COMMENTARY | Not that there's ever a good time to bring up one of the most awkward press conferences in New York Mets history, but when Sports Illustrated released its story on Jason Collins, a heartfelt piece about the 34-year-old National Basketball Association journeyman center, it brought to mind the erroneous rumors that former Mets catcher Mike Piazza might be gay -- and the bizarre press conference back in 2002 that occurred on the Veterans Stadium field as a result of the false reports.
If you haven't heard by now, Collins announced in the Sports Illustrated article, which was released online on Monday, that he is gay. By going public, he becomes the first active athlete in one of the major team sports to publically declare that he is gay.
Since the news broke, most of the reaction to Collins' announcement has been positive, with everyone from President Obama to Mets' catcher Anthony Recker weighing in.
What does any of this have to do with the Mets? Go back 11 years to when Piazza was playing for the Mets, and there was a far different reaction to a story that was never really a story to begin with. Here's how the non-story got started.
Bobby Valentine, the Mets' manager at the time, told Details magazine that Major League Baseball was "probably ready for an openly gay player." That led to the New York Post stating a rumor about a star player on the Mets being gay, and that this player was about to go public with the news. (Sports Illustrated offers a quick recap of what took place.)
It all turned out to be false, of course, but being the biggest star the Mets had at the time, Piazza had to address the rumors. He did so one night before a game against the Philadelphia Phillies saying, "I'm not gay, I'm heterosexual."
Piazza went on to say that he thought his teammates would accept an openly gay player.
"In this day and age, it's irrelevant," he said. "I don't think it would be a problem at all."
Collins is about to find out if that's true. So far, the early returns are good.
You want to know the difference between Mike Piazza and Jason Collins?
In 2002, Piazza was still one of the best players in baseball. He might have been exiting his prime years, but he was a Hall-of-Fame catcher who had star power. Collins, meanwhile, has gotten the most out of his talent, but has never put up anything close to the numbers -- albeit in a different sport -- that Piazza did. Collins has averaged 3.6 points per game over his 12-year career.
You want to know the other difference -- the one that really matters?
One story -- Piazza's -- was false. The other one -- Collins' -- was true. It took 11 years, but the sports world got what some thought they were going to get back in 2002.
Only the New York Mets, through no fault of their own, could have been involved in such drama.
Charles Costello has followed the Mets closely since the rookie years of Darryl Strawberry (1983) and Dwight Gooden (1984). He was a beat reporter assigned to cover the Mets during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
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