Mike Piazza played five games for the Marlins in 1998, and I saw one of them by total accident. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and I was flying to St. Louis for one of my yearly Cardinals baseball trips with my father. I was walking through LAX when, out of nowhere, Piazza was standing right next to me in line, waiting to get on the plane. I was completely baffled, for two reasons.
The first was the obvious one: The Dodgers, the team he played for, had just played the night before, and their next game wasn't in St. Louis. Why was he getting on a plane for St. Louis? Why was he on my plane? Piazza was one of the best players in baseball, and he was carrying his bag and hopping on a commercial flight to Lambert like the rest of us schmucks. The second was the more bewildering one: He didn't look like I thought Piazza looked like at all, to the point that I wasn't sure it was even him. That's to say: He looked like a normal dude.
Sure, he was a lot bigger than me, taller, more muscular, hairier. (A lot hairier.) But otherwise: Piazza could have passed for every other schlump on the plane. Piazza was a superstar player, one of the best hitters, catcher or otherwise, I have ever seen. But he never felt like a superstar. Most of the time, when you meet a Major League Baseball player, you know you've just met a Major League Baseball player; it reverberates off of them, an invisible glow you can't miss. But Piazza never had that. He was bigger and stronger and more skilled than everyone on his team, and he was the centerpiece of every play, both at the plate and behind it, but he never seemed to notice it. He didn't blend in as much as he just settled in. He always acted like the luckiest fella ever to make it to the big leagues. He wasn't aw-shucks about it. He was just a dude who no one thought had a chance to crack the bigs.
He acted the way you'd imagine we would if we somehow found ourselves in the big leagues. He was a little cheesy: Good Lord, I'll still never understand what this hair was about.
He signed on for some advertisements that maybe he shouldn't have:
Classic Ads: Mike Piazza for Pert Plus (1996) pic.twitter.com/ecr9VGfDyV- Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 10, 2013
He dated (and ultimately married) a Playboy model and listened to some truly terrible death metal.
He was as much of a regular dope as the rest of us. Except he was always the best player on the field.
This was born of Piazza's draft position, surely. Piazza was famously the 1,390th person selected in the 1988 draft. (I'm pretty sure I was the 1,390th person selected in last year's draft.) Only one scout bothered to file a report on him. (It was a glowing report.) He was teased and denied opportunities because he was drafted as a favor to then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, a Piazza family friend. Ironically enough for a guy who was denied Hall of Fame votes because of his catching defense, he only took up catching to get a chance at the Majors; he was a first baseman by trade. (And he wasn't even that bad of a catcher.)
Eric Karros, a former teammate of Piazza's, said it was actually harder for Piazza because he was Lasorda's boy. "Mike earned everything, and he probably had to go above and beyond what some of the rest of us had to do," Karros said a few years ago. "He went to the Dominican to catch. Winter ball is bad enough, but to go to the academy? I don't know of any other players who have done that. … Maybe [the association with Lasorda] helped Mike get signed, so if people are trying to say Tommy helped there, yeah -- but how much help could he have really been when Mike was taken in the 62nd round?" Baseball is a sport where even the phenoms and Bryce Harpers have to ride buses through the night between sleepy Minor League hamlets. Piazza made himself in that world. When he reached the Majors, he was still that 62nd round pick.
It's another reason his legendary homer for the Mets days after September 11 felt so powerful. It wouldn't have been the same if David Justice, or Alfonso Soriano, or even Todd Zeile had hit it. Piazza felt like a guy you knew from the neighborhood. He even sorta looked like a fireman. Of course it was gonna be him.
Piazza, because of this odd mix of Ordinary Guy and One Of The Best Hitters In The World, fit in perfectly in both New York and Los Angeles: He'll be going into the Hall as a Met (Piazza has said in the past that's the cap he wants to wear), but there is genuine love for him in both cities. And man, could he hit. He had the highest OPS-plus in baseball in both 1995 and 1997, and he was in the top 10 of MVP voting seven times, though he never won it. He had power, but he wasn't of power. He was too legitimate and well-rounded a hitter than that. My favorite year was 1997, when Piazza hit 40 homers and, oh yeah by the way batted .362. He didn't even strike out much: He never K'd more than 93 times in a season; 138 players struck out 93 times or more in 2015.
Piazza was a power hitter because of his size and his ability to hit to all fields, but he was a great hitter because he was basically, at his best, Tony Gwynn, except crazy strong and a catcher. Who cares if he couldn't throw runners out? Just putting him at catcher gave every team he played for a massive advantage over whomever they were playing.
And yet we still sort of took him for granted. Piazza was one of the best players in one of baseball's greatest eras, and he looked like the guy who did your plumbing. I'll always love him for that, and fans always embraced him for that, even when he dyed his hair, and even when, that one day, he got off the plane and headed to Busch Stadium to join his new team (the Marlins), by grabbing a cab just like I did. You can take the kid out of the 62nd round, but you can't take the 62nd round out of the kid. He didn't even make a fuss when he pinch hit that night; the sighting of Piazza in a Marlins uniform like spotting a unicorn in the wild. One week later, he was out of town and traded to New York to begin the final stage of his legend, like it was nothing, like the interlude (playing for three teams with such a short amount of time) had never happened.
And here we are today. Every late-round pick and free agent signed off the street, every guy who is gonna show the world what he can do come hell or high water, they're gonna be able to point at Mike Piazza forever and say, "That guy was not as highly regarded than I am, and he made the Hall of Fame." And they're gonna think they can do it too. They probably can't: They're not Mike Piazza, after all. But the idea that it's possible, that a fella like him can prove everybody wrong, that it can happen … that's about as proud a legacy as any player could hope for.
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