Mike Piazza: A Hall of Famer Both On the Field and Off
I was all of six-years old when Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round of the 1988 amateur draft. No one knew who he was or what he would become, and I was not unique.
1988 would be the year that I became a Dodger fan for life. Watching Kirk Gibson put a look of anger and disgust on my father's face as Eckersley serves up a slider is one of my earliest memories, and definitely one of my fondest.
In the years after 1988, I followed Mike Scioscia religiously. I was an aspiring Italian catcher. We both didn't run too well, but we caught a good game and could hit. I didn't think I could ever like a player as much as I liked Mike Scioscia.
Around 1991, I purchased a pack of minor-league baseball cards from a card shop in San Diego, and found a Mike Piazza—Albuquerque Dukes card. In a scene strangely similar to the opening of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, I remember my face lighting up at the sight of this new player. Young, Italian, catcher who appeared to have good pop in his bat from the stats on the back of the card. I decided then, as little boys of nine do, to make him my new favorite player.
1992 was the year when I expected great things from the Dodgers. They had a Rookie of the Year in Eric Karros, former prison bunkmates Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, along with Brett Butler, Orel Hershiser, Tom Candiotti, and two sets of pitching brothers; Kevin and Kip Gross and Ramon and Pedro Martinez.
I couldn't have asked more from this team, but they called up young studs Billy Ashley and Mike Piazza that September. The team was terrible, but I didn't care. Insight Cable had a KTLA feed that let me watch Piazza struggle in limited appearances throughout that final month of the year.
Then came the fall of 1992. My father had told me about a new-fangled league for top prospects that would be played in our backyard. The Arizona Fall League had begun, and we would make the trip down Bell Road in to Sun City to watch the Solar Sox do battle. The starting catcher for the Solar Sox, who turned out the be the Dodgers' affiliate, was that same young Dukes' catcher—Mike Piazza.
The informalities of Fall Ball allowed me to secure autographs of every great player in the game today. Each of which is inscribed on a ball along with the likes of Desi Reliford and the aforementioned Billy Ashley. Mike Piazza's autograph was different and I made sure that it would not go spoiled. He was kind, responsive, and genuinely appreciative to have someone want his autograph. I will never forget it.
After tearing up the Arizona Fall League, Mike Piazza was brought in to fill the shoes of the second-best catcher the Dodgers had ever seen, Mike Scioscia. His 1993 season started with a bang, and before long, Piazza had secured a Silver Slugger award, a Rookie of the Year award, and placed ninth in MVP voting, while helping the Dodgers to a .500 record.
He led the team in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, runs scored, total bases, home runs, RBI, and just about every other offensive stat that didn't involve running. He was the new king of LA. He was a star.
That same year, my fourth-grade teacher, knowing how big of a Dodgers fan I was, called up her buddy Mickey Hatcher to get me some Dodgers' paraphernalia. What I ended up with was an uncut sheet of the entire 1993 team and a ball signed by Mickey and "some other guy who wanted to sign it", Mike Piazza. How lucky a kid was I?
This floored me, and to this day, if I ever have five minutes alone with Mickey Hatcher, I will tell him this story and thank him. That autographed ball meant more to me than the one I got myself the year before. It meant that Mike Piazza cared about his fans.
As Mike was starting out, he was often criticized for his terrible defense. No one can argue that the man had trouble throwing runners out, but at the same time, the critics all ignored his ability to call games and block the plate. Few remember the 1995 Ramon Martinez no-hitter that Piazza called. Even fewer recall the 1996 Hideo Nomo no-hitter at Coors Field that Piazza sat behind the plate for.
Piazza wrangled a pitching staff made up of Rick Reed, Glendon Rusch, and Bobby Jones, and took them to the World Series. Once Piazza got away from the wild-throwing foreign pitchers in L.A., he kept his passed-ball count in the single digits. He even had a season with 121 games behind the plate, where he allowed only eight passed balls and 15 wild pitches.
The Dodgers broke my heart in 1998. I can tell you the time of day, the month, the year, my location, and recall a significant number of people with me the minute that I found out Piazza had been traded to the Marlins.
In a fire-sale exchange that was too good for L.A. to pass up but stupid enough to make, Piazza was moved to Florida for a slew of players I still boo to this day. Thankfully, eight days later, I was able to be happy for Mike again, as he had been traded, and given a long-term deal with the New York Mets.
Watching Piazza in the orange and black proved to be difficult for the first few years. As the Mets made their stops in Arizona, I would put on my black Piazza jersey and stand and cheer for him. When the Mets knocked the Diamondbacks out of the playoffs, I got into a physical fight with a D'backs fan at Bank One Ballpark while defending Piazza.
I was infuriated when Clemens beaned Piazza, and further enraged when pieces of a broken bat were thrown in his general direction. Mr. Clemens, you deserve everything that you are getting now. Piazza was never really the same hitter after he was beaned. He still had flashes of brilliance, but failed to command the inside of the plate, which allowed him to get punched out over and over again by inside breaking balls.
During his injury-shortened 2003 season, I was able to go watch the Mets at Bank One Ballpark once again. I stood over the Mets' dugout hoping for Mike to come out, but knowing that he was injured and probably not with the team.
Before I could even think about giving up, Piazza appeared, dressed in street clothes, and quickly obliged when I asked for an autograph. Realizing I didn't have anything significant to sign, I pulled the jersey off my back and tossed it down. He signed it beautifully and I was, again, forever grateful.
In 2005, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to move to New York for a while and watch Mike Piazza on his home turf. After years of watching him be booed by D'backs fans, I longed for the days at Dodger Stadium when the crowd loved him. I took in many games at Shea that year and every time Piazza came to the plate, he received a standing ovation. Every home run, every single, even every out, the fans loved him. It was his final year as a Met, and these true baseball fans were showing their appreciation. I was glad that I could be there for it.
2006 brought some significant changes for Mike Piazza, but they were all wonderful for me. When I found out Mike was going to the Padres, I was elated. While I hated the Padres, I got to see them five to 10 times during Spring Training, and eight to 10 times during the season. It would be great for me.
2006 was also the year that Mike suited up for the Italian National Team in the World Baseball Classic. I quickly bought an Italia jersey, and toted it to every early Spring Training game I could. I'd stand at the fence and beg for Mike to sign it. He finally did during one of his last games before leaving for Florida and the WBC. He commented on the Italia jersey, and said that he didn't see too many of them. I told him that I thought they would do better than he expected.
Hopefully he expected them to do better than they did.
As 2007 rolled around, I worried it would be Mike's final year. I had enjoyed most of my life having him be a part of it. I had amassed one of the larger collections of Mike Piazza memorabilia, and had fond memories of his playing days. To see him go to the American League and become a DH was disappointing to me, but I knew it was what he had to do to remain in the game.
2007 was also the year that my wife and I were getting married, and we had one objective during that Spring Training.
Our Save-The-Date cards were made to look like baseball cards and featured me in my Mike Piazza Dodgers' jersey and my wife in her Craig Counsell Diamondbacks' jersey. We were determined to get each of them to sign them.
We secured Counsell's early in the Spring, and he was happy to sign it. Piazza proved to be more difficult because he did not warm up like those players in the field. On one of the last days of Spring, I caught him running sprints from the first baseline to center field. Fans yelled and begged, and he came over but missed me.
I moved down closer to the dugout and waited for him to work his way down. As he got closer, he finished up and headed off towards the dugout. Something about "sign my wedding announcement" must have made him stop, because he came back and laughed as he signed the card.
Piazza was the greatest hitting-catcher of all time, and, because of that, he deserves the Hall of Fame. His imperfections as a defensive catcher were great, but they were made up for by his hard work and his personality. If ever there was a baseball player that seemed to appreciate being in the game as well as his fans, it was Mike Piazza. He worked hard to get to where he is now, and I wish him nothing but the best. He has brought happiness and a love of baseball over his 16 seasons. You're a class act Mike Piazza, congratulations.
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