My first favorite baseball team was the Giants (and briefly the Mets) because of my childhood hero Willie Mays, but after “The Say Hey Kid” hung ’em up I switched to the Dodgers and bled blue for many seasons, including one where I kept score at home due to Vin Scully always saying on the radio, “For those of you keeping score at home …” Don’t knock it: Knowing how to keep score gave me a job when I rode the pine on my high school team.
The initial Dodger heroes I identified was the infield of Ron Cey, Bill Russell, Davy Lopes and, my favorite, Steve Garvey. But that passion later shifted to Mike Piazza, the catcher/first baseman who was just elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
There was the whole way Piazza came up. Vince Piazza, a childhood friend of longtime Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda in Philadelphia, asked his pal to draft his son as a favor. The Dodgers took Mike Piazza in the 62nd round in 1988, and the team’s brass probably figured that would soon be the end of it. But after Lasorda had the first baseman go to the Dominican Republic to learn to play catcher, Piazza went on to tear up the minor leagues, became Rookie of the Year in 1993 and over seven years in Los Angeles batted .331 with 177 home runs and 563 RBI.
Coupled with his stellar years with the Mets, it’s small wonder that Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Johnny Bench were on hand to pay their respects when Shea Stadium hosted “Mike Piazza Night” on June 18, 2004.
Lost in all the well-deserved accolades Piazza is racking up this week is this: He helped turn a former Dodger fan into an Angel fan.
You may not recall the shitty way the Dodgers treated Piazza—the team’s lone superstar at the time—before he
left to sign with was traded to the Florida Marlins (who promptly traded him to the Mets). Piazza certainly remembers. Despite being congratulated by the current Blue Crew upon being elected to the HoF, he made it clear he wants to be inducted as a Met.
“If the Hall came to me and said, ‘We want you to go in as a Dodger,’ I’d say, ‘Well, then I’ll go in as nothing,'” Piazza wrote in his book Long Shot. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable with LA stamped on my head for all of eternity.”
Piazza has not set foot in Dodger Stadium since he retired. When the Dodgers offered to honor him with a bobblehead night last season, he declined.
He explains his bitter taste for LA in Long Shot. Eligible for free agency after the 1998 season, Piazza wanted to stay with the Dodgers and set a deadline of Feb. 15 to reach a deal. He wanted $105 million over seven years. The Dodgers offered a take-it-or-leave-it $76 million over six years, which would have still made him the highest paid player in baseball.
Piazza writes that he would have taken $79 million and suggests that the front office leaked that they had offered him $80 million. Then Scully asked Piazza about the deadline in a spring interview.
“He wasn’t happy about it,” Piazza wrote. “And Scully’s voice carried a great deal of authority in Los Angeles.”
He accused the Dodgers and Scully of trying to turn fans against him.
“The way the whole contract drama looked to them—many of whom were taking their cue from Scully—was that, by setting a deadline and insisting on so much money, I was demonstrating a conspicuous lack of loyalty to the ball club,” Piazza wrote. “I understood that.”
Piazza ripped the Dodgers in a 1998 opening day interview with the Los Angeles Times, which should have been no surprise because as the team’s union player rep he had also ripped management just before and through the brutal 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike.
Meanwhile, as the Dogs began the season losing the first four, Scully was ripping Piazza, the catcher wrote. (For what it’s worth, the longtime Voice of the Dodgers denied all of Piazza’s assertions to the Times‘ Bill Shaikin.)
To add insult to insults, when no team had signed Piazza for the 2008 season, he heard through longtime Fullerton resident Lasorda, the godfather of his brother, that the Dodgers might be interested. But the team went on to sign Gary Bennett to back up Russell Martin.
“Even to the end, 10 years after they’d traded me, the Dodgers were still jerking me around,” Piazza wrote. “If they’d brought in Pudge Rodriguez, sure, I could understand that. But Gary Bennett?”
Piazza retired via email on May 20, 2008.
So how did he help make me an Angel fan? I vividly recall his last years in LA. Though I was not covering the team, I always sensed management did not appreciate him, especially given his special relationship with Lasorda and special way he broke into the Bigs. I don’t specifically recall Scully having anything to do with this feeling, but I always thought Piazza being the player rep had a lot to do with it. You know, like screw you for siding with the players instead of one of the most storied franchises in sports.
Anyway, it was a combination of seeing the giant poster of Piazza being removed from Dodger Stadium and the strike a few years earlier and the strike in the ’80s before that and the four strikes within 22 years and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox assuming full ownership from the only Dodgers owners I had known, the O’Malley family, that had me not only swearing off the Dogs but all of professional baseball.
Then, while channel surfing, I caught some games on cable when the Angels were being managed by Terry Collins, who you may know as last year’s National League Manager of the Year, having taken to the World Series none other than the … wait for it … Mets. The Angels under Collins weren’t nearly as great, but they were scrappy, like the young Mike Piazza had been.
Those Angel squads seemed to be building toward something, unlike that freak show in Chavez Ravine. Sadly, the short-fused Collins was mutinied by his own players in the early part of the 1999 season, but the Dodgers in their stupidity let another Lasorda protege (and former catcher) Mike Scioscia leave to become the Angels manager. That made it all the more sweet for me to have already jumped on the bandwagon by then, and the 2002 World Series championship sweeter still.
Hey, when’s the last time the Dodgers won the Series?
Bleeding Angels red is amazing considering how plastic I always considered Angel Stadium and how much I hated the designated hitter rule. Now I love the Disney-fied Big A. The DH? Not so much.
My favorite National League team, especially since the Bryan Stowe incident, is the Giants. In fact, my vintage Willie Mays jersey just arrived via UPS. I’ll wear it inside out during any inter-league games against the Halos, however.
And I’ll be cheering extra loud for Piazza when he is inducted into Cooperstown on July 24. As a Met. As he should.