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The Long Shot

How Mike Piazza went from overlooked first baseman to the best-hitting catcher ever
| By Ken Shouler | From Mario Carbone, November/December 2016
The Long Shot
Photos/Jeffery Salter
The Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza fills his home with memorabilia from his storied career, but there's still room for a smoke.

Mike Piazza is storming. He is part owner of AC Regiana 1919, an Italian soccer team, now losing to Bissano Virtus 1-0. "It's the 53rd minute," he fumes, looking at the TV screen behind his desk and pacing across his home office. In jeans and a pullover shirt Piazza is muscular. Even as he enters the Hall of Fame, his build is indistinguishable from the 6-3, 200-pound frame of nine years ago, when he played his last major-league game. His newly boyish face—clean-shaven and friendly, vulnerable and less hidden—makes it difficult to summon those mental images of years past: from mustache to goatee, from brown locks to blond. Running five miles a day in South Beach has left him tanned and more youthful than the 49 years the calendar shows.

Behind him stand 10 Silver Slugger awards, one for each season that coaches and managers recognized him as the best offensive player at his position. The title "best-hitting catcher of all-time" is now synonymous with his name. Now, during breaks from his Steinbrenner-esque rants at his soccer charges, Piazza reflects on his prior life. His baseball life. That drama spanning three acts—his youthful obsession with pounding a baseball, the $15,000 signing bonus that began his 16 seasons in the sun, and his Hall of Fame election in 2016—has spawned an opulent existence in South Beach, Florida, a life of family and faith, professional team ownership and golf. And cigars. A curious blend of truth seeker and engaged citizen, husband and father, Piazza is nothing if not a former ballplayer refreshingly off the beaten track.

He leaves the office and returns with an unopened box of Partagás Lusitanias—which he stores in his refrigerator. "They were vacuum-packed in Switzerland," he says. "They are bold, but I wouldn't say like nuclear strong." Smoking will commence later, in his front yard, looking past his swimming pool and royal palm trees touching Biscayne Bay.

Life has been good. A sweaty sojourn through minor-league towns and, then, buoyed by the unflagging praise of Tommy Lasorda and Dodger coach Reggie Smith, Piazza landed as a throwaway pick—No. 1,390 in the 62nd round—in the 1988 draft. No wonder his autobiography is titled Long Shot.

Michael Joseph Piazza was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, but grew up in nearby Phoenixville, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father, Vince, played baseball till junior high and faced his own long odds by being a left-handed shortstop. He gave up his hope of playing the game, leaving school to support his family. He caddied at the golf course where his father worked maintenance. He pumped gas. He rose before dawn to deliver the Philadelphia Inquirer. He pieced together a life.

Later, his ability to fix junked cars led him to open a car dealership with a friend Bill Garber. Garber was a friend of Lasorda, who hailed from nearby Norristown. After playing big league baseball, Lasorda was now scouting for the Dodgers. Eventually Lasorda was named a manager in the Dodgers' minor-league system and then for the big-league team. Whenever the Dodgers came to play at the Vet in Philly, Vince, Tommy, players and coaches piled into cars and headed for the Marchwood Tavern, an Italian restaurant that the Lasorda brothers opened in Exton.

Vince infected Mike, the second oldest of his five boys, with his love of baseball. His mother, Veronica, said he could play on Sundays as long as he attended church first. Vince threw several hundred pitches an evening to his son. Then came the mattress he leaned against the basement wall, into which Mike fired baseballs. His father got traffic cones to use as batting tees. "When I got to be 11 he said, ‘Do you really want to do this seriously?' I said ‘Yeah.' He said, ‘If you do, you have to practice.' So that is when he got me the cage, and the JUGS machine, with an automatic feeder. The machine was rigged so that pitches came out every six seconds." The machine spit out hard stuff, but inexplicably floated up the occasional knuckler. "Eventually we added a roof on it," Piazza says, "and a heater." The contraption was so enormous that it attracted a zoning inspector, who asked what it was. "It's my son's ticket to the big leagues," Vince snapped.

But no one expected a certain guest who showed up to watch him hit one day. "Tommy was good friends with Ed Libatore, a scout for the Orioles," Mike recalls. "And Libatore was good friends with Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. He would get them signing gigs. Back then there wasn't really any science to it. The guys would come in and sign for 10 grand or something. It was all cash. They would call and say, ‘Hey Ted, you wanna do a card show?' And he would come up from Florida." One day, Vince Piazza was at the card show and told Williams about his son's hitting. The Red Sox legend asked if he could come over to the cage and see Mike's swing, and Vince replied "Are you kidding?" He picked up Williams at a nearby hotel and brought him to their house.

"This kid looks good. He really looks good," Williams said in his husky John Wayne accent, standing near the cage. "I'm not kidding. This kid hits the ball harder than I ever did at 16." Mike Piazza is still dazzled by the event. "Here's this larger-than-life figure. He said ‘You look great, but that's only half the battle,' " Mike recalls. "He said the rest is pitch selection, knowing your strike zone, hitting the ball where it is pitched, reacting to situations, and off-speed stuff. It just kind of seared in my memory."

Suddenly Piazza lets out a rebel yell—Regiana has tied the game. "Yea-a-a-a-h, yeah!" he screams. "They scored in the 93rd minute." He scoots out, past the dining room and out of view. He returns clapping his hands, loudly, as if hoping the sound will cross the Atlantic and inspire his youthful charges fighting on the field 5,000 miles away. He expects the game will end in a 1-1 tie, even with the inscrutable randomness at the close of soccer matches, when referees add "injury time" on a whim.

But then, Regiana's defense is penetrated and Mike screams "Get it out of there!" The enemy scores. "Fuck!," he yells, and this fresh occasion for disgust has him storming off again, tearing out of the office and out of sight. He returns. "Oh man, that hurts."

He phones Maurizio Franzone, his club's general manager in Italy. "Mama mia," he moans to his right-hand man, serving up raw emotion to a sympathetic ear. "Can you believe that?" he says. "It's soccer, man, what are you going to do? They let down after they scored. That's the way the cookie crumbles. Ciao."

The call calms him, and he returns to discussing his other favorite sport.

After such unexpected praise from Williams, the most astute hitter who ever drew breath, all Piazza had to do was succeed in baseball's unparalleled apprenticeship—through high school, college, and the minor leagues. In the mid-1980s, Piazza had another unusual meeting. "I don't know if my father arranged it or not, but Lasorda spoke in the auditorium in our high school," Mike recalls. "At one point he pointed at me and said ‘One day, I'm going to sign him.' " Now two major leaguers, including a legend, had said encouraging things.

Mike Piazza
Piazza’s stellar career caught the eye of the expressionist painter LeRoy Neiman, who created the vivid canvas that hangs on his wall.

But big-league scouts make up their own minds. Their reports were hardly as effusive as Williams' words had been. One year at high school Piazza batted .500, hit 12 homers and knocked in 38 runs in 18 games—recognized as one of the greatest high school seasons in the history of Pennsylvania. But some observers downplayed that performance by saying he competed in a weaker league.

He had no solid college offers. Scouts who showed up—including Jocko Collins, who signed Lasorda for the Phillies in 1945—never returned, saying that Piazza was clumsy around first base, his position at the time. Cardinal scout Tim Thompson was equally underwhelmed, telling Piazza's father what he had told his own son: get an education. "No one liked him playing first base," Lasorda recalls. "I sent five scouts to look at him and hoped they would sign him."

Not dissuaded, Mike didn't sit near the phone. Coach Ron Fraser took Piazza as a walk-on for the University of Miami in 1986. But the team was stacked with veterans who had won the College World Series the year before, and this 17-year-old who came from a school that played half as many games as the high schools in the warmer climates didn't impress. "I sat on the bench and didn't even make the travel squad, so I started studying and lifting weights," Piazza says.

"I went from the University of Miami to a junior college. It was technically a step back, but it was the best thing for me. A lot of guys were getting drafted out of junior college. I knew I had to go to a southern climate. Back then there was only a couple of good schools that played in the north."

He hit .364 at Miami-Dade Community College, but sat most of the season after tearing a ligament in his hand. By the time the cast came off it was too late to make scouting reports. Not that anyone was beating a path to his door. Lasorda then hatched the idea that if Piazza was drafted by a major-league team, that might impress a college coach and get him a scholarship to a four-year college.

Piazza is not surprised at his placement as the 1,390th pick. "You have to remember that I was coming out of junior college and didn't have a true position. With the injury I wasn't playing a lot. In a way, it was beneficial, since it got me with the Dodgers, an organization that gave me a chance. It wasn't like I was an invisible guy that came out of nowhere. I was a good high school ballplayer. I just had some setbacks."

Solid recommendations followed. Former All-Star and Dodger coach Reggie Smith backed Piazza, saying "You can't teach power." Accused of favoritism toward the kid, Lasorda (who Piazza calls his "goombah" or godfather) fired back: "I didn't back him as a favor. I backed him because he was good."

"Lasorda, my father, and then coach Joe Ferguson started kicking around the idea of me playing catcher. Johnny Roseboro and Kevin Kennedy were my first catching instructors. I knew I had to get better behind the plate. Tommy then sent me down to the Dodgers' camp in Las Palmas in the Dominican Republic to learn catching. I worked hard. I was definitely green, but I was learning and getting more confident."

The switch to catching was wise. "There is a cliché that catching and left-handed pitching are the quickest ways to the big leagues," Piazza cracks. "Tommy Lasorda was once telling me about a story involving Casey Stengel. Casey was talking about a player who was a good hitter, but didn't really have a true position. Someone asked, ‘Where will we play him?' and Casey said, ‘At bat.' I knew that if I could hit that eventually there would be a position for me."

His debut with the Dodgers came in September of 1992, days before his 24th birthday. He had four hits in his first four at bats. After playing 21 games that September, Piazza soared in the 1993 season. He rapped 35 homers, knocked in 112 runs, and squatted 146 games behind the plate. He slugged .561, the first of six straight seasons of .500 or better. He was named an All-Star, the first of 12 times. He and Ken Griffey Jr. adorned the cover of a national sports magazine.

Now it's time to head outside for a smoke. Piazza leans back, overlooking Biscayne Bay, and draws on a Montecristo No. 2. "If my boxes get dry, I can put them outside, since it's so humid here. Sometimes they come back and the draw is insane. Cigar storage is not one of my strong points." He recalls discovering cigars in those early years in Los Angeles. "We acquired this pitcher Mark Guthrie from the Twins. The cigar craze just got started. Mark and I would go and have a cigar after a day game, or after a Sunday night game. It was fun. Relaxing. So I started collecting, and got a humidor. It was funny, but then as now it was about Cubans. ‘Do you have Cubans? Who's got Cubans?' It was an interesting sort of speakeasy cigar world. The Cubans weren't coming directly. On road trips, we would go to La Casa del Habano in Montreal. We would sneak them back. The equipment manager would throw them in one of the underwear trunks.

"At that time there was George Hamilton's and the Grand Havana Room and there were two or three cigar bars in Los Angeles. I had a membership there. After a while, I wasn't going there as much, so I just gave it to a friend." Piazza also enjoyed cigars at the Eastern outpost of Grand Havana, in Manhattan. "I had played in Miami with a lot of the Cuban kids down here from these high schools, and I knew about cigars.

"Mark turned me on to the Davidoff Special ‘Rs'. They're a sublime cigar. Not too strong. I love having them during the day, since a lot of the Cubans will kind of put you on Jupiter, you know? I can have a Cuban on the golf course, because I am getting a lot of oxygen out there. But if you have it in a cigar bar, they kind of knock you out."

He says he recently golfed in a foursome with sports legends (and cigar aficionados) Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. "It's kind of crazy. I'm like, ‘What am I doing in this group?' " Piazza says. "It's competitive, but not intensely."

He was in London and smoked at the famous cigar room at Harrods. "I always go for a Montecristo No. 2 or a Partagás Lusitania there. I also like the Trinidad lancero—great draw, really good burn, wonderful flavor. You get an amazing smoke trail."

As time went on in Los Angeles, Piazza blazed his own trail. The Dodgers reached the playoffs in 1995 and 1996. Now an All-Star five straight years, he was earning $8 million by 1998. He sought a $100 million contract for seven years, but the Dodgers countered with $76 million for six years. Los Angeles moved Piazza and Todd Zeile in a blockbuster trade with Florida in May of 1998. Among others, the Dodgers got Bobby Bonilla and Gary Sheffield.

An angry letter to the Los Angeles Times referred to Piazza as the "poster child for the ‘Generation-X' ballplayer." The remarks echoed those of teammate Brett Butler. Butler told Times writer Bill Plaschke that "Mike Piazza is the greatest hitter I have ever been around, but you cannot build around Mike Piazza because he is not a leader." He continued that "Piazza is a moody, self-centered, '90s player" and "all he seems to care about is wining the MVP from Larry Walker or the batting title from Tony Gwynn."

One Dodger official waxed pollyannaish in defending the trade, telling the media that the deal "helps improve our chemistry, our hitting and our defense. I think the team is markedly improved." Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize winner from the Times, would have none of it. "The Dodgers have always adhered to the Branch Rickey theory of roster cutting that it's better to deal a player a year early than a year late," Murray wrote. "But in Piazza's case, 10 years early? The Dodgers traded away more than a part of their team. They traded away part of their soul."

The Mets found theirs. After his five-game stop with the Marlins, Piazza was on the move to New York. In no time Met fans appreciated the menacing figure of Piazza at the plate. He typically extended his massive arms and hit the pitch away to right field. "When I was younger I got a lot of balls over the plate and I elected to extend my arms and drive the ball. I had good power the other way. A lot of leverage. I had strong arms, hands and wrists." Some strength was due to hand grips that he had constantly carried around. "And I had a sledgehammer I worked with, and after working with it I would pick up a bat and it felt like a toothpick."

The approach worked. He hit 20 homers and batted .300 nine years in a row, a record for a catcher. Over his first five years with the Mets he averaged 34 home runs and 101 runs batted in. After six consecutive losing seasons in the early 1990s, the team was surging. In 1999 they were two wins from playing in the World Series, losing to the Braves. The next year they played the Yankees, the first subway series since 1956.

The press built up the cross-borough rivalry. And then came the personal confrontation with Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens. Piazza owned Clemens at the plate, hitting four homers, including a grand slam, and knocking in 10 runs in just 22 at bats. Then Clemens retaliated during the 2000 season, beaning Piazza with a two-seam fastball. Piazza lay crumpled on the ground. Later, before doctors even had a chance to examine the catcher, Clemens, who was shaken up, called him. The doctor handed Piazza the phone. He flung it away and said, as documented in his 2013 autobiography, "Tell him to go fuck himself."

So when game two of the World Series pitted the two against each other, the air was electric with anticipation. Clemens threw a pitch inside, split Piazza's bat, and Clemens, appearing possessed, scooped up the barrel and flung it toward first base, just in front of Piazza. Piazza walked toward the mound and said, "What the fuck is your problem?" Clemens explained to the umps that he tossed the bat thinking that it was the ball. They didn't throw him out. "I always laugh at the whole Clemens thing," Piazza says. Some observers thought he should have charged the mound. But at the risk of ejection from a World Series game and perhaps further suspension for subsequent games? "It's a no-win situation," he says, downplaying that singularly bizarre event. Piazza clubbed two homers in the Series, but the Yankees won four of five close games. Piazza, representing the tying run, made the last out of the Series on a long fly ball against Mariano Rivera.

The Mets fell off to 82 wins the following season, starting a five-year free fall in which they failed to reach the post-season. Still, there were memorable moments. Ten days after the attacks on New York on September 11, baseball began serving up nightly solace for many New Yorkers. As bagpipes played for the pregame ceremony that mixed players with police and firemen, Piazza was tearful. With the Mets trailing 2-1 in the eighth with a man on, Mike propelled a mortar shot toward the photographer's stand in centerfield, about 450 feet away, to win the game. "I have a bit of trepidation about 9/11," Piazza demurs. "It's very difficult to put me in the realm of the heroes of that time. I am always very careful. I don't want to be self-aggrandizing."

The next year he was introduced to his future wife, Alicia, by the wife of a friend. "She didn't have a Julia Roberts career, but she had modeled," Piazza says. "Aside from a physical attraction, we had a connection emotionally. She was a working actress, getting gigs, making commercials. We met and started talking about God and spirituality. She was tired of going on auditions and she wanted a family. I realized that in the process of being successful as a Major League player you have to be very selfish. You have to be narcissistic, because it's a tough life and career. And I knew at that point that I wanted a family."

And Alicia knew how to add a special touch to the reception to make her husband extra happy. At their Miami wedding in 2005, she hired a cigar roller. Cigar lovers puffed around the pool.

Piazza played his last game in New York in 2005. Tales of excess surrounded athletes who crashed and burned in New York. But Piazza managed to avoid controversy and trouble. "It goes back to my personality," he explains. "I was always just very reserved and low key. Obviously I was raised by my mom in so many ways as a conservative Catholic. So I always had that ability to moderate my behavior."

He hit his 400th home run with San Diego in 2006 and finished his career with Oakland in 2007. At an emotional "Shea Goodbye" ceremony on the last day of the 2008 season, many former players, including those of the 1969 and 1986 championship seasons, were on hand. In a tear-jerker of a close, Piazza and Tom Seaver walked arm-in-arm out through the gate of the centerfield fence. It was fitting, for Piazza was the Mets' most important player since Tom Seaver. Nicknamed "The Franchise," Seaver had been traded three decades before. The two of them are the only Mets to enter the Hall of Fame as players. For Piazza, the ledger was unassailable. He broke the record for most home runs by a catcher, hitting his 352nd in 2004 to surpass Carlton Fisk. He finished with 396 as a catcher and 427 overall.

Mike Piazza
Outside his house, Piazza and cigar-smoking buddy Spero Lyons survey the view of Biscayne Bay, one of the slugger’s favorite spots to partake.

And at the plate it wasn't only Clemens he wore out. Against Hall of Famer Tom Glavine he hit .360, belted six homers and drove in 13 runs. He also pounded Pedro Martínez, batting .385 with six home runs. He hit .438 against Trevor Hoffman with four homers. He hit homers off Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Curt Schilling, but posted a low average against each of them.

In baseball some wonderful things happen years after your career. The Mets retired his number 31 this past summer. And after receiving 83 percent of the writers' votes to get elected into the Hall of Fame in January, he stood before the throng of true believers that surfaces annually in Cooperstown, New York, in July. "With all due respect to Tom Hanks, there is crying in baseball," Piazza began. He spoke of September 11 and how it changed his outlook. "Many of you give me praise for the home run on the first game back on September 21st. But the true praise belongs to police, firefighters and first responders, who knew that they were going to die but went forward anyway. Jesus said that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends," he said. "I consider it an honor and privilege to witness that love." Applause erupted, and not just among those dressed in the blue and orange colors of the Mets.

"My father's faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single greatest factor in me being inducted into this Hall of Fame." And, with his voice quaking he said, "We made it dad; now it is time to smell the roses." In Italian he said, ‘Thank you to the country of Italy for the gift of my father.' "

The man who had hit everyone else ended by hitting all the right chords.

Ken Shouler is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.


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