By Mike Piazza, with Lonnie Wheeer
Simon and Schuster
Mike Piazza’s place as baseball’s ultimate draft sleeper has taken on an almost mythic quality over the past 25 years. The field rat who grew up reading Baseball America, dreaming one day he might be written up as a hot prospect, found his name in tiny agate print for the first time in a recap of the 1988 draft. It’s an inspirational tale of a storied franchise plucking the son of the manager’s friend as a personal favor with its 62nd and final pick and winding up with a potential Hall of Famer. Of course, that oversimplification leaves out a few key details, chiefly that the organization had no intention of actually signing Piazza, who couldn’t hack it at the University of Miami and hadn’t turned many heads after transferring to Miami-Dade CC for his sophomore year.
A month after being selected he had to pay his own way out to Los Angeles to try out for the team that held his rights. He subsequently turned batting practice into a home run derby and was rewarded with a $15,000 bonus and a ticket to instructional league. He was still regarded as Tommy Lasorda’s pet in an organization so fractured the label was more burden than blessing. Even after being named to the Northwest League’s all-star team in his pro debut, the skeptics outnumbered the believers.
When his manager at Vero Beach the following season ordered him to bunt repeatedly, even with two strikes, and held him out of the lineup, an immature Piazza had to be talked out of quitting. He returned to the team with his attitude forever altered. It’s clear in his memoir “Long Shot,” co-authored with veteran author Lonnie Wheeler, that time hasn’t smoothed over many of the indignities he suffered on the way up.
“I played with a chip on my shoulder, and admittedly—unapologetically—I’m writing with one, too,” he says in the book’s epilogue. “More than five years since my final single started a ninth-inning, game-winning rally, more than seven since my twelfth All-Star Game, more than eight since I broke the home run record for catchers, I still feel the need for validation.”
This is essentially the theme of the book. Piazza claims that he hopes it will prove an inspirational, all-American, “Horatio Alger underdog” story, but the current that runs through is tinged with bitterness. The drive to prove everyone wrong alienated countless teammates along the journey. If he had three hits he was mad he didn’t have four. If he had four he was pissed he didn’t get five. Slamming helmets and punching dugout walls after making outs earned him a label as a selfish player who cared more about his own stats than the team’s won-loss record.
“On one level, most of my teammates understood;” he writes, “on another, they just shook their heads; and on another, they thought—some, if not most of them—that I was just a total, self-absorbed, narcissistic, red-assed jerk.”
The term “red ass” appears frequently enough throughout the book that one wonders if it might have made a more suitable title than “Long Shot.” The intensity that made him arguably the greatest hitting catcher in baseball history doesn’t always cast him in a positive light. In fact, he comes off in much of the book as a fairly unlikable fellow, particularly during his Dodger years, the peak of his career, when he hit .331 with a .966 OPS over seven seasons. Contentious contract negotiations led to a shocking trade that landed him briefly with Florida, who flipped him to the Mets after a brief, five-game Marlins career. He makes clear his preference to go into the Hall of Fame in a Mets cap, if indeed the voters should so honor him.
Like most everyone else on the Hall of Fame ballot this winter, Piazza was ensnared in the suspicion of his era, receiving just 57.8 percent of the vote despite posting offensive numbers never seen before by any catcher. His name was linked to steroids in accusations at various points throughout his career, claims that he flat-out denies here. He does, however, acknowledge taking androstenedione, the performance enhancer made famous by Mark McGwire. Piazza was a fan of a product offered by GNC stores called the Monster Pak, which “included andro, creatine, and various types of amino acids.” He claims he never bought andro by itself, and he phased it out of his regimen after all the commotion was made over McGwire’s usage. Androstenedione has since been banned by Major League Baseball. It was reclassified from a dietary supplement to an anabolic steroid by the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, though there is some debate whether it truly is a steroid or just acts like one. Regardless, it was legal when Piazza took it.
He also addresses the other big rumor that followed him around throughout much of his career: that he was gay. Now married with two young daughters, Piazza had a history of dating models and actresses, women so good looking perhaps someone figured they were just there for appearance’s sake. Piazza weaves in a fair number of them throughout the book, in case there were still any lingering doubts about his heterosexuality.
So without a juicy steroid confession and no bombshell on the personal front, what’s left? The last hot-button issue referenced on the dust jacket is “the infamous bat-throwing incident with Roger Clemens during the 2000 World Series.” That episode was noteworthy mainly because of the Clemens fastball Piazza had taken in the head earlier that season. Piazza is insistent that it wasn’t an accident and refers to the Rocket as a “playground bully” among other things.
Clemens was hardly the only pitcher to target Piazza. He owns up to a paranoia of Latin players, particularly pitchers who seemed to enjoy throwing at him, from Pedro Martinez to Guillermo Mota to Julian Tavarez.
His long-running feud with Martinez was rooted at least in part in his inability to get along with his older brother Ramon (despite catching his no-hitter with the Dodgers). But for all the pointed comments he has for the brothers Martinez and any number of other players he took the field both with and against, he seems to have caught the most flak for the relatively mild claim that “Vin Scully was crushing” him during his contract talks with the Dodgers. You don’t win points with anyone by taking on Vin Scully.
Most of his bridges to the Dodgers were burned long before now. Every slight great and small—even those committed by Lasorda—was socked away in his memory banks, to be regurgitated years later in this book. Not that he lets the Mets—or even the A’s, who employed him for his final season—completely off the hook. There’s enough acrimony to go around.
There’s a fair chance most readers will like him a little less after reading his story. The timing of the release, within months after his name first appeared on the ballot for Cooperstown, can’t be a coincidence. He states his case time and again for enshrinement, even citing fielding metrics to try to blunt the arguments against his notoriously weak defense.
“I still feel the need for validation.”
And it shows, on nearly every page.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org