Piazza, Michael Joseph ("Mike")

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PIAZZA, Michael Joseph ("Mike")

(b. 4 September 1968 in Norristown, Pennsylvania), baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets who is considered the best-hitting catcher in the history of the game.

Piazza, the second of five sons born to Vincent and Veronica Piazza, was raised in Phoenixville, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father, a high school dropout, worked in a tire plant at night and fixed used cars during the day until he earned enough money to buy a car dealership, which he parlayed into a multimillion-dollar business empire. His mother earned a nursing degree but opted to stay home to care for her sons. When Piazza was eleven, he and his father built a batting cage out of scrap wood in the family's backyard, where Piazza hit 200 to 300 balls each day. In cold weather Piazza would heat the balls on a gas stove and wrap pipe insulation around his bat to prevent his hands from taking a beating. His father owned box seats along the third base line at Veterans Stadium, where Piazza had an unencumbered view of the Philadelphia Phillies' third baseman Mike Schmidt, whom he idolized. When the Los Angeles Dodgers came to town, Piazza sat in an even better seat: his father's childhood friend and distant cousin, the Dodgers' manager Tommy Lasorda, arranged for him to be a batboy.

In the summer of 1984 Ted Williams, the former Boston Red Sox star who once hit over .400 in a season, met Vince Piazza through a mutual friend and found out that he had a son who could hit. He visited the Piazza home to watch the fifteen-year-old slugger in action. Williams said he had never seen a better hitter at such a young age. He recommended that Piazza get his book, The Science of Hitting. When Piazza, who had already read the book, returned from his room with his copy, Williams inscribed it "Don't forget me. One day, I'll be looking for you for tickets to get into the major leagues."

But the major leagues were a long way off for Piazza. Despite batting over .400 and breaking the former Cleveland Indians' slugger Andre Thornton's all-time Phoenixville High School home-run record during his senior year (1986), Piazza attracted scant interest from scouts. With Lasorda's help, Piazza was given opportunities to play college ball at the University of Miami (1986 to 1987) and then at Miami-Dade Community College (1987 to 1988). After friends in five organizations scoffed when Lasorda asked them to draft the first baseman, the Dodgers' manager turned to his own team and said that after forty-four years of service, he was owed a favor. Los Angeles selected Piazza in the sixty-second round of the June 1988 draft. He was the 1,390th player taken, of 1,433 players selected overall. But Piazza was not signed until months after the draft, when he displayed awesome power during a workout at Dodger Stadium, repeatedly hammering balls into the seats. The exhibition of power piqued the interest of Dodgers' scouting director Ben Wade, but he remained skeptical of Piazza's speed and fielding ability. Lasorda recalled asking Wade, "If I brought in a catcher and he swung like that, what would you do?" When Wade said, "I'd try to sign him," Lasorda responded, "Well, then he's a catcher." Wade offered Piazza a $15,000 signing bonus under the condition that he enroll in the Dodgers' Dominican Republic training academy to learn the catching position.

After a stint in spring training in March 1989, Piazza was sent to the rookie league Salem Dodgers in Oregon in June. Piazza was promoted to the Single-A Vero Beach (Florida) Dodgers in March 1990. In June he lost his starting spot to a more polished defensive catcher. Feeling he was being unfairly punished because of Lasorda's perceived favoritism, Piazza quit the team. Four days later he returned and apologized. After the season Dodgers' farm director Charlie Blaney proposed the catcher be released because of his poor attitude. Lasorda intervened, demanding Piazza be given a chance to play every day for a full season. In 1991 Piazza was sent to Class-A Bakersfield (California) and the next year to the Dodgers' Double-A team in San Antonio, Texas, before being promoted to the Triple-A team in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was called up to the Dodgers in September 1992 and hit .232 in twenty-one games. In the off-season Mike Scioscia, the veteran Dodgers catcher, left Los Angeles as a free agent when the team refused to guarantee him a starting position. Piazza was invited to the Dodgers' spring training camp in March 1993. With the starting catching position up for grabs, he hit an astounding .478 and beat out four other players for the job. Piazza did more than just win the starting role; he became an immediate sensation, hitting .318 with 35 homers and 112 runs batted in (RBI) in 1993. He was only the sixth player unanimously selected as the National League Rookie of the Year. He went on to make 6 All-Star teams as a Dodger, capped by a remarkable 1997 season in which he hit .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBI—the best offensive year ever by a catcher.

In 1998, when contract talks between the Dodgers and Piazza broke off, Piazza was traded to the Florida Marlins in a blockbuster seven-player deal. After only five games he was traded to the New York Mets in exchange for three minor leaguers. With Piazza hitting .328, the Mets played their best baseball in years, but they lost their last five games as their catcher struggled, blowing what appeared to be a sure wild-card spot in the play-offs. In what was to become a familiar reprise, fans began to wonder whether the rigors of catching over a full season affected Piazza's hitting late in the year. Despite being roundly booed toward the end of the season, Piazza remained with the Mets, signing a seven-year, $91 million contract in October 1998, making him the highest paid player in baseball history at the time.

Piazza hit forty home runs in 1999 and collected 124 RBI, but he again struggled toward the end of the year. Unlike the previous campaign, the Mets rebounded in time to salvage their season, winning the last four games to force a one-game play-off against the Cincinnati Reds. The Mets beat the Reds 5–0 to qualify for the play-offs for the first time since 1988. They then upset the Arizona Diamondbacks three games to one to advance to the National League East play-offs, where they lost to the Atlanta Braves. In 2000 Piazza powered the Mets to the World Series, hitting thirty-eight home runs. However, his season was marked by confrontations with the New York Yankees' pitcher Roger Clemens. Piazza was struck in the head by a fastball thrown by Clemens during an 8 July game, resulting in a concussion. Piazza, who thought that he had been hit intentionally, had harsh words for Clemens after the contest. Later that year the Mets won an exciting play-off series against the San Francisco Giants. They then dominated the St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League pennant and set up a "subway series" match-up with the New York Yankees.

The second game of the subway series brought the much-anticipated rematch between Piazza and Clemens, the first time the two had faced off since the incident in July. In a bizarre set of events, Piazza broke his bat while connecting with a pitch thrown by Clemens. The barrel of the splintered bat shot toward Clemens, who inexplicably picked up the chunk of wood and fired it like a spear in the direction of Piazza. Stunned, Piazza simply stared at Clemens but did not charge at the Yankees pitcher. The umpires allowed Clemens to remain in the game, which the Yankees won, giving them a 2–0 lead in the series. They eventually captured the series four games to one, with Piazza making the last out on a fly ball to centerfield in game five.

Piazza is the best-hitting catcher in baseball history. Entering the 2001 season, he had hit at least 30 home runs in 6 consecutive years and batted over .300 for 8 straight years. The belief that he would be an even better hitter if he moved back to first base has prompted much debate about the catcher's future. Opponents frequently take advantage of his poor throwing arm, which has a lot to do with the prospective move. But the main reason is the belief that if he were relieved of the physical demands of the catching position, Piazza could become one of baseball's all-time best hitters.

The earliest and most comprehensive source on Piazza's development is Kelly Whiteside, "A Piazza with Everything," Sports Illustrated (5 July 1993). For insight into the relationship between Vince Piazza and Tommy Lasorda and the impact it had on Piazza's development, see Michael Goodman, "Pumped Up Dodger Catcher Building Confidence So He Can Ward Off the Dreaded Sophomore Jinx," Los Angeles Times Magazine (3 Apr. 1994). Jason Reid examines the reasons behind the trade of Piazza from the Dodgers to the Marlins in "This Trade Is History," Los Angeles Times (16 May 1998). Wayne Coffey writes of Piazza's years as a high school slugger in "Hometown Hero: Mets' Piazza Has Become Favorite Son of Phoenixville, PA," New York Daily News (7 June 1998). Joe Gergen traces Piazza's rise to stardom in "Wanderin' Star: Piazza Finds His Home with the Mets," Newsday (5 July 1998).

Daniel Massey