Piazza still has plenty to offer
by Alan Schwarz
October 14, 2005
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
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
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
AS: You've done a ton of funny commercials. You're a performer at
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.