popular figure, but he has never worn his stardom on his sleeve. Piazza seems to have internalized all the SoCal laid-back cool during his six seasons in L.A. Though lately he's been dating the Playmate of the Millennium, Darlene Bernaola, he has no use for the standard trappings of celebrity; he's never seen with a "posse," preferring to drive himself around New York. Even as September grew tense, Piazza was his usual affable self, going out of his way to give me the address of an old-school barber in Brooklyn who Piazza says gives the best shave in New York.

Piazza got his playing style in Philadelphia. "As a kid, I really admired the way Mike Schmidt of the Phillies carried himself," Piazza says. "He was always very stoic, very serious. I like to have fun, but for some reason, if I do show emotion on the field, it's impromptu, it's not a lot of fist-pumping. I like to run my home runs out and walk back to the dugout. Little things like that -- running out ground balls, things that maybe don't mean a lot but are important to me."

In 1998, a contract dispute ended with the Dodgers' dumping Piazza on the cut-rate Florida Marlins. The Mets pounced, trading for him in May 1998. "Before that, we were a good little team," Steve Phillips says, "and then we became a legitimate contender."

Piazza arrived feeling betrayed by the Dodgers, and when he slumped in September, Mets fans booed viciously, further wounding him. Yet he chose to stay -- a new $91 million deal didn't hurt, but he says he cared more about winning with the Mets, and winning over the fans.

This August, Mets fans chanted "MVP!" whenever Piazza, hitting .351, strode to the plate. Then came September. Once again, the drumbeat is sounding about how Piazza fades at the end of a season because of the wear-and-tear of catching. Piazza says he loves catching, but his reluctance to switch positions also has plenty to do with his self-image. The rich man's son, who had a major-league manager for a professional godfather, recoils from anything that looks like special treatment.


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