He was the Dodgers’ batboy when they visited Philadelphia. (His father knew Tommy Lasorda.) Ted Williams offered him hitting tips. Yet he started at baseball’s lowest rung, the Instructional League.
Mike Piazza was a “Long Shot,” as the title of his new autobiography says. He may have had family connections and a surfeit of desire, but on paper (and, worse yet, on the field) he didn’t seem to have the stuff to make it to baseball’s major leagues.
Just as presidential candidates write campaign books -- it worked for Jimmy Carter with “Why Not the Best?” and Barack Obama with “The Audacity of Hope” -- Piazza’s book is part of his campaign to be elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
His is a story of hope and audacity, accent on the latter, and he wound up with the kind of statistics that might propel him to Cooperstown: Rookie of the Year in 1993, an all-star a dozen times, the all-time mark for homers by a catcher. It’s a remarkable record, especially for a player chosen in the 62nd round of the draft.
Piazza’s progress from hopeless prospect to home-run producer raises doubts about baseball’s vaunted scouting system, which was in its ascendancy during Piazza’s youth -- the very questions that led to “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis’s book and the movie based on it.
Piazza was, to be sure, a late bloomer, but he had the latent talent -- and a special affinity for the position of catcher. Of his early days in spring-training anonymity, he writes: “That’s when I really started learning to catch. I caught good curveballs. I caught pitchers who knew what they were doing.”
After a career that took Piazza from the Dodgers to the Marlins, Mets, Padres and Athletics, it’s prurient interest in his off-the-field exploits that has brought the most attention to this book. Over the years Piazza was repeatedly asked about his sexual orientation.
His view: “I found it hugely insulting that people believed I’d go so far out of my way -- living with Playmates, vacationing with actresses, showing up at nightclubs -- to act out a lifestyle that would amount to a charade.” He’s been married to Alicia Rickter since 2005; they have two daughters.
He writes about resisting the siren calls of the life of the athletic star. “I didn’t care for the demands of the spotlight,” he insists, not entirely convincingly.
He also deflects persistent rumors -- “bogus accusations,” he calls them -- that he used drugs to juice his performance. “I was interested in power, but not prison,” he says. This is a book about an athlete but also about a time in sports when performance-enhancing drugs were rampant. In the end, Piazza seems unsettled by the whole issue.
He raises several questions. Here’s one, probably easy to answer: Are performance-enhancing drugs for athletes “different than a woman going in for a face lift”?
Here’s another, requiring further discussion on the field and in the kind of thoughtful sports books baseball seems to inspire: Is what Piazza calls “a certain selfishness” actually “closely related to doing the most you can for your team”?
But the most searing may be this: Can you write your way into the Hall of Fame? Of all Piazza’s achievements, this would be the most unusual after he fell 17 percentage points short in January’s balloting. Maybe that’s why the book is called “Long Shot.”
“Long Shot” by Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler is published by Simon & Schuster (374 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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