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Piazza still has plenty to offer
by Alan Schwarz
Baseball America's readers have watched Mike Piazza grow up from a forgettable 62nd-round draft pick to a top prospect to, quickly and forcefully, the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. After so many calls for him to move positions, at 37, he still finished this season as perhaps the National League's most productive catcher.
But now comes the slow fade-out: Piazza will almost certainly open next season in the American League, as a designated hitter, ending a remarkable run. I sat down with Piazza during this year's final week to talk about aging, the weirdness of New York and what his career could still hold.
ALAN SCHWARZ: A lot of your public identity has to do with being a catcher. Have you played your last games behind the plate?
MIKE PIAZZA: I don't know. That remains to be seen. Everyone's kind of curious about next year. All I can say is you can't play a hand unless you have the cards first. Obviously it would be nice to be in a DH situation.
AS: Now that's something I've never heard you say before. I'm not sure anyone has.
MP: (Laughing) Just to have it an option on a daily basis. That's not a committed response. It's so tough to say--you play mental gymnastics trying to figure out what the situation's going to be. I'm just as curious as anybody.
I'm very much at peace with who I am and where I am. I've caught a lot of games. Physically it has taken a toll on me, but I still feel I can be somewhat productive. I'm actually looking forward to being a role player.
AS: It feels as though you're acknowledging a reality that may or may not have existed before.
MP: I think my defense has always been more scrutinized because of my offense. This is not a complaint--I think it's just obvious. If I make a mistake defensively I feel like there is more of a "You shouldn't be there." In a way I'm flattered by that because very few players are put under that microscope. I always joke when I see someone steal a couple bases off Mike Matheny or a guy like that--I go, "You've got to change him to first!" No disrespect because I love those guys, but I think it's funny in a way.
AS: You've told me over the years that catching helped your offense because you didn't obsess about it. Will DHing now hurt?
MP: My mind isn't great at multitasking. When I focus on catching a game and calling a game, I don't put a lot of stress--not a lot of thought--into my hitting. I try to let it flow naturally. But there are also times when I get really intense about my hitting. I feel like I can turn up that intensity as well. My numbers at DH have always been pretty good because I feel like, "Man, now I don't have to worry about catching, just study the pitcher and films." It's tough for me to look at films of pitchers and then look at films of hitters.
AS: If you went to the American League, would you rather DH or play first base, which you tried last year with mixed results?
MP: I never buried first base because I felt like I made improvements at the end, but on the same note obviously I have some mobility issues. I feel like I catch the ball pretty well and I've saved a few errant throws here and there. But as far as being a slick-fielding, classic-style first baseman, I'm not. Teams could know that in a pinch or emergency I could catch.
AS: I've always been fascinated by how ballplayers around your age can't control their bodies the way they used to. What does that feel like, to have your body talk back to you?
MP: I compare it to a new car. When you get a new car, the power windows go up quick, it's quicker and you get more response. And then when it gets older, little things start to break, things fall off. Our bodies are machines. You have to be pragmatic, you have to be realistic. In the position that I play, I know that more than anything. Everyone is talking about catchers' knees, for me it's more like my back. Everyone is asking, "How are your knees? How are your knees?" and I'm thinking, "My back! I can't even tie my shoes sometimes in the morning!" There isn't a chronic problem or surgery, it's just soreness. I'm not kicking dirt on myself.
AS: Did you enjoy all that came with playing in New York?
MP: Absolutely. I think this will always be a part of me, be a part of who I am. It is probably the most unique place to play professional sports in the world. It's a crucible. It's this gauntlet. Your ups are higher and your lows are lower and you have these incredible stretches of exhilaration and absolute desperation.
AS: You've had a lot of personal success, but you've also had the Roger Clemens controversies, and the infamous "I'm not gay" episode.
MP: It's been bizarre. I've always been smart to just say, "Wait a minute, you know, there are so many battles that you can't fight and win, so why even try?" You just throw your hands up and move on, and those things burn themselves out. I don't have any resentment at all. I think I've had so much success in so many ways that people have to take their jabs and try to keep me in check. Maybe I have been so disciplined in my personal situation that it created a motivation to ruffle my feathers.
AS: What's the funniest line you've ever heard from the stands?
MP: It happened recently. I made a couple of mistakes baserunning, I guess generally I was slow and didn't respond quickly, and I come off the field and this guy goes, "That's two runs you cost us, you slow ass!" And I'm thinking to myself, "Yeah, he's right."
AS: What would you be doing today if the Dodgers hadn't drafted you as an afterthought?
MP: I don't know. I've always had this urge to travel and see the world. I've always had a vision of loading up a suitcase or duffel bag and just hopping on a train and going to Europe. Maybe I would've gone to Hollywood and become an actor. Maybe I would've become a musician or rock star. I've always had that goofiness.
AS: You've done a ton of funny commercials. You're a performer at heart?
MP: I've always enjoyed making people laugh. Like the thing we did for the ESPYs this year, with Ron Howard, which was a lot of fun. To me, that's the one thing I'll really treasure about baseball. It has given me these opportunities to do these things and meet these people that I respect very dearly. It's a true Vegas slot machine for me. I put so much time and energy into trying to make it pay, and it's paid back for me--generously, I should say. There are so many fans and people who follow it, and they've been so kind.
AS: But it isn't over--you are definitely playing next year.
MP: I still feel like I can. I am looking for a little bit more. I still feel like I can squeeze the lemon a little bit more.
You have to continually find ways to motivate yourself and keep getting better even though you may have peaked. I could look at myself in the mirror and go, "Wait a minute, I have caught over 1,500-something games, I'm 37 years old, knock on wood still relatively healthy.' I have to look at what I have instead of what I don't have. I've had a great run and I've had some breakdowns in the last few years, but guess what? I'll take the positives over the negatives any day.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to email@example.com.