Piazza's hard work in LA paid off
Dodgers catcher went from afterthought to Hall shoo-in
LOS ANGELES -- From the time he first showed up in the Dodgers clubhouse as a 10-year-old batboy to the day he left the organization in one of the most bewildering trades in the history of the game, there was nothing ordinary about Mike Piazza, who officially announced his retirement on Tuesday.
He turned out to be arguably the greatest hitting catcher in the history of the game, although he started out as a child of privilege with an "in," his wealthy father having been boyhood friends with Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda.
That relationship got him drafted and signed at Lasorda's urging, but it was Piazza's determination and persistence that elevated him to the game's elite.
"It's one of the greatest success stories since Conrad Hilton," said Lasorda, reaching back to the hotel chain founder for a comparison.
Lasorda remembered convincing resistant club officials to use a 62nd-round pick to take Piazza and pay a token $15,000 signing bonus for a junior college first baseman that had never caught. Piazza then became the first and only American player to report to the club's Dominican Republic camp for a winter crash course in the position.
"The most impressive thing is that it wasn't because of God-given talent. It was hard work," said former teammate, roommate and friend Eric Karros. "He took it upon himself to go to the Dominican Republic and learn how to catch. That speaks volumes of his desire and sacrifice to make himself the best player he could be."
Lasorda remembers how Piazza had an argument with a Class A manager, quit the team and went home. Lasorda and former club official Dave Wallace talked Piazza into returning or possibly nobody would have ever heard of him. A year later, another Minor League manager decided Piazza was a first baseman again until a scout called then-general manager Fred Claire to suggest a return behind the plate. Personnel meetings were held at which some club officials pushed for Piazza's release.
Claire remembers Piazza going to play winter ball in Mexico and working late in Spring Training with Mike Scioscia and tuning up for his Major League debut in the Arizona Fall League.
"Anyone who thinks anything was given to Mike because of Tommy has no understanding of what Mike had to go through," said Claire. "He earned every step, as well as my respect for all he accomplished."
From the days of toiling in the batting cage his father built at his Pennsylvania, Piazza worked tirelessly on hitting and the power he developed was awesome, leading to a Rookie of the Year Award, 12 All-Star berths, 10 Silver Slugger Awards, two runner-up finishes for MVP and $120 million in earnings.
In the five full seasons that Piazza played in Los Angeles, he never hit lower than .318, never hit fewer than 24 home runs or drove in fewer than 92 runs. The Dodgers reached the postseason twice while he was a Dodger.
"I never saw a catcher who could hit like Mike," said Lasorda. "[Johnny] Bench I thought was one of the greatest, but he didn't hit .300. This guy is over .300 with more home runs than any catcher in the history of the game. He's destined to go into the Hall of Fame. I can't say I knew he would turn out to be a Hall of Famer. But I saw the ability and nobody else saw it. Nobody wanted to draft him. Then nobody wanted to sign him."
Ultimately in Los Angeles, Piazza was a victim of his success. Entering his free-agent season of 1998, he and his agent engaged with club officials in a public contest to stake out their negotiating positions. Piazza's side didn't realize that his case would be handled not by club executives, but by executives of News Corp., which had just acquired the club.
Unbeknownst to Claire, News Corp. officials orchestrated the controversial seven-player trade of Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins. The goal of News Corp was to rid itself of Piazza as a public relations problem, as well as position itself to secure the broadcasting rights of the Marlins. Florida, having shed the hefty salaries of Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla and Charles Johnson, quickly flipped Piazza to the Mets for young players.
The deal came as a shock to everybody involved, as well as the fact that Piazza was not offered to any other club.
"He wouldn't have been traded if they had allowed me to talk to Mike," said Lasorda, forced by health issues to relinquish the manager's job the previous year and relegated to a ceremonial position at the time of the trade. "Mike never wanted to leave. He wanted to be a Dodger his whole career. When I talked to him after the trade, he was crying."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.