NEW YORK – Mike Piazza glanced high toward his No. 31 that will forever hang over Citi Field and urged New York Mets fans, hoping to find faith in the most trying moments, to do the same.
“So every time these guys are down and you need a little bit of inspiration, just give a little peek up there to ol’ Mikey,” he told an adoring crowd Saturday night.
The Mets retired Piazza’s number in a half-hour ceremony before playing Colorado, six days after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Speaking at a podium in center field, the 12-time All-Star catcher had to catch himself once, when the emotions started to well up inside him.
“You’ve given me an honor that no man deserves and no player deserves,” Piazza said.
The tribute included his parents, family members, former teammates, friends and a lot of chanting and cheering. He ended his 6-minute speech with a shout of “Let’s go, Mets!”
The 47-year-old Piazza became the fourth Mets person to have his jersey retired by the team, joining pitcher Tom Seaver and managers Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges.
Piazza’s number now hangs in a big circle on the facade above the upper deck in left field.
“That means I will always be with you,” he said, adding that when the Mets are struggling, “know that I’m back home watching you guys on TV, saying a lot of prayers – praying for the Mets. And listening on the radio.”
Piazza became the fourth major leaguer to have his No. 31 retired by a team. Greg Maddux (Cubs, Braves), Ferguson Jenkins (Cubs) and Dave Winfield (Padres) also received the honor.
With light rain falling, the field was covered with a tarp that sported a big Piazza logo. A giant outline of home plate was cut into the grass in center field with his number and the Mets players wore uniforms that had a Piazza patch.
The Mets gathered in the dugout to watch the ceremony, as did a couple of Rockies.
Piazza hit .308 overall with 427 home runs and 1,335 RBIs – not bad for someone who didn’t even make the varsity on his 10th-grade team and was only a 62nd-round draft pick.
The video board showed his most famous home run, the go-ahead drive against Atlanta in the first big league game played in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The homer is mentioned on his Hall plaque.
A couple of hours earlier, Piazza talked about what that moment meant to him and everyone in the ballpark, and beyond.
“As much as I hit the home run,” he said, “I felt it wasn’t just me.”
The memory made him pause, and he asked to get a drink of water after the remembrance.
Piazza made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992, was traded to the Marlins in 1998 and swapped to the Mets a week later.
“When he came to the team, it meant the Mets were back,” U.S. Rep. Peter King of New York said.
King was raised in Queens, not far from Shea Stadium where Piazza played, and attended his pregame news conference.
Piazza originally wore No. 25 with the Dodgers and shifted to 31 the next year.
“Anything ‘3’ is kind of my lucky number,” Piazza said. He wore 13 in high school, but it’s an unlucky number to many and “doesn’t have the best reputation.”
When he joined the Mets, former teammate John Franco gave up his number and presented it to Piazza.
Hundreds of fans came to Citi Field wearing No. 31 jerseys in shades of blue, white, black, gray and with pinstripes, and the crowd began chanting Piazza’s name well before he was introduced.
Former teammates Al Leiter, Edgardo Alfonzo and Cliff Floyd sat near Piazza during the festivities. Piazza later stood on the tarp at home plate and tossed out the first ball to Leiter, who scooped the low throw before it bounced at the mound.
Waving to the crowd, Piazza was driven off the field on a golf cart. But he promised to be back when 3-year-old son Marco was older.
Then, Piazza said, he could point to his No. 31 above the ballpark and assure his day that “your dad was cool once.”
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