Roger Clemens’ ‘bizarre’ Mike Piazza bat throw is still shocking

Editor’s note: The 2000 World Series between the Yankees and Mets began 20 years ago Wednesday. On the anniversary, we look back at the series that captivated the city.

You know how animated movies try to draw in both kids and adults, creating dazzling visuals for the former group and witty dialogue for the latter?

The New York sports equivalent of that launched 20 years ago Thursday with the opening of the 2000 World Series at Yankee Stadium: Yankees versus Mets, winners take all.

Because even if the romance of the Big Apple’s first intracity battle in 44 years to determine baseball’s champion didn’t captivate you, even if you shed no tears over the Dodgers’ and Giants’ western migrations two generations prior and rolled your eyes at talk of through lines from Whitey Ford and Jackie Robinson to Andy Pettitte and Edgardo Alfonzo, who could possibly pass on the WWE-style blood feud between Roger Clemans and Mike Piazza?

That clash of the titans never felt more professional wrestling-esque than during this World Series — as evidenced by, for my money, the best call of Gary Cohen’s distinguished broadcasting career:

“Is Clemens out of his mind? What was he thinking?”

“The way it all came down, with Clemens having hit Mike in July, this is the first time they’ve met since that, the quirk of Mike breaking his bat and Clemens catching the bat,” Cohen, then with WFAN and now with SNY, said Monday in a telephone interview. “If you look at the video of it, Clemens keeps saying, ‘I thought it was the ball!’ The whole concept of him being so oblivious as to think that the bat was the ball, and to take what he said he thought was the ball and throwing it as he did toward Mike as he ran up the baseline …

“The lack of understanding and the bizarre behavior inherent in his actions, what a singular moment that was. You can’t possibly think of another.”

This was Game 2 in The Bronx — Oct. 22, 2000 — the Yankees having won Game 1 in a 12-inning thriller. Not that it really impacted the focus of the second contest. To call Clemens-Piazza a saga within the saga of New York’s rich baseball history doesn’t recognize the enormity of the fury surrounding that mano-a-mano. They stood as equals: The stage of the Fall Classic elevated Clemens-Piazza, and Clemens-Piazza enhanced the magnitude of this Subway World Series.

As Cohen referenced, the buildup resulted from the history between the two superstars, Clemens already having punched his ticket to Cooperstown (or so we thought at the time) and Piazza well on his way to doing so. Consider the only four times they previously had faced off:

June 6, 1999, at Yankee Stadium: Piazza home run.

July 9, 1999, at Shea Stadium: Piazza home run.

June 9, 2000, at Yankee Stadium: Piazza home run.

July 8, 2000, at Yankee Stadium: Piazza drilled in the head.

The easy connection to make from encounters 1 through 3 to encounter 4 turned the fourth one — during the nightcap of a two-stadium doubleheader — into a dominant storyline. Therefore we all knew a fifth dose was coming when the Yankees and Mets advanced through their respective leagues into the finals.

The old Stadium absolutely roared with anticipation when Piazza stepped up to the plate with two outs in the top of the first. And not a soul among the 56,059 paying fans, nor the participants, nor the media could have predicted the result of Clemens’ 1-and-1 inside fastball if you had granted 1,000 guesses.

“I think we were all looking at each other like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ ” recalled Mets reliever Glendon Rusch, who already was in the bullpen when Clemens’ fastball shattered Piazza’s bat, sending the barrel right toward Clemens, who picked it up on a short hop — and fired it in Piazza’s direction as the catcher was legging out the foul ball. The jagged instrument skipped past Piazza, a couple of feet in front him. Within seconds, Rusch and his fellow Mets relievers were running onto the field for a rare, World Series bench-clearing skirmish.

No punches were thrown and everyone stayed in the game — Piazza tapped out to second and made two more outs against Clemens — but the rest of the game was played in what felt like a state of shock. The Yankees won, 6-5 — Piazza homered off Jeff Nelson in the ninth — and all anyone wanted to talk about afterwards was Clemens’ bat fling.

“There are certain things in this job you can prepare for — a record, a clinching — so you’re kind of ready. If you don’t script the words in advance, you’re prepared for the likelihood of something happening,” Cohen said. “But the singular events, the things that you can’t possibly prepare for, are what brings all of us to baseball in the first place.”

A Game 6 rematch didn’t happen when the Yankees prevailed in five games, and the Piazza-Clemens saga featured worthwhile sequels in 2002 — when first-year Mets pitcher Shawn Estes failed to hit Clemens with a pitch at Shea, yet homered off him, as did Piazza again — and 2004, when Piazza actually caught for Clemens, then pitching for the Astros, in the All-Star Game — and Clemens gave up six runs in one inning.

The inaugural Yankees-Mets World Series still awaits its own sequel. Should it happen? There’ll be huge shoes to fill. It’s never easy to follow an all-time blockbuster.

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