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Monday, June 13, 2016

Mike Piazza: From Undraftable to Hall of Fame (Through Faith)...

Wearing the tools of ignorance...
"Then the draft came, and I sat by the phone, and the draft was over.  All of a sudden, blowing off high school didn't seem such a swell idea.  I hadn't expected to go in the first round, or any such thing, but even to the end, in spite of all the signs, I'd been unable -- or maybe unwilling -- to actually believe that not a single team would find me draftable."  -- Mike Piazza.

Professional sports are replete with stories of athletes who went from being overlooked or ignored to achieving greatness in the due course of time.  On a pedestrian level, the story of hard-nosed Philadelphia Phillies shortstop, Larry Bowa, who was cut by his high school coach, always comes to mind.

But, by far, my favorite tale of an unwanted player achieving stardom is that of one of my all-time favorite baseball players, Mike Piazza, arguably the best hitting catcher to ever play the game.

Piazza wasn't drafted out of high school.  And, when he finally was selected, it was in the 62nd round; more out of courtesy than than anything else.  As I tell my son, that means every team in the Major Leagues went around and drafted a first pick, a second pick, a third pick, ...a seventh pick, ...a fifteenth pick, ...a fiftieth pick, and then, with their last pick of the draft (which no team nowadays drafts past the 40th round), the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Michael Joseph Piazza.  As he described it, he was a slow-footed player from a small school in Pennsylvania, who really didn't have a true position.  He played first base in high school and his range and footwork were suspect at best.

He was actually drafted as a favor to Dodger legend Tommy Lasorda, who was a childhood and close friend of Piazza's father, Vince, but the team had no real intention of ever signing or bringing him to minor league camp.

Ironically, next month, that slow-footed player with no position, who was only drafted as a favor, will be inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame, joining Tom Seaver, another one of my childhood idols, as the only New York Mets (which happens to be my favorite team!) to ever be enshrined.

Nevertheless, aside from his play on the field, what has endeared the twelve-time All-Star, record-holder for career home runs by a catcher (427), 1993 NL Rookie of the Year and lifetime .308 hitter, to me even further, over the last several years, is reading and learning his openness about his faith.

He serves as a member of Catholic Athletes for Christ, is a faith-based public speaker and Catholic ambassador of sorts, making appearances on Catholic DVD's, EWTN, Cardinal Timothy Dolan's radio show and other media outlets.  At one point in his life, he even seriously considered becoming a deacon.

"I'm proud to be Roman Catholic," he writes in his autobiography, Long Shot, "My Christian faith is fundamental and precious to me -- the cornerstone of my life.  I think it was a gift, not unlike my ability to hit a baseball.  But I'm not a theologian.  I'm just a former ballplayer who wishes to join the fight against the decline of religion in our society."

Piazza was raised in a devout Catholic family, where the faith was lived, especially by his mother, and Sunday Mass at St. Ann's Church in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania was not an option for him and his four brothers.  He continued to attend Mass in college, the minor leagues and even the majors; straying from time to time, like many of us, but always finding his way back.

Since he will enter the company of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived on July 24th in Cooperstown, along with Seattle Mariner standout, Ken Griffey, Jr., I recently read his book, which was a gift from my brother that had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years.

In it, he writes about his life, his career, his faith, including his audience with Pope John Paul II, his ongoing battle with Roger Clemens, steroids, and his internal struggles with the temptations of big league baseball.

Long Shot...
In fact, Piazza credits his faith for helping him get past all the rejection and pessimism; like never getting a phone call after being drafted, like being benched in the minors, which prompted him quit, only to come back with his tail between his legs, to the constant doubts and remarks about his defense, being humiliated in front of his minor league teammates and told he couldn't practice with the real prospects, and much more.

"Faith is what pulled me through a lot of adverse, daunting, humbling situations in my baseball career.  I didn't always stick close to my spirituality - I strayed from it much more than I should have - and yet, it stuck with me unfailingly.  I had a little talent and a lot of determination, but the fact was, I had no business doing what I did in baseball.  My career, frankly, was a miracle."    

Yet, through it all, no one ever doubted one thing; his bat.  He could flat out hit a baseball like few have ever done.

In fact, in high school, one of his childhood heroes, Ted Williams, who, in my book, is the greatest pure hitter to ever play the game, was invited through another friend of his dad's to watch Mike hit in a backyard batting cage he had set up with a pitching machine.

After watching the kid from Phoenixville take several swings, Williams started repeating, "This kid looks good!"  Then he said, "I'm going to tell you the truth - I don't think I hit the ball as good as he does when I was 16."  Yelling in the direction of Piazza, he said, "I'll be your agent, Buddy."

Yet, despite tearing up high school pitching, he was ignored in the draft.

Instead Piazza had to rely on the first of many big favors from Lasorda; first to get another friend of his, Ron Fraser, the coach at the University of Miami, to give him a spot on the team.  Piazza sat on the bench for the entire season with the Hurricanes.

Then, in his sophomore year, he transferred to Miami-Dade Community College, where another of Lasorda's friends, Doc Mainieri was coaching.  Mainieri wasn't thrilled but told Piazza to come on over and he ended up having a stellar year playing first base.

It was at Miami-Dade, where the serious thought of moving behind the plate began to take shape.

Shortly thereafter, he began to work on his catching skills and, after getting a workout (through Lasorda, of course), with Dodger catcher Joe Ferguson, who raved about his potential, he was finally drafted.

The rest, as they say, is history.

For any player trying to live their faith as a Major League baseball player is a challenge.  But, being an instant superstar, as Piazza was in his first year, when he hit .318, with 35 home runs, and 112 runs batted in, en route to becoming the National League Rookie of the Year, makes it even harder.

Piazza writes, "My world had been rocked, and there was a battle going on inside me.  On one hand, as a young, single, Rookie of the Year candidate in the most glamorous city in America, I felt I had an image to live up to; the rock-star thing was a powerful temptation.... I was floating between two worlds, following my moral compass one night, and the next, the macho beats in my headphones. There were some very compelling, confusing contradictions that I had to deal with constantly.  On the occasions when I did step out, I made a point of going to confession afterwards."

Then came New York; the Penthouse interview, September 11th, rumors of his sexuality and much more.

The Penthouse interview was what he calls a huge blunder in his first year in New York.  He was still trying to acclimate himself to the Big Apple and his agent, Danny Lozano, had been urging him to do more interviews, with one exception: Penthouse.  As a Catholic, Lozano advised Piazza to stay away.

Living the dream...
Trying to be his own man, he went behind his agent's back and did the interview anyway, where he made some remarks on abortion that he immediately regretted.  "As soon as I said those things, I was pretty sure that I'd screwed up, and my mother erased any remaining doubt.  She made it abundantly clear that she was disappointed in me as a Catholic, a man, and a Piazza."

However, if there was a time that secured his place in the annals of Mets and New York City history it was September 11, 2001, and its aftermath.

The team was in Pittsburgh when the attack happened and the players were bused back to New York the following day.  They became goodwill ambassadors; visiting hospitals, fire stations, police headquarters and making public appearances to lift people's morale.  They even organized and volunteered at staging areas for water and supplies to be collected and distributed in Shea Stadium and, after a ten day layoff, Major League Baseball let them play.

Forty one thousand fans packed that first game back.  Many, I'm sure, to forget their troubles for a few hours and get a taste of normalcy. The festivities included police officers, fire fighters, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a twenty-one gun salute, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and lots of raw unbridled emotions.  People were chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"

With the Mets down 2 to 1, one out and one on in the bottom of the 8th, Mike Piazza step up to the plate and willed his way, as he had done for most of his career, into the legends books.

He writes, "I caught that fastball with the full force of my emotional rush.  When it cleared the fence just left of center and caromed off a distant TV camera, I thought the stadium would crumble into rubble.  It was a moment for New Yorkers - the Americans on hand - to let it all out at last, whatever they felt.  To scream, to cheer, to chant, to hug, to cry, to jump up and down in celebration of something happy again, something normal and familiar and fun again; of getting their lives back, at least in some small way."

However, as is New York, the following season, with the memories of 9/11 and his epic home run still fresh in people's minds, a scandal broke in the media.  Rumors started circulating that he was gay!  He laughed it off at first but the rumors started snowballing and gaining momentum.  Players and coaches were being asked about it.  Front office people were being questioned.  Articles were written about whether baseball was ready for a gay player.  Radio shows discussed it at length.

Piazza was forced to hold an impromptu press conference to say, "I'm not gay.  I'm heterosexual.... I date women" and many were still left wondering.

He writes, "The experience changed me almost immediately.  I'd never strayed far from my Catholicism, but at that point I reaffirmed my faith.  I became more inward and philosophical, lower-key.  I realized that the life of the playboy sports star wasn't fulfilling me or even making me superficially happy.  I was carrying on that way, in large part, because I felt like I should, and I felt like I should because everybody else seemed to think so.  I'd allowed myself to be caught in a tangle of image and expectation."

I'll be honest, as a lifelong Mets' fan, I wasn't as excited when the team got Piazza in '98, as I was when they picked up another catching great, Gary Carter in the mid 80's, mainly because I knew it was the end of Todd Hundley, who at the time held the single-season record for most home runs by a catcher, forty-one, and I once considered naming my first-born son after (Thank God, she was a girl, or he would have spent his entire life explaining why he was named Hundley Espinosa! Not to mention, Hundley was traded shortly afterwards and his career came to an abrupt ending due to injuries and problems with alcoholism!). As you may have noticed, I have an affinity for catchers, having played the position from the time I was ten-years-old until I hung up my cleats in my early forties.

Yet, on Piazza's last day as a Met in 2005, I can honestly say I cried.  In my defense, just to put into perspective, even my brother, another die-hard Mets fan, admitted to having cried as well!  

In fact, I'm sure many Mets fans shed a few tears that day.

Final farewell to fans at Shea...
I remember watching his last game with the Mets.  He was pulled from the game after taking the field in the eighth inning, so that the crowd of over 47,000, who, with the Mets long eliminated from the post-season and playing another non-consequential team in the Colorado Rockies, came for one reason; to say goodbye to Mike Piazza, could give him a well deserved sendoff.  Yet, while I was torn up emotionally, I was bit disappointed he wouldn't get up for his last at bat!

I wasn't the only one.  Piazza writes, "During the seventh-inning stretch, they showed my feature video... I happened to look over into the Rockies dugout, and they were standing applauding... When the video was finished, the fans brought me out for three curtain calls, I gotta tell you, it was touching.... I was still 0 for 3 when I reported to my position behind the plate in the top of the eight and Mike DiFelice trotted out to replace me.  Randolph (Manager) was allowing me to receive one final ovation as I left the field.  It was a loaded moment.  I could see people crying in the crowd.  At the same time, my dad and brothers were up in our box going, "No! Give him one more at-bat!  He may go deep!"  

Piazza went on to play a couple of more years for the San Diego Padres and Oakland A's but his heart remained with the Mets, the team whose hat he will wear when immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

On a personal level, Piazza married model, Alicia Rickter, before the start of his final season with the Mets at St. Jude Catholic Church in Miami, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, ages 9 and 6, and 2-year-old son.

After all is said and done, the man who was once considered undraftable knows that his struggles and fairy tale ending were all part of a bigger plan.

"It has been an amazing journey and everything I have, I owe to God, for without His help, none of this would be possible.  He blessed me with the ability to play the greatest game in the world and it has been a dream come true."...




2 comments:

Robert M said...

Great post, Carlos. Have always liked Piazza. My favorite Piazza moment was his memorable but brief stint as a Marlin in 1998. ;)

Carlos Espinosa said...

Memorable 5-game stint indeed, Robert! Thanks.