By Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler
Give New York a big story and the city will inevitably make it bigger. The first World Series between the Yankees and Mets was not enough; not even with an irresistible, custom-made nostalgia factor -- the flashback to the famous Subway World Series matchups of the 1940s and '50s, the Yankees against the New York Giants and especially the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 2000, the boroughs were bloodthirsty. It would be the first time Roger Clemens and I had faced off since he hit me in the head back in July. They wanted a cage fight.
To the guys in our clubhouse, however, including me, the personal grudge match was, at best, number three in the pecking order of importance. Number two was taking out the Yankees and changing our image as second fiddles. Number one was winning a World Series, no matter who it came against.
On a cold, windy Sunday night, Mike Hampton -- not I -- was Clemens's opponent in Game 2. By the time I came up in the first inning, Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo had already struck out. The Rocket was on his game and obviously pumped up to maximum intensity.
In spite of all the flashbulbs popping and the feeding frenzy over Roger and me, the scenario was not as unsettling as that eerie night back in July. I sincerely believed that, with all the hype surrounding the showdown, Clemens wouldn't dare throw at me again. He'd taken a public beating for it the last time and since then had come under more scrutiny for buzzing Alex Rodriguez on consecutive pitches -- he fired the ball up around A-Rod's neck -- in the ALCS against Seattle. Rodriguez didn't have much to say about it afterward, but Lou Piniella, the Mariners' manager, did. And he wasn't the first manager to complain about Clemens. When Roger pitched for Toronto and hit Jeter and Scott Brosius, Joe Torre himself had been one of those calling him out. Now, with the microscope he was under and the stage he was on, I couldn't imagine him pulling any more of his macho bulls---. On the other hand, Roger was known for working himself into a competitive fever that led to some strange things.
I took strike one, as was my custom against just about everybody but Greg Maddux. I also took strike two, on the outside corner, which wasn't the plan. Clemens was sharp, all right. I stepped out, blew on my hands, then watched ball one zip by, inside. Then he poured a fastball in on my fists. I tried to fend it off and my thin-handled bat blew apart in two places. About fifteen inches of it stayed in my grip, a fragment dropped in front of the plate like a bad bunt, and the splintered barrel bounced unevenly toward the mound. I didn't know where the ball was -- for all I knew, it might have blooped over Tino Martinez's head beyond first base, which wouldn't be unusual -- so I took off running for a step or two, until I realized that I'd sliced the pitch toward the Yankees' dugout.
Right about then, the barrel came whizzing by in front of my feet.
What the hell?
Clemens had fielded it on the big hop and chucked it in my direction, jagged end and all, with plenty of velocity. Stunned, and with the bat handle still in my hand -- I'm not sure if I even realized that -- I turned toward the mound and walked that way with a purpose, yelling at Clemens, "What's your problem? What the f--- is your problem?"
He said he thought the bat was the ball.
Meanwhile, home plate umpire Charlie Reliford was arriving to intercept me, and Clemens, with his glove extended like he was asking for a new baseball, turned to him and hollered the same thing -- that he thought he was picking up the ball. I asked Charlie what Roger was talking about, and all he would say was, "Let's go, let's go."
Both teams were out on the field by this time, and somebody was shouting at me to get the f--- back in the batter's box. I couldn't tell who it was. I was yelling back at a voice, pushing my way toward a closer, clearer confrontation. The fans were howling. There was so much ambiguous energy buzzing around, I couldn't process it all.
My initial intention had been to get to Clemens and throw a punch at his face. It was a strategy that I'd actually mapped out ahead of time. When Robin Ventura had charged Nolan Ryan with his head down, as if to tackle him, that had only exposed Robin. I'd been working with a friend, John Bruno, who was a karate guy, with the express purpose of knowing what to do if Clemens ever threw at me again. I would approach with my fist pulled back. I figured he'd throw his glove out for protection. I'd parry the glove and then get after it.
But there were complications. The least of them was the realization that Clemens was a big guy and I stood a pretty fair chance of getting my ass kicked in front of Yankee Stadium and the world. That was a legitimate concern, but not a compelling one. A bigger factor was the World Series itself. It was the first inning of a critical game from which it would be patently stupid to get ejected. To indulge my anger and sense of revenge without regard for my team and teammates . . . that would simply have been bad baseball.
There was something else holding me back, as well. Leading up to this night, there had been so much public clamoring to see Clemens and me go mano-a-mano, such a loathsome display of bloodlust, that I wanted no part of it for that very reason. It had evolved into a gladiator mentality. It's my job to feed the mob? I have to run out and fight Roger Clemens because the fans expect me to? I had no interest in being the people's puppet. Never did. The whole atmosphere just sucked the steam out of me.
On top of all that, the situation occupied a gray zone in my personal rules of engagement. I had no predetermined response for somebody flinging the jagged end of a bat at my feet, but it fell under the general parameters of being thrown at. When that happens, you're seldom certain of the intent. You wait to see the pitcher's reaction. You yell at the guy and check his response. If he yells back, waves you to the mound, spreads his palms, glares at you the wrong way, tells you to get your ass to first base, or in any fashion attempts to intimidate you further, it's on. If he just rubs the ball and looks in the other direction, I was cool with that. Part of the game.
Clemens's reaction was of the latter variety, dragging the whole crazy scene even deeper into the murky realm of the bizarre. His hurl of the bat had looked blatantly, preposterously violent, and yet, there he stood, admitting his mistake and protesting his innocence. He wasn't looking for a fight. He wasn't staring at me and screaming, "F--- you, Piazza!" He was addressing the umpire, trying to cool the situation down, pleading confusion -- and in doing so, compounding the overwhelming sense of it. There was doubt. It all happened so fast. Maybe, with his adrenaline pumping, Roger just grabbed the bat instinctively and thought, get this s--- out of here. Maybe, considering where the ball went, he didn't know I was running.
Images, questions, emotions, and raucous shouting all pounded me in a bewildering, paralyzing overload, trapping me in my spot, short of the mound. So did Reliford and the scrum of Mets and Yankees. There was no fight.
Once the field was cleared, the game resumed with no ejections, and on the next pitch I bounced out to second base. Immediately, Clemens dashed off to a room in the Yankee clubhouse to calm himself down. He did a good job of it. He was untouchable for the eight innings he pitched -- no runs, two hits, nine strikeouts.
After the game, Torre defended Clemens with a level of animation that he almost never showed, and Clemens defended himself in a manner that illuminated nothing. The more I heard and later read, the angrier I got. If Roger thought the barrel was the ball, why was he throwing it at me -- or toward the Yankees' batboy, as he insisted -- instead of to first base? If he didn't know I was running, why did he register no surprise, or not apologize, when he saw that I was? But those thoughts occurred after the fact, in the sorting-out process that followed the fury -- around the time the critics were assailing me for not rushing into a fight.
I suppose I should have expected as much from the media. It had been that way all year. Various writers had not only campaigned against me for MVP and harped on my failures in the playoff series against the Giants, but had conveniently neglected my contributions against the Cardinals. This was just another chance to pile on.
The charge was led by Wallace Matthews of the New York Post, who effectively called me a wimp in his column, then elaborated on the talk-show circuit. "Piazza," he wrote, "did a pretty good impression of the old 'Hold me back, Charlie!' routine with home plate umpire Charlie Reliford. But that was as far as it went. From that moment on, the Mets were a beaten team, for the night, and possibly, for the rest of the World Series. . . . Piazza's move toward Clemens was half-hearted and in a way, kind of laughable. He is supposed to be one of the leaders of this team, and considering his anemia at the plate --he went 1-for-5 in the Mets' 4–3 Game 1 loss -- he probably could have made no greater contribution to his team last night than to take a real run at Clemens and try to get him out of the game."
The next day, Todd Pratt got in Matthews's face and Wally acknowledged that he might have gone overboard in the swirl of the moment. That was swell, but how do you unring a bell?
Anyhow, Matthews had plenty of company. My teammate Darryl Hamilton questioned my pride. Even my pitcher, Mike Hampton, suggested that I should have gone after Clemens and it shouldn't have mattered if it were Mike Tyson. I guess Hampton figured he had proven his manhood by nipping David Justice in the elbow pad five innings later. He told the Post, "I think we should've fought, to be honest with you. But that's not my call. You can't make something happen if guys aren't going to defend themselves."
Belatedly, I did take a swipe, of sorts, at Clemens -- through proper channels. I asked MLB for an investigation, describing him to the media as "unstable." I have no idea whether my request had anything to do with it, but Roger was fined fifty thousand dollars. Of course, that begs the question of why, if he was penalized so heavily, wasn't he thrown out of the game? I attribute it to the confusion of the moment. I think Reliford and the other umpires were as discombobulated and weirded out as I was.
To this day, I don't know beyond a doubt what Clemens was truly intending or thinking. He's never said anything different than he said that night. There remain questions only he can answer. But with the extra clarity that comes with time, perspective, and video, I'll go this far: there should have been a fight. It hadn't been possible in July, when I was lying on my back with my head ringing like school was out. In October, though, it was not only possible but -- circumstances be damned -- it was in order. Item one: Clemens threw a broken bat in my direction. Item two: I walked toward the mound and asked him what the f--- his problem was. Everything was in place, except that item three never happened. It should have been Roger saying something like, "Get your sorry ass back in the f---ing box." Or saying nothing; just giving give me a look, a gesture, any small, subtle, actionable trace of defiance. If he does that, we're brawling. If he does that, the whole thing makes sense and continues down its natural path. I was right there. But I had my parameters for fighting on the field, and the World Series was sure as hell no time to set them aside. Before I could take a swing at him, it was imperative that Clemens note my objection and issue a proper invitation, a verbal or visible "go f--- yourself." Instead, he turned to the umpire and babbled on about the ball.
He screwed up the script. He sabotaged my payback. I won't repudiate my response, for all the reasons and mixed signals I've discussed; but looking back on it now, whether I kicked Roger's ass or he kicked mine, there should have been some closure.
Without a fight that night, revenge would be hard for me and the Mets to come by. Clemens wouldn't pitch in Shea Stadium -- where he would not only have to face a hostile crowd but would have to bat -- for two more years. And he wouldn't pitch again in the 2000 World Series.
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From "LONG SHOT" by Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler. Copyright © 2013 by Catch 31, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.