If you’ve listened to New York sports talk radio over the past few days, the predominant topic of discussion hasn’t been Noah Syndergaard’s dominance or the cold rain that forced the postponement of Opening Day in the Bronx. It’s been the decision by the Mets–made several years ago but only disclosed last week–to sell the jersey worn by Mike Piazza in perhaps the most iconic moment in franchise history: the home run hit on 9/21/2001 in the first game in New York after the September 11th tragedy. How did the Mets become this tone deaf again?
Last week, Ken Goldin of Goldin Auctions announced that the jersey worn by Mike Piazza for that famous 9/21 home run would be a part of his spring auction ending on April 30th. (You probably already know the name Ken Goldin if you’re a sports memorabilia buff or an insomniac—he was a frequent guest of the immortal Don West on Shop at Home sports infomercials.) Goldin’s unnamed consigner, reportedly “the world’s biggest Met fan,” claimed to have acquired the jersey straight from the team several years ago. To add another bizarre layer to the story, the jersey was apparently part of the Mets memorabilia valued at over $2.3 million that disgraced former clubhouse manager Charlie Samuels had stolen from the team. At press time, the jersey has already received 22 bids and the bidding sits at $86,000. That such a treasured artifact had been sold off by the team ignited a firestorm of criticism from media personalities, fans, and even Piazza himself.
As a matter of legality, the Mets were perfectly able to sell the jersey to whomever they chose. Although players are typically allowed to keep jerseys and other team-issued items if they wish–and teams often will donate items upon request to the Baseball Hall of Fame and similar institutions–selling memorabilia direct to fans has become a lucrative side business for teams. Indeed, the Mets have an entire department of their team store called “Amazin’ Memorabilia” which sells game-used and autographed material direct from the team. The Mets Hall of Fame and Museum at Citi Field exits through one of several Amazin’ Memorabilia shops in the stadium, and if you don’t watch closely, it’s not clear where the museum ends and the attempts to sell you Mets relics begins. The Mets also extensively market game-used and autographed items on their website, where you can buy anything from a broken bat used by journeyman former Met Marlon Byrd (price: $199.99) to an autographed pair of cleats David Wright used in the 2014 season (price: $999.99). And it doesn’t even stop there, because the Mets also run their own Amazin’ Memorabilia auctions, both on their website and at the stadium, where items like jerseys and gloves worn by star players often fetch prices into the four figures. Not surprisingly, the jersey being auctioned by Goldin comes with a letter of purchase indicating that it was bought through the Amazin’ Memorabilia arm of the Mets.
In a statement to the New York Post, a Mets spokesperson implied that the jersey may not have even been worn by Piazza, noting that when the jersey was sold, it was “not authenticated with respect to game use.” These days, teams typically only officially authenticate game used items that have a sticker from MLB’s Authentication Program. The requirements for an item to be stickered by the MLB Authentication Program include a chain of custody between the event happening on the field and a witnessing authenticator. The MLB Authentication Program had only just started in 2001, and few if any game used Mets items prior to the mid-2000s have MLB Authentication. This lack of direct authentication prior to recent years has caused Amazin’ Memorabilia and other MLB-affiliated outlets to sell many items as only “game issued” that show obvious game use, and this appears to fit within that scope.
So, technically speaking, the Mets never authenticated the jersey. But the Mets themselves sure seem to believe the jersey being auctioned is the real Piazza jersey from 9/21/2011. In 2014, the team displayed this Piazza jersey as the jersey Piazza worse on that fateful night in the Mets Museum and Hall of Fame—on loan from the very collector that the Mets sold the jersey to originally. Since everything has a price, the Mets Hall of Fame display describing the Piazza jersey is itself included with your purchase from Goldin Auctions.
In this instance, I don’t believe there is much question that this is the jersey Piazza wore on 9/21/2001. Short of MLB Authentication, the next best verification that a baseball jersey was worn by a player on a specific day is what the hobby calls a “photo match.” If you own a jersey, especially one with lots of stitched patching, you probably have a few loose threads and some pieces of stitching that would stand out as unique. You might even have a stain in a particular spot, or a pitch might be aligned a little differently than a similar jersey. Game used jerseys are no different, and since plenty of high resolution color photographs have been taken of every game for the last few decades, it’s often pretty easy to match a specific jersey’s imperfections with one of these high resolution images from a certain game. In this case, MeiGray–one of the industry leaders in game used authentication and sales–has photo matched the Piazza jersey at auction with Associated Press photographs of the 9/21/2011 game against the Atlanta Braves. Combine that with provenance indicating that the team itself believes the jersey to be real–and even accounting for rampant fraud in the industry, sometimes allegedly even by teams themselves–this is very likely the shirt Piazza wore when blasting Steve Karsay’s pitch deep into the Queens night.
For his part, Mike Piazza told the New York Post on Tuesday that he was “very disappointed” that the jersey made it to the private market, and that he’s passed his wishes along to Jeff Wilpon and the Mets that the jersey be reacquired and displayed publicly. Like many retired players, Piazza also partakes in the memorabilia market. Amazin’ Memorabilia itself sells a number of Piazza autographed items. Next month, Piazza will participate in a signing with Steiner Sports—and collect a $150 surcharge over his normal fee (price: $179-$249, plus $59 per inscription) to sign a game used jersey or bat.
Yet here, Piazza’s consternation is right on the money. Piazza’s post-9/11 home run is one of the iconic moments not just in franchise history, but a significant part of the history of a defining national moment. This jersey should be seen and appreciated by the public, and not just in a collector’s vault or safe deposit box. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum has offered to display the jersey as a donation or loan, and Citi Field could always stand to have a little more Mets history added to it. It’s a historical artifact as much as game-used memorabilia, and the Mets should’ve treated it as such. Let’s hope that the jersey’s next owner treats it with the care and respect that it deserves.
Photo Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports