It’s probably going to be a quiet few days in Cooperstown when Hall of Fame weekend rolls around this summer. The baseball writers did not elect anybody this year despite some heavyweight candidates. The problem was that at least three of the poster boys for the steroids era, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa, were on the ballot for the first time. The writers were clearly making a statement when nobody got elected.
One player who was on the ballot, but not directly linked to performance enhancing drugs, was Mike Piazza. In the last 20 years he was one the best offensive catchers the game has ever produced. He had a lifetime batting average of more than .300 and hit more than 30 home runs nine times. He had a so-so arm that hurt him defensively, but his offensive production more than made up for it.
Piazza would probably be a first-time Hall of Famer in another reality but playing during the steroid era made everyone suspect. If the clean players had spoken up for testing at the time (assuming there were clean players) then it would be easier to believe that not everyone was doing PEDs in one form or another. It certainly didn’t help Piazza to be eligible for the Hall of Fame at the same time as Bonds, Clemens and Sosa.
Piazza has just published his autobiography, called “Long Shot.” What is captivating about his story is the rags-to-riches nature of his pursuit of a Major League career. He was a 62nd round draft choice of the Los Angeles Dodgers and was only drafted as a favor to the Dodgers’ manager, Tommy Lasorda, who was close friends with Piazza’s father.
From a physical standpoint, he didn’t make a good catching prospect. Piazza didn’t have a strong arm, so on the surface he was a defensive liability. He was slow afoot and lacked range, so he wasn’t suited for any other position, including first base. The big thing was he could hit. Catching became the fallback position because basically nobody wants to pursue a Major League career with the goal of being a designated hitter.
Piazza clearly came from a close-knit family (he had four brothers) but you get the distinct impression that his father was overbearing. Piazza’s dad saw his ability early on and pushed him hard to become the best hitter he could be. Piazza was consistently working on his hitting in make-shift batting cages at his family’s house. It became an obsession that he devoured, but you get the impression he didn’t have much choice.
His upbringing had his perks as well. Growing up near Philadelphia, Piazza went to several Phillies games and, because of his dad’s friendship with Lasorda, was the visiting batboy whenever the Dodgers came to town. One time Ted Williams even came to his house to observe his hitting and left impressed.
Piazza excelled at the junior level, but was not originally drafted out of high school. He ended up at the University of Miami for a year and then Miami-Dade North Community College. When he was finally taken with the token pick in the 62nd round he wasn’t considered much of a prospect. It meant he had to work that much harder to make it to the majors.
The humility of rejection made Piazza tougher and more determined to succeed. He developed a surly side that never really disappeared. The end result was huge success on the diamond but an awkward relationship with the fans and media.
When he first appeared on the scene in Los Angeles it seemed like he would be a Dodger for life. But he felt disrespected by the Dodgers’ front office and ended up being traded just before he became a free agent. Piazza eventually ended up with the Mets where he spent the majority of his career. He continued to hit for power and average, but also a catcher you could steal bases on.
He had a couple of highly publicized run-ins with superstar pitcher Roger Clemens. Clemens once beaned him in the head and another time tossed a broken bat at him during the World Series. Clemens had a reputation as a “head hunter” so it’s quite possible both “accidents” were intentional. In retrospect Piazza thinks he should have gone after him the bat incident but was too startled by Clemens’ excuse that he thought the bat was the ball (How do you mistake a bat for a ball?).
For anyone interested in the subtleties of the game, Piazza demonstrates what a difficult position catcher is to play. The crouching, collisions, knuckle balls and mental focus all take their toll. He was constantly battling injuries. It clearly affected his career as he got older. He provides an unsolicited plug for yoga as the one off-season he tried it he came to spring training with an extra “spring” in his step.
The best aspect of the book is that it is totally candid. Piazza doesn’t mince words about his attitude or his desire to win. Sometimes he’s a bit over the top with his opinions on life, but at least they show he isn’t holding anything back. Nothing comes easy to a 62nd round draft choice.
Does Mike Piazza belong in the Hall of Fame? Based on his stats and reputation he certainly does. If he didn’t cheat the game by using PEDs he definitely deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
For fans of Piazza, the art of catching, Horatio Alger stories, or the mystique of professional athletes, “Long Shot” is a worthwhile journey. His success is one of persistence and one we can all appreciate.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.