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Mike Piazza: Baseball Hall of Fame’s Biggest Van Halen Fan

New York Mets legend talks wanting to drink a beer while watching Guns N’ Roses

Mike Piazza, New York Mets, Baseball, MLB, Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza at bat for the New York Mets

Sporting News/Getty

It’s been a busy couple weekends for Mike Piazza. The 47-year-old was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame in July and the weekend after had his number 31 retired by the Mets, the club whose cap graces his plaque in Cooperstown. To say nobody saw it coming is an understatement, given that in 1988 the Dodgers drafted him in the 62nd round, just because his dad was a friend of then-manager Tommy Lasorda. Becoming the catcher to hit the most home runs ever, with 396, was largely due to the massive chip on his shoulder, which all along was soundtracked by one of his other passions – heavy metal. He’s guest-DJd hard rock radio shows, sent team employees to record stores to find an obscure CD to find a new at-bat song, had Iron Maiden’s Eddie mascot embroidered onto his golf bag, and partied with some of the genre’s biggest legends.Following his Hall induction and number retirement, Rolling Stone caught up with Piazza to talk music, baseball, the famous home run he hit in the first baseball game after 9/11, MLB’s response to domestic violence, and the rock star who left him star struck.

Aside from the induction ceremony, what were the highlights of your Hall of Fame weekend?
It was great. They treat us so incredibly well. When you retire, you meet people and they don’t really know a lot about what you did, but when they got up there and they saw Cooperstown and the whole experience they were taken aback because they don’t realize how powerful it was. I had a great picture with Whitey Ford and was talking with Dennis Eckersley, reconnecting with Tommy [Lasorda] and Johnny Bench, Wade Boggs and I trying to sing with the [hotel bar’s] band, just crazy stuff.

What did you and Wade sing?
He tried to sing “Nights in White Satin” by the Moody Blues and it was a little scary. It got a little weird. His wife informed us that he has a karaoke machine. I’m an amateur drummer and I was playing a couple songs with the band. I think I tried to sing “Livin’ on a Prayer.” My wife came running in and she was like, “The bartender said ‘get him back on the drums right now. Take the mic from him.'” I got a very nice compliment from Craig Biggio – my wife is saying, “Your singing stinks” in a good-natured way and then he comes and he goes “I heard you. You weren’t that bad,” like my big brother coming to give me a pat on the back.

You were inducted alongside Ken Griffey, Jr. Did you have any private moments with him?
We’ve been doing stuff together since the vote came out in January. Our families have become very close. My kids were playing with his kids on the grass there by the lake. It’s full circle, because we first came into contact back when we both signed. Obviously he was the first overall pick and I was a last overall pick, but basically we knew each other. It went back to those days in instructional league so now to go in the Hall together was really an honor. I remember going up to the speech, both of us were obviously very nervous and before we got introduced, I gave him knuckles, like, “Come on, man. We got this. Let’s go knock it out of the park.” That was a cool moment.

Another Hall of Famer up on stage with you, and another guy with a pretty famous baseball mullet, Randy Johnson has gone into photography, snapping shots of bands like Rush and Metallica. Did you guys talk music at all?
We did. We had a great conversation and I told him how jealous I was when the Diamondbacks gave him a Neal Peart drum kit. I wanted to see if it was for sale but he said that he still plays it. No aspersions to the Mets – I mean, I don’t need a drum kit but if they want to give me one that would be really cool. What I really respect about Randy is he was never afraid to reinvent himself. You realize that your career is but a blink of your life and you have to look into other endeavors. Baseball is what we do, it’s not who we are.

What was your first concert?
If you can believe it, it was Billy Squier and Ratt at the Spectrum [in Philadelphia]. I was a big Ratt fan, not just “Round and Round” but some of their other records. That was my thing in high school. I was blessed that my mom let me do that stuff. It was really cool going to the Spectrum and seeing those 30 tractor-trailer trucks with all the equipment, those big tours in the ’80s, all the lights and fireworks and pyrotechnics and confetti. That’s where my love of music was hatched.

Why did you gravitate to hard rock?
It was just the music I identified with. It fit my personality. I like the aggressiveness of it. I used it to inspire me to play.

Once you became a big league star, you must have gotten to meet a ton of musicians. What was that like?
We get spoiled. We get backstage passes. And I found many times that musicians some are frustrated baseball players and baseball players are sometimes frustrated musicians, so we always had this sort of cross-aspirations. I always thought I could be a rock star and then obviously my singing the other night in the bar, I realized that I’m glad I did the right thing. I’ve met so many great guys in bands. I remember going to a Dokken show. I was a huge George Lynch fan, and I met him backstage and got to check out his guitars. Zakk Wylde, I’m actually godfather to one of his kids, Hendrix. Maybe less than a year ago, Whitesnake was playing at the Hard Rock in Florida and I said hi to David Coverdale. [Drummer] John Tempesta is a very close friend of mine. He was with the Cult and White Zombie. I’ve made some really cool friendships.

Has any musician made you particularly star struck?
I’ve always had a reverence for Eddie Van Halen. I played golf with him one time. He was very knowledgeable about baseball. I wanted so bad to go, “You want to hang?” but I stopped. I just got cold feet.

You’ve had to talk a lot about the home run you hit in the first New York baseball game back after 9/11, but after the game you went on Eddie Trunk’s radio show to play some rock tunes. What do you remember about that part of the night?
Leading up to that week, everyone was absolutely emotionally spent, drained, whatever word you want to use. Getting back to play and the fact that people hold that home run in such high regard is something I’m I’ll always be grateful for and I’m blessed that I came through in that situation. But just putting that aside for a minute, music is something that has always been a great escape, something I very much enjoyed.

Speaking of another Met, you sent a tweet praising Jose Reyes after he re-signed with the Mets following his long suspension for allegedly assaulting his wife. What are you feelings on that, MLB’s handling of domestic violence and redemption?
I knew when I put that out there was going to be some controversy and the problem with Twitter sometimes is you can just go into the black hole of debate. With Twitter, I’ve always tried to be very positive. I don’t begrudge anybody who wants to step into a more serious debate. That wasn’t obviously condoning anything that he did. I wanted to be clear about that but I felt like if I started addressing that again, it would just turn into this marathon back-and-forth. But I do believe in forgiveness, I do believe in redemption, I do believe in second chances when it’s warranted. I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all by any means. You have to take it on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think it would be a quote unquote serial thing. It seemed to be a really bad case of bad judgment mixed with alcohol, which is toxic. I do believe that if he’s contrite and remorseful and serves the punishment – I’m not saying don’t concentrate on the issue and be vigilant on the issue – but try to give the guy a little bit of a second chance. I think what we do in society today is really put everything in a category and we’re individuals. One size doesn’t fit all.

On a lighter note, what have been some great concerts you’ve seen recently?
Whitesnake was probably the last show I went to. I haven’t seen Guns N’ Roses yet. I’m glad that they’ve, well, I don’t want to say worked out their problems, but it’s just great to hear those songs again live. I heard Axl is singing well. I’ll go check them out. I just love going to concerts, drinking a beer, hanging out, watching the shows.

You predicted you’d cry a bunch during your Hall of Fame speech, and you did. Will it be the same for the Mets’ number retirement?
I’m going to try and lighten up on the crying just a little bit. I hope I don’t people don’t get sick of me grabbing the Kleenex. When you’re young, you’re really focused on the result and when you get older you focus on the process, so when I think about all those people and the people that have honored me so much and how grateful I am, it’s hard not to get emotional.

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