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Monday, August 15, 2016

Going for Gold for the Glory of God...

Rio's Christ the Redeemer...
After winning the gold medal, becoming the first African-American woman ever to win a medal in an individual swimming event, an emotional and visibly shaken Simone Manuel was asked what was going through her mind. As a national television audience watched, she responded with tears pouring down her cheeks, "All I can say is all the glory to God. It's definitely been a long journey these past four years," she paused briefly, as her voice cracked, "I'm just so blessed to have a gold medal... I'm so blessed."

For the past week, aside from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the headlines have been dominated by Manuel, Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles, among others.  They have become household names and share several things in common; they are young, they are world class athletes, who achieved Olympic gold, and they are devoted to their Christian faith.

In fact, it is interesting that, at a time when the American culture is becoming more and more secularized, and religion, especially Christianity, is being marginalized at schools, in the military, at sporting events and in most public domains, it seems that every other post-medal interview of an American athlete has some reference to God.

Steele Johnson and David Boudia...
Synchronized diving silver medalist Steele Johnson, who nearly died on a platform dive at the age of 12, is a great example.

In an interview after winning his medal, he said, "Now, I've kind of realized that God had his hand over all of it to help me... He gave me this ability to dive.  God kept me alive and he is still giving me the ability to do what I do... but this is not what my identity will be for the rest of my life. Yeah, I'm Steele Johnson the Olympian, but at the same time I'm here to love and serve Christ.  My identity is rooted in Christ, not in the flips we're doing."

His diving partner three-time Olympian, David Boudia, who wrote a recently-published book on his faith, Greater Than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption, added, "We can't take credit for this.  To God be the glory."

Expressions of faith are widespread throughout the Olympic Games in Rio from Jamaica's Usain Bolt (a faithful Catholic, who wears a Miraculous Medal of the Virgin Mary, when he's not wearing gold), making the sign of the cross before his races and praying on one knee after he wins, to Ibitijah Muhammad, becoming the first American to wear a hijab while competing.

Actually, it's only fitting that religious beliefs be on display freely in a city, whose skyline is dominated by a 125-foot sculpture of Christ the Redeemer.

While, there's no doubt there are many atheists and agnostics among the competitors, it appears a healthy share are believers (and proud of it).  And, it shouldn't be a surprise, considering the close relationship between body and soul, since humanity is comprised of body, mind and spirit.

Michael Phelps...
For Michael Phelps, finding faith was what he credits for saving his life.  The most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 Olympic medals, including 23 gold, says he was on a downward spiral and depressed to the point of considering suicide two years ago.

Apparently, stardom left him empty inside; the pressure of having to perform and live up to his image, the spotlight and constant scrutiny, the pain of an unresolved relationship with his father, who divorced his mother when Phelps was nine.

He tried to fill the void with drugs and alcohol.

His decline began with a suspension from swimming when a photo of him smoking a marijuana bong surfaced. He was later arrested twice for DUI.  His life hit rock bottom.  It was then that his family and former Baltimore Raven and University of Miami great Ray Lewis talked him into going to rehab, where he read a book that changed his life.

It was Rick Warren's A Purpose Driven Life, which was given to him by Lewis before he checked into rehab.  After reading the book, he started sharing his faith openly with others, reconciled with his estranged father and asked his long-time girlfriend to marry him.  He has been trying to live his faith devoutly ever since.  

Katie Ledecky...
For 19-year-old fellow U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky, the five-time Olympic gold medalist and nine-time world champion, it was a totally different experience. Faith was always part of her life.  She attended Catholic school from time she was in Pre-K and continued all the way through high school, at Little Flower School in Bethesda, Maryland and at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart. She was raised in a faithful Catholic family, to the extent that her godfather is a Jesuit priest, Fr. Jim Shea.  She says she is grounded by her religion.

"My Catholic faith is very important to me," Ledecky said in a recent magazine interview, "It always has been and it always will be.  It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith."

Ledecky says prayer is a big part of her preparation for competitions, "I do say a prayer, or two, before any race. The Hail Mary is a beautiful prayer and I find it calms me."

Simone Biles...
Then there's four-time gold medalist, Simone Biles, the 2016 Olympic individual all-around gold medal winner in women's gymnastics, women's vault, floor exercise and women's team all-around, four-time national champion and three-time world champion.

Biles is known for her fun-loving and energetic attitude, gravity-defying jumps and discipline and precision.  Yet, the only constant in her young life has been her faith.

Her mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol and lost custody of her kids when Simone was three.  The gymnast has been living with her grandparents, Ron and Nellie Biles, who adopted her and her younger sister and they call "mom and dad," ever since.

The 19-year-old attends Mass with her family every Sunday at St. James the Apostle, where she was Confirmed, and says part of her routine includes lighting a candle and praying to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes, before every meet.  She also says prayer is a big part of her life and she carries a rosary, that her mom Nellie got her at church, at all times.

In the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the saint writes, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way as to take the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline.  They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable."  (1 Cor 9:24-25)

It appears all these athletes are training and competing for the prize that will have eternal reward...

[photo credit: Getty images]

Friday, August 12, 2016

Words of Wisdom on Trusting God Through Suffering...

"The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day.
Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings."

-- St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622),  17th Century Bishop of Geneva, and Doctor of the Church, who as a priest was known for his patience and gentle approach to quell religious division after the Protestant Reformation.  He was a lawyer by trade and, after convincing his father to allow him to enter the priesthood, he was just as successful in sharing the Catholic faith and converting Calvinists in Geneva.  He would preach to them and hand out pamphlets that he would write himself.  St. Francis is said to have returned tens of thousands back into the Catholic fold.  The "brilliant apologist," as some have described, was known for practicing his axiom, "A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar."  Well recognized for his book, Introduction to the Devout Life, which is hailed by Catholics and many Prostestants alike, he also wrote, A Treatise on the Love of God, and hundreds of pamphlets, which were later assembled as, The Catholic Controversy, and letters addressed to the laity.  Along with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, he founded the women's Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.  He was canonized in 1665 by Pope Pius IX just 43 years after his death.  His feast day is celebrated by the Church on January 24th...  

For more on St. Francis de Sales, check out Word on Fire article by clicking here...


Sunday, July 31, 2016

Legos, Anger and Bad Examples...

A mess waiting to happen...
"If dad thinks I don't care about legos, I don't care about him."

The words of an angry 8-year-old boy, written in crayon underneath his blanket one night, after being chastised by his father, who, in his own frustration and anger at the mess in the boy's room, stomped on his Legos a couple of times, hurting his heel in the process and causing a major commotion in the household.

"If you don't care about your Legos," the father was heard yelling, "Then, I don't either!"

I was limping for several days afterwards, which my wife says serves me right!

I hate Legos!  Well, maybe, hate is too strong a word but I never had them as a kid, which might explain my substandard prowess in anything that's handy, and like them even less as an adult.  It drives me crazy to see the disarray my son makes in his room, which sometimes takes days to cleanup. (The "cleanup, everybody do your part" song doesn't work like it used to!)

Then again, I played with army soldiers, knights, cowboys and Indians figurines and baseball cards, which were often found spread all over our family room and drove my mom crazy.  Maybe, it's a right of passage!

In any case, after throwing a tantrum, chewing out my son (alienating my wife in the process) and putting him and the girls to bed (they share the same room), I went to bed myself (Obviously, the mood was a bit tense).

A little while later, as I started drifting off, I began hearing ruffling in the kids' room and got up to see what was happening.

"What's going on?" I asked in a firm whisper.

Our oldest daughter quickly gave him away.

"He was coloring under his blanket."

My son got up in a huff, stomping off (literally, his feet pounding on the wood floor) into the bathroom, turned on the light, and challenged me like Doc Holiday challenged Johnny Ringo, when he said, "I'm your huckleberry," in movie Tombstone.

He showed me his note, sort of like saying, "What are you going to do about it?"

In fact, when I couldn't make out what it stated, because, since it was written under the covers, his lines ran into each other, he helped me read it.

From the depths of his heart...
"If dad thinks I don't care about Legos, I don't care about him," he said defiantly.

When he finished, he glared at me with his head slightly tilted downward and his pupils piercing me from the upper half of his eyes. It was very menacing, if it weren't so funny.

I controlled my laughter and glared back at him. We had a short stare down; a contest of male testosterone between a 52-year-old man and an 8-year-old boy.

After about a minute, he couldn't hold it any longer and cracked a smile.  But, quickly wiped the smirk off and kept glaring at me with the same scowl on his face.

I kept a straight face, while thinking; wow, if this is when he's eight, what's going to happen when he's sixteen or seventeen?  I'll be in my 60's!  I should start getting in better shape!

He cracked another smile and, just as quickly, shook it off again.

I was a bit perplexed by this lion king encounter so I decided to break the silence, "Do you really care about your Legos?"

He nodded without saying a word.

"Then why have they been all over the room for a couple of days, where the dogs can eat them?"  He just kept staring at me.

"If you care about something," I continued, "Do you take care of it?"

"Yes," he answered.

"Does leaving your Legos on the floor, where the dogs can eat them, and, you know, they have eaten them many times, seem like you're taking care of them?"

"No," he admitted with a hint of shame in his voice.

"If you don't care about them, why should I?"

He just looked at me silently.  His countenance slightly changing from anger to dejection, as he thought about what I said.

Unfortunately, he probably gets his fiery temper from me.

In fact, even when I'm not angry, I'm very passionate, animated and loud when moved by a topic or when I know I'm right (which is not often with my wife but a little more common with my kids), making even my wife think that I am angry.

Although, most people would describe me as quiet and reserved (and dare I say, patient, which my wife would disagree with!), I have a tendency to lose it on occasions; whether with my kids, my friends, my co-workers or, to a lesser extent, my wife (Let's just say, I rather not share a pillow with the dogs, if given a choice!).

A few days after the Legos incident, I had a melt down at work, ripping into another manager during a heated meeting.  It's my natural response, especially when I think someone is trying to intimidate me.  I've been battling the instinct since my youth.

There have been many times in my life, many that, frankly speaking, I'm embarrassed about, including my cousin's wedding, which ended in a fracas that I started, or the night I spent in jail, which I have written about in the past, where my hothead nature has gotten the best of me.

I realize it comes down to pride, since, as I heard a psychologist say once, the only reason people get angry is because other people don't do what they want!

Apparently, my son has inherited the same ornery disposition.  It's not something I'm proud of, especially when I see him snapping at his sisters.  He even yells at the dogs at times!

They say kids learn more from watching their parents then listening to them and I know I need to set a better example.

On the bright side, heaven is replete with saints who once had short tempers.

The most notorious being St. Peter, the first among the Apostles, who cut off a man's ear when he went to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Also, St. Jerome, a fourth century priest and historian, who single handedly translated the Bible into Latin from the original Greek and Hebrew, was notorious for his bad temper.  However, he used his wit and pen to destroy his rivals.

Then, there was St. Louis de Montfort, who once decked a couple of drunks who wouldn't stop heckling him while he preached!

I can only hope and pray that, in spite of myself, I can help lead my son to heaven.

Now, getting back to the my son's note story.

"Do you really care about your Legos?" I asked him.

"Yes," he answered.

"So, are you going to pick them up tomorrow?"

"Yes," he replied, as he nodded.

"Then let's go to bed,"  I said and kissed him on the head, as he walked back into his room.

After reflecting on it and praying for more patience, as I usually do (And, you can just imagine if I didn't!), the next day, on the way to drop them off, I apologized for my behavior.  

"Daddy flies off the handle sometimes," I offered.

My oldest daughter said, "We know."

"I need to do better.  I'm sorry," and they all looked at me forgivingly.

Alexander Pope once wrote, "To err is human, to forgive, divine."

Thank God for putting these three forgiving souls in my life and for inspiring the invention of Legos to teach me a lesson on kids and bad examples...

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Peter Kreeft on Looking for Love...

Looking for love in all the wrong places...

"The poor suckers who are going from one affair to another are looking for love and not finding it.  If they found it, they wouldn't be so disappointed and so desperate.  They wouldn't be moving all the time, because you don't move away from happiness, you move away from unhappiness.... 

When there's love there, nothing in life can be better.  And, when there's no love there, nothing in life can be worse." 

-- Peter Kreeft in Jacob's Ladder 10 Steps to Truth...

Monday, July 18, 2016

Distractions and Choosing the Better Part...

So many ways to numb our minds... 
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.  She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?  Tell her to help me."  The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need for only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her."  (Luke 10:38-42)

We live extremely busy lives.

In my case, I was telling some friends recently, my wife and I are so busy with our schedules, kids and work that we hardly spend time having meaningful conversation any more.

Between me coming home late, my wife's many businesses (Zumba, translations, real estate, Beach Body), the girls' dancing, our son, household chores, volunteering at our parish, worrying about finances and the daily bombardment of negative news of the unstable world we live in (And, it's not like I can avoid it.  I work in news!), often times, we are so overwrought with anxieties and concerns, that we just want to disconnect and medicate ourselves with television, social media or other distractions.  We realize it's a problem and are already trying to address it but I'm sure the pace we live is not uncommon.

One recent Sunday, the parish priest at St. Isabel Catholic Church in Sanibel, where we vacation every year, was making that very point in reference to the story from Luke's Gospel.

He said that we are so distracted with tweets, posts, emails, iPhones, iPads and so many other things (and now, as if we didn't have enough bemusement, Pokemon Go comes out!), that we are forgetting and missing out on the important things in life;  the transcendent things that really matter.

I tell my daughter and her friends that the millennial generation makes easy targets for terrorists, since they are so absorbed in their virtual world on their phones that a man can be pulling out an AK-47 and loading it next to them and no one would notice!

Furthermore, because our focus is on trivial things, like how many likes our last post got, God and family, which are constants in our lives, are easily taken for granted.

How many times has my news station not reported on a mother or father who forgets their sleeping baby in the back seat of their car, leaving them to die in the scorching South Florida sun?  Or of an unattended child falling and drowning in a pool or canal near their home?  It happens over and over and we wonder how it can happen?

Yet, by the same token, how many marriages are failing in the United States and kids growing up in single-parent homes for basically the same reason; neglect, distraction, lack of attention?

We let things go because we are too busy doing other things.  Things that are less important like posting pictures, sending tweets and answering work emails from home, only to react when it's too late; the baby suffocated, the child drowned, the marriage dissolved.

I think Jesus was making that point in the story of Mary and Martha.

Catholic author and speaker, Fr. Larry Richards always asks in his talks, how do you fall in love with someone?  By spending time with them.  And, how do you fall in love with God?  The same way.

St. Francis de Sales used to say that everyone should spend at least half an hour a day in prayer, except the busy people.  The busy people should spend an hour.

It goes back to the Sunday Mass at St. Isabel, where the the priest said we needed to be more like Mary, listening, absorbing and contemplating God, so that it propels us to be more like Martha in service to others; not for the sake of busyness, distraction or to get attention, but out of love, for the sake of another.

Mother Teresa once wrote, "The fruit of silence is prayer.  The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love.  The fruit of love is service.  The fruit of service is peace."

And, service begins at home...

Friday, June 17, 2016

A Family's Peace Broken and their Lives Shattered Forever...

A smile that could light up the world...
Peace, tranquility, joy, love, contentment; just some of the emotions that may have filled the hearts of the Graves family, as they sat on the beach at Disney World's Grand Floridian Resort last Tuesday night, while their 2-year-old son, Lane, waded in about a foot of water nearby.

According to witnesses, it was movie night at the resort and Disney's Zootopia was playing. Families were spread out throughout the beach and hotel property; some roasting marshmallows and conversing, while others lounged back and watched the film, as kids ran around, without a care in the world.  And, why would they?

They felt safe.  They were on vacation in beautiful and fantastical surroundings, encircled by their parents, other adults and children in the self-advertised, "happiest place on earth." The night had fallen.  The waters were calm.  Serenity filled the air.

And then, in an instant, before Matt Graves was able to react, an alligator jumped out of the water and snatched his son from the edge of the beach.

The father, apparently just a few feet away, jumped frantically into the water in an attempt to wrestle the boy from the gator's jaws but his attempts were futile.  The large reptile dove into the murky waters of the man-made lake, slipped from the father's grasp, cutting his hands in the process, and disappeared without a trace into the darkness.

As a father of an eight-year-old son, who not long ago was a rambunctious two-year-old that liked to play near the edge of the water during our vacations in Sanibel Beach, I couldn't imagine the horror and despair that Matt Graves felt.  The feelings of shock, desperation and helplessness that may have consumed him, his wife, Melissa, and their 4-year-old daughter, as they stood by the shore, moments after their boy disappeared.

It is a heart-wrenching thought that I haven't been able to shake for the past couple of days.  It's one that, I'm sure, will haunt the Graves forever.

Seeing the photograph of that angelic-looking little boy with a big smile and gorgeous blue eyes; full of hope and happiness, breaks my heart.  It actually brought tears to my eyes as I sat at my keyboard writing this blog today.

It was three days into the Graves family vacation and five days before Fathers' Day; a Father's Day that may feel like pure agony for him this year.

Another boy in same spot minutes before... 
Lane's body was recovered about eighteen hours later, in six-feet deep waters, about ten to fifteen yards from where he was taken by the predator.

Orange County Sheriff, Jerry Demings, and a Catholic priest delivered the tragic news after the body was found.  The Sheriff said that the boy's corpse, while suffering traumatic injuries, appeared intact.

"The family was distraught but also, I believe, relieved that we were able to find their son," he said.

In a statement to the press on Thursday, the family wrote, "Words cannot describe the shock and grief our family is experiencing over the loss of our son.  We are devastated and ask for privacy during this extremely difficult time."

While overshadowed by the massacre in Orlando that ended the lives of forty-nine victims, just a few miles away, the Graves' story resonates with many parents like me.  It is a sad reminder of how fleeting life is and how it can change at a moment's notice.

At work, a few of us with younger children held an extensive conversation on the tragedy.  A co-worker admitted to having been to the beach at a Disney property at night to watch fireworks and letting her kids play near the water; never imagining that danger could lurk in the dark.    

Some have questioned the parents.  Where were they?  Why weren't they watching their son closely? Someone has to be responsible.  Someone always gets blamed.

Yet, another mother from Massachusetts, whose three-year-old son was playing in the same area that Lane was attacked only 45 minutes earlier, says it's unfair.  Jennifer Venditti Roye told People Magazine that she went up to her room because her son was tired. Still, she chose to let her son near and in the edge of the water to take pictures, "I consider myself a conscientious parent and I allowed my child to do that same thing right before the incident, never thinking that an alligator might be in that central area."

The entire town of Elkhorn, Nebraska, near Omaha, where the family is from is in mourning.  Friends and family are distraught, including members of the parish community of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, where the little girl goes to school and the Graves attend.

They have been praying rosaries for God to give the family solace and consolation since news broke.

After the fact, Disney closed all its beaches and on Friday, started putting up barriers around the water.  

But, it was too late for the Graves, whose only warning was a sign that stated, "No swimming," and, too late for Lane; no more peace, no more joy, no more contentment; at least, for now.  They are left picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

This morning at Mass, I thought of the family in prayer, as my mind briefly drifted to the horrific episode of the father diving into the water and trying in futility to save his son, putting myself in Matt Graves place, as I have done dozens of times, only to come back to the reality of the liturgy during the Agnus Dei, as the congregation recited, "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.  Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.  Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us (them) peace."  How apropos, I thought.

May the Lord have mercy on the Graves, bring them comfort and peace again and strengthen their faith to help them through this difficult and trying time...

Monday, June 13, 2016

Mike Piazza: From Undraftable to Hall of Fame (Through Faith)...

Wearing the tools of ignorance...
"Then the draft came, and I sat by the phone, and the draft was over.  All of a sudden, blowing off high school didn't seem such a swell idea.  I hadn't expected to go in the first round, or any such thing, but even to the end, in spite of all the signs, I'd been unable -- or maybe unwilling -- to actually believe that not a single team would find me draftable."  -- Mike Piazza.

Professional sports are replete with stories of athletes who went from being overlooked or ignored to achieving greatness in the due course of time.  On a pedestrian level, the story of hard-nosed Philadelphia Phillies shortstop, Larry Bowa, who was cut by his high school coach, always comes to mind.

But, by far, my favorite tale of an unwanted player achieving stardom is that of one of my all-time favorite baseball players, Mike Piazza, arguably the best hitting catcher to ever play the game.

Piazza wasn't drafted out of high school.  And, when he finally was selected, it was in the 62nd round; more out of courtesy than than anything else.  As I tell my son, that means every team in the Major Leagues went around and drafted a first pick, a second pick, a third pick, ...a seventh pick, ...a fifteenth pick, ...a fiftieth pick, and then, with their last pick of the draft (which no team nowadays drafts past the 40th round), the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Michael Joseph Piazza.  As he described it, he was a slow-footed player from a small school in Pennsylvania, who really didn't have a true position.  He played first base in high school and his range and footwork were suspect at best.

He was actually drafted as a favor to Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda, who was a childhood and close friend of Piazza's father, Vince, but the team had no real intention of ever signing or bringing him to minor league camp.

Ironically, next month, that slow-footed player with no position, who was only drafted as a favor, will be inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame, joining Tom Seaver, another one of my childhood idols, as the only New York Mets (which happens to be my favorite team!) to ever be enshrined.

Nevertheless, aside from his play on the field, what has endeared the twelve-time All-Star, record-holder for career home runs by a catcher (427), 1993 NL Rookie of the Year and lifetime .308 hitter, to me even further, over the last several years, is reading and learning his openness about his faith.

He serves as a member of Catholic Athletes for Christ, is a faith-based public speaker and Catholic ambassador of sorts, making appearances on Catholic DVD's, EWTN, Cardinal Timothy Dolan's radio show and other media outlets.  At one point in his life, he even seriously considered becoming a deacon.

"I'm proud to be Roman Catholic," he writes in his autobiography, Long Shot, "My Christian faith is fundamental and precious to me -- the cornerstone of my life.  I think it was a gift, not unlike my ability to hit a baseball.  But I'm not a theologian.  I'm just a former ballplayer who wishes to join the fight against the decline of religion in our society."

Piazza was raised in a devout Catholic family, where the faith was lived, especially by his mother, and Sunday Mass at St. Ann's Church in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania was not an option for him and his four brothers.  He continued to attend Mass in college, the minor leagues and even the majors; straying from time to time, like many of us, but always finding his way back.

Since he will enter the company of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived on July 24th in Cooperstown, along with Seattle Mariner standout, Ken Griffey, Jr., I recently read his book, which was a gift from my brother that had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years.

In it, he writes about his life, his career, his faith, including his audience with Pope John Paul II, his ongoing battle with Roger Clemens, steroids, and his internal struggles with the temptations of big league baseball.

Long Shot...
In fact, Piazza credits his faith for helping him get past all the rejection and pessimism; like never getting a phone call after being drafted, like being benched in the minors, which prompted him quit, only to come back with his tail between his legs, to the constant doubts and remarks about his defense, being humiliated in front of his minor league teammates and told he couldn't practice with the real prospects, and much more.

"Faith is what pulled me through a lot of adverse, daunting, humbling situations in my baseball career.  I didn't always stick close to my spirituality - I strayed from it much more than I should have - and yet, it stuck with me unfailingly.  I had a little talent and a lot of determination, but the fact was, I had no business doing what I did in baseball.  My career, frankly, was a miracle."    

Yet, through it all, no one ever doubted one thing; his bat.  He could flat out hit a baseball like few have ever done.

In fact, in high school, one of his childhood heroes, Ted Williams, who, in my book, is the greatest pure hitter to ever play the game, was invited through another friend of his dad's to watch Mike hit in a backyard batting cage he had set up with a pitching machine.

After watching the kid from Phoenixville take several swings, Williams started repeating, "This kid looks good!"  Then he said, "I'm going to tell you the truth - I don't think I hit the ball as good as he does when I was 16."  Yelling in the direction of Piazza, he said, "I'll be your agent, Buddy."

Yet, despite tearing up high school pitching, he was ignored in the draft.

Instead Piazza had to rely on the first of many big favors from Lasorda; first to get another friend of his, Ron Fraser, the coach at the University of Miami, to give him a spot on the team.  Piazza sat on the bench for the entire season with the Hurricanes.

Then, in his sophomore year, he transferred to Miami-Dade Community College, where another of Lasorda's friends, Doc Mainieri was coaching.  Mainieri wasn't thrilled but told Piazza to come on over and he ended up having a stellar year playing first base.

It was at Miami-Dade, where the serious thought of moving behind the plate began to take shape.

Shortly thereafter, he began to work on his catching skills and, after getting a workout (through Lasorda, of course), with Dodger catcher Joe Ferguson, who raved about his potential, he was finally drafted.

The rest, as they say, is history.

For any player trying to live their faith as a Major League baseball player is a challenge.  But, being an instant superstar, as Piazza was in his first year, when he hit .318, with 35 home runs, and 112 runs batted in, en route to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year, makes it even harder.

Piazza writes, "My world had been rocked, and there was a battle going on inside me.  On one hand, as a young, single, Rookie of the Year candidate in the most glamorous city in America, I felt I had an image to live up to; the rock-star thing was a powerful temptation.... I was floating between two worlds, following my moral compass one night, and the next, the macho beats in my headphones. There were some very compelling, confusing contradictions that I had to deal with constantly.  On the occasions when I did step out, I made a point of going to confession afterwards."

Then came New York; the Penthouse interview, September 11th, rumors of his sexuality and much more.

The Penthouse interview was what he calls a huge blunder in his first year in New York.  He was still trying to acclimate himself to the Big Apple and his agent, Danny Lozano, had been urging him to do more interviews, with one exception: Penthouse.  As a Catholic, Lozano advised Piazza to stay away.

Living the dream...
Trying to be his own man, he went behind his agent's back and did the interview anyway, where he made some remarks on abortion that he immediately regretted.  "As soon as I said those things, I was pretty sure that I'd screwed up, and my mother erased any remaining doubt.  She made it abundantly clear that she was disappointed in me as a Catholic, a man, and a Piazza."

However, if there was a time that secured his place in the annals of Mets and New York City history it was September 11, 2001, and its aftermath.

The team was in Pittsburgh when the attack happened and the players were bused back to New York the following day.  They became goodwill ambassadors; visiting hospitals, fire stations, police headquarters and making public appearances to lift people's morale.  They even organized and volunteered at staging areas for water and supplies to be collected and distributed in Shea Stadium and, after a ten day layoff, Major League Baseball let them play.

Forty one thousand fans packed that first game back.  Many, I'm sure, to forget their troubles for a few hours and get a taste of normalcy. The festivities included police officers, fire fighters, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a twenty-one gun salute, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and lots of raw unbridled emotions.  People were chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"

With the Mets down 2 to 1, one out and one on in the bottom of the 8th, Mike Piazza step up to the plate and willed his way, as he had done for most of his career, into the legends books.

He writes, "I caught that fastball with the full force of my emotional rush.  When it cleared the fence just left of center and caromed off a distant TV camera, I thought the stadium would crumble into rubble.  It was a moment for New Yorkers - the Americans on hand - to let it all out at last, whatever they felt.  To scream, to cheer, to chant, to hug, to cry, to jump up and down in celebration of something happy again, something normal and familiar and fun again; of getting their lives back, at least in some small way."

However, as is New York, the following season, with the memories of 9/11 and his epic home run still fresh in people's minds, a scandal broke in the media.  Rumors started circulating that he was gay!  He laughed it off at first but the rumors started snowballing and gaining momentum.  Players and coaches were being asked about it.  Front office people were being questioned.  Articles were written about whether baseball was ready for a gay player.  Radio shows discussed it at length.

Piazza was forced to hold an impromptu press conference to say, "I'm not gay.  I'm heterosexual.... I date women" and many were still left wondering.

He writes, "The experience changed me almost immediately.  I'd never strayed far from my Catholicism, but at that point I reaffirmed my faith.  I became more inward and philosophical, lower-key.  I realized that the life of the playboy sports star wasn't fulfilling me or even making me superficially happy.  I was carrying on that way, in large part, because I felt like I should, and I felt like I should because everybody else seemed to think so.  I'd allowed myself to be caught in a tangle of image and expectation."

I'll be honest, as a lifelong Mets' fan, I wasn't as excited when the team got Piazza in '98, as I was when they picked up another catching great, Gary Carter in the mid 80's, mainly because I knew it was the end of Todd Hundley, who at the time held the single-season record for most home runs by a catcher, forty-one, and I once considered naming my first-born son after (Thank God, she was a girl, or he would have spent his entire life explaining why he was named Hundley Espinosa! Not to mention, Hundley was traded shortly afterwards and his career came to an abrupt ending due to injuries and problems with alcoholism!). As you may have noticed, I have an affinity for catchers, having played the position from the time I was ten-years-old until I hung up my cleats in my early forties.

Yet, on Piazza's last day as a Met in 2005, I can honestly say I cried.  In my defense, just to put into perspective, even my brother, another die-hard Mets fan, admitted to having cried as well!  

In fact, I'm sure many Mets fans shed a few tears that day.

Final farewell to fans at Shea...
I remember watching his last game with the Mets.  He was pulled from the game after taking the field in the eighth inning, so that the crowd of over 47,000, who, with the Mets long eliminated from the post-season and playing another non-consequential team in the Colorado Rockies, came for one reason; to say goodbye to Mike Piazza, could give him a well deserved sendoff.  Yet, while I was torn up emotionally, I was bit disappointed he wouldn't get up for his last at bat!

I wasn't the only one.  Piazza writes, "During the seventh-inning stretch, they showed my feature video... I happened to look over into the Rockies dugout, and they were standing applauding... When the video was finished, the fans brought me out for three curtain calls, I gotta tell you, it was touching.... I was still 0 for 3 when I reported to my position behind the plate in the top of the eight and Mike DiFelice trotted out to replace me.  Randolph (Manager) was allowing me to receive one final ovation as I left the field.  It was a loaded moment.  I could see people crying in the crowd.  At the same time, my dad and brothers were up in our box going, "No! Give him one more at-bat!  He may go deep!"  

Piazza went on to play a couple of more years for the San Diego Padres and Oakland A's but his heart remained with the Mets, the team whose hat he will wear when immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

On a personal level, Piazza married model, Alicia Rickter, before the start of his final season with the Mets at St. Jude Catholic Church in Miami, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, ages 9 and 6, and 2-year-old son.

After all is said and done, the man who was once considered undraftable knows that his struggles and fairy tale ending were all part of a bigger plan.

"It has been an amazing journey and everything I have, I owe to God, for without His help, none of this would be possible.  He blessed me with the ability to play the greatest game in the world and it has been a dream come true."...