It’s hard to truly calculate the long odds that should’ve, by all reasonable rights, prevented Mike Piazza from ever setting foot on the field as a Major League Baseball player.
The Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, entirely as a favor to manager Tommy Lasorda, who was friendly with Piazza’s father. The Dodgers, who would win the World Series that year, were one of baseball’s elite clubs back then and not prone to just giving up draft picks all willy-nilly. But Lasorda and the elder Piazza had both grown up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and Piazza would serve as a batboy for the Dodgers when they came on East Coast swings to play the Phillies or Mets. Only once Piazza committed to becoming a catcher did the Dodgers eventually sign him, and then only to a paltry $15,000 sum at that.
There were no indications then that Piazza would become a Rookie of the Year winner in 1993 or that he would go on to play 1,630 games as a catcher, a number surpassed by only 20 men ever. Piazza is in the top 50 all-time in homers, is largely regarded as the greatest-hitting catcher in MLB history and is certainly the only backstop to be memorialized with a Belle and Sebastian song. He became a beloved sports icon in the two largest media markets in the country and did it with a seemingly infinite likeability. (OK, maybe not to Roger Clemens, on second thought.) And there was definitely no way to forecast him becoming a Hall of Famer, which he now is after being named on 83 percent of the ballots in this year’s voting. This summer, his enshrinement in Cooperstown will be the culmination of a most unlikely career.
Piazza’s rise to superstar was personal for me. I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and played catcher all through my youth baseball years. Right around the time I stopped playing ball was when Piazza was traded from the Florida Marlins (his tenure there lasting all of one very weird week) to the Mets, but his presence on my favorite team now meant there was an instant kinship attached to his arrival. I was actually in Midtown on a high school field trip when it happened, and I first read about his move to Queens as it scrolled by on news ticker that wrapped around a building. There was something about the deal that felt so right, that he was filling a perfectly shaped void. His arrival, in short, meant hope.
Piazza, by any sane estimation, should’ve been voted into the Hall of Fame three years ago, but, like many of his peers, he was dogged by the most nebulous and unsubstantiated of accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Often times, Piazza’s name would be cited in news reports the same way as Barry Bonds’ or (yes) Roger Clemens’, but any evidence Piazza used banned substances is even more tenuous than those two players, who (let’s be reminded) never actually failed a drug test administered by Major League Baseball. Piazza was the victim of a whisper campaign that dogged him in the years after his retirement. But now, fairness has won out and Piazza is free of this gossipy garbage.
When I think back on Piazza’s career, it’s the individual moments that flood my brain with emotions. It’s the grand slam off of (who else?) Clemens at Yankee Stadium during the World Series year of 2000. It’s the late-night comeback capped off in dramatic style. And yes, it’s the game-deciding home run he hit 10 days after 9/11, in the first major sporting event held in New York after the attacks. An iconic sports moment born of horrific origins and played out in a way that makes your hair stand on end. (Unless you’re a Braves fan, naturally.) This is the moment that will be mentioned in Piazza’s obituary years from now, an unforgettable moment of both catharsis and guarded joy that few athletes ever come to providing.
For everything he gave to the Mets during those eight years he played in Flushing, I’ll always be grateful. For the recognition the national baseball writers have bestowed on him, I’ll forever be thankful. Piazza earned his place among the titans of baseball, and his standing alongside them is now complete and unfettered. It took longer than it should’ve, but Mike Piazza, Hall of Famer? Not bad for a kid from small-town Pennsylvania.