"Being a catcher brings him down to everybody's level as just being one of the guys," Robin Ventura says. "He's an amazing hitter, but because he's always blocking balls and getting run over and whacked by foul tips, there's more of a human thing to Mike."
Piazza turned 32 this month, but he talks with the maturity of a much older veteran. Mention his mammoth home run to cap a ten-run comeback against the Braves in June, and Piazza praises the rest of the lineup. "The only reason why I got that opportunity is that Fonzie Alfonzo had a great two-strike, two-out hit," he says. "I'm starting to get the idea more and more that great players throughout history and great teams -- you're not put in a situation to excel without good teammates. What is Roger Maris without Mickey Mantle, or vice versa? Hank Aaron had Eddie Mathews hitting behind him. I'm not downplaying my own role -- but again, look at Schmittie. He had Greg Luzinski."
Last October, after the final loss to the Braves, Piazza, his hands swollen, his knees screaming from seven months of squatting, his brain scrambled by baserunning collisions and pitch-calling decisions, couldn't bring himself to take one more team flight. So instead of boarding the Mets' charter out of Atlanta, Piazza went to a rental-car counter. "I wanted a Cadillac, but all they had was a Ford Escort," he says. "Probably a good thing, so I couldn't drive as fast."
He headed west out of Georgia, wandering from interstates to blue highways through Tennessee and Mississippi and down to Pensacola, where he sat on the beach and munched crab legs. "I threw my cell phone away and just drove," he says. "I was burned out, and driving for me is very therapeutic. I was solo, man. Just drove through, ate at diners, truck stops. It was pretty neat."
Piazza is a Civil War buff, so he stopped at Vicksburg. He stared at the battleground where, after a brutal 47-day siege, the Union army, led by Ulysses S. Grant, split the South in one of the war's decisive victories. "Granted there's no comparison between war and baseball," Piazza says. "But I look at these battlefields and think, 'Where did they find the courage to charge when they were outnumbered two-to-one?' And I use it as a way to motivate myself."
Bobby Valentine got a lot of ink for screaming at the Mets after their two losses in Atlanta last week. But a subtler tactic may have helped them win the next night: Valentine moved Todd Zeile into the slot behind Piazza, where Ventura, struggling with the aftereffects of knee and shoulder surgery, had floundered most of the season. That night, both Piazza and Zeile homered in the 6-3 Mets win.
The next day in Philadelphia, the win and his own venting have made Valentine a new man. In the visiting manager's office, his feet up on the desk, he's telling hilarious Sinatra stories and making fun of himself. "No, I was never in the Rat Pack," Valentine says. "I was just a rat."
Al Leiter, the savvy, charmingly demonstrative lefty from New Jersey, who pitched five perfect innings in Atlanta to begin the Mets' mood swing, considers the September strangeness -- the batting slumps and losses to awful teams, the end-of-the-world fulminations. Isn't it unbelievable that the Mets are still in position to roar into the playoffs?
Leiter's green eyes dance merrily. He's not hearing any talk of curses or omens or Bill Buckner's revenge.
"Unbelievable?" Leiter says with a laugh. "Nah. It's just baseball."
Mets baseball, that is. Everyone knows Yogi Berra spoke the original most-overused sports cliché: "It ain't over till it's over." Few remember that Yogi said it as manager of the Mets.