From Piazza to Mets pitching coach?

2019-11-18 SteveKarsay
As a Brave, Steve Karsay served a home run pitch New York and the country will never forget. Now he may become the Mets’ pitching coach.

Steve Karsay has a unique place in Mets history thanks to a 21 September 2001 game in New York. Now he may become their next pitching coach, depending on whether 2019 interim Phil (The Vulture) Regan really doesn’t factor into the plan going forward.

Native to New York, growing up a Yankee fan in the College Point section of Queens, Karsay took over for Mike Remlinger to work the bottom of the eighth in the late Shea Stadium, right after the Braves broke a one-all tie in the top of the inning on an RBI double. It was only the second time Karsay saw action in Shea in his career at that point.

Future World Series-winning Nationals manager Dave Martinez, a pinch hitter in that inning, stayed in the game to play first base for the Braves. He didn’t know then that it would be the final month of his major league playing life: he’d miss all 2002 with a knee injury and retire after that season.

Karsay surrendered a one-out walk to Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo and Mets manager Bobby Valentine sent Desi Relaford out to pinch run. Checking in at the plate: Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who couldn’t keep the tears back when bagpipers walked across the pre-game field intoning “Amazing Grace,” among other small ceremonies for New York’s first sports event after the 9/11 atrocity.

“I think the baseball part was secondary until we started getting deeper into the game,” remembered then-Mets general manager Steve Phillips. And when Piazza stepped up to the plate the Shea Stadium audience rose to their feet waving small American flags and cheering as much for the will to endure after such an atrocity as for the Mets.

Karsay started Piazza with a fastball down and away hitting the corner for a strike. “I get back into strike mode as a pitcher,” the righthander would remember to The Atlantic a decade later. “I wanted to throw another fastball down and away, which I did.”

This time Piazza didn’t miss. He electrified the ballpark, the city, and maybe the country that needed all the electricity it could find when he hit it so far over the left center field fence it banged off the second level of a television camera scaffold posted behind that fence. The fact that Piazza’s bomb gave the Mets a 3-2 lead that held up for a win was almost secondary.

Karsay remembered the ball almost hitting the camera operator aboard that scaffold. Other than that, he didn’t give a full glance on the mound to the ball in flight. The crowd noise told him everything he needed to know. “It’s one of those shots that doesn’t leave my mind,” he said a decade after the game. “Not that it bothers me, because I feel like I threw a good pitch and he hit a good pitch.”

None of the Braves begrudged Piazza’s moment. “If there was any game in my career that I had to lose or take the loss, that’s the one I would have wanted it to happen,” Karsay said. “I don’t think you could portray it any better than how that situation occurred.”

“It wasn’t a competition against our most hated rivals,” remembered Valentine in due course. “It was so much bigger than anything I had ever been part of before. It was just inevitable that something really special was happening.”

“I think we all, as Braves, knew that night we were in trouble,” Hall of Famer Chipper Jones (who went 2-for-4 with a run scored that night) remembered. “Because we’re not only playing a very good baseball team, but you just had the feeling that God and every other baseball god was on New York’s side that night. The matinee idol Mike Piazza ends up hitting the storybook homer that sent everybody home feeling great, feeling wonderful. We’d done our jobs as baseball players to entertain people, but we’d gone I feel above and beyond just the normal day’s work.”

“When Piazza hit the home run, it was kind of like, ‘OK, that was supposed to be. These people needed this a whole lot more than we needed to win a game’, ” Hall of Famer Tom Glavine—who’d pitch for the Mets late in his career—remembered three months ago, on 9/11’s anniversary. “It was the only game that we played at that level where I felt that way.”

“[F]or the fans, it was an unbelievable breath of fresh air,” said Martinez on the 9/11 anniversary this year, too. “This country’s been through a lot, and we stuck together. So to be a part of that, and to be a part of this country, I’m just really happy to be an American.

“And those people that lost lives, my heart goes out to them, always . . . ,” he continued. “I just kind of stood back and just watched [Piazza] jog by me like, ‘Wow’. I just listened. And I could hear the fans. Look in the stands, and there were people crying. There were so many people from the fire department, the police department there, at the game. It was something.”

The one part Karsay might want to walk back was after he got the inning’s third out. He fumed at plate umpire Wally Bell over a borderline pitch he thought was a strike to Alfonzo that helped lead to the walk, and Bell ejected him from the game on the spot.

He was having his best major league season to date in an injury riddled career. He’d been an Athletic (after being traded out of the Blue Jays organisation so they could get  Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson) and an Indian (a trade for fellow relief pitcher Mike Fetters), before becoming a Brave three months before 9/11—in the trade that rid the Braves of misanthropic reliever John Rocker.

After the 2001 season Karsay signed as a free agent for four years and $22.5 million with the Yankees he grew up rooting for. The injuries continued (he missed all of 2003 following shoulder surgery) and, after a year in the Rangers’ system (where he combined on a perfect game in the minors), an aborted reunion with the Indians, and the A’s buying him back from there to no avail, Karsay retired in 2005.

He spent several years as a pitching coach in the Indians’s system before becoming the Brewers’ bullpen coach and, among other things, helping Drew Pomeranz finally find his groove as a reliever—Pomeranz posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.68 fielding-independent pitching rate as a Brewer following his deadline trade from the Giants this year.

That could be a key reason why Karsay’s now in the Mets’ sights if they’re uncertain about Regan continuing at 82. God only knew the 2019 Mets bullpen was described in charitable terms as a mess. Their solid rotation—two-time Cy Young Award-winning Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Zack Wheeler (who may yet depart as a free agent), Marcus Stroman, and Steven Matz—was compromised too often by the arson squad.

Between the collapse of prize acquisition Edwin Diaz and the inconsistencies elsewhere, until Seth Lugo and Justin Wilson proved the steadiest bulls down the stretch, the most feared words in the English language around Met fans were “pitching change.”

But if Regan moves elsewhere within the Mets structure and Karsay becomes the new pitching coach, he might yet turn an arsonist or two into an executioner or two. The rotation and enduring Piazza’s post-9/11 surrealism are nothing compared to that.

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