LOS ANGELES -- Mike Piazza was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, and the cap on his plaque has a Mets logo, but his career was launched and made possible by the Dodgers.They famously drafted him in the 62nd round in 1988 and signed him as a favor
LOS ANGELES -- Mike Piazza was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday, and the cap on his plaque has a Mets logo, but his career was launched and made possible by the Dodgers.
They famously drafted him in the 62nd round in 1988 and signed him as a favor to then-manager Tom Lasorda, who grew up in Norristown, Pa., buddies with Piazza's father, Vince, and would let Mike serve as a batboy when the Dodgers visited Philadelphia.
"Tommy Lasorda was always in my corner. He believed, when he watched me hit at the young age of 14, that I could play Major League baseball," Piazza said Sunday during his induction address. Then he turned to Lasorda, in attendance, and spoke to him directly: "Tommy, you were always there for me."
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The favors, though, ended there, as there was some resentment toward Piazza due to his family connection, and he even briefly quit while at Class A, though he was talked back by coaches Reggie Smith and Dave Wallace, returning with a chip on his shoulder, determined to prove all of the doubters wrong.
That he did. Piazza burst onto the national scene in 1993, winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award while hitting .318/.370/.561 with 35 homers for the Dodgers. Over the course of parts of seven seasons with Los Angeles, Piazza would finish in the top 10 of the NL MVP Award voting five teams, compiling a .331/.394/.572 line with 177 homers, en route to become the all-time leader in home runs by a catcher (396 of his career 427). He became the lowest drafted player ever enshrined in Cooperstown.
"It truly was an honor and a privilege to be drafted, signed and developed by the Los Angeles Dodgers," Piazza said on Sunday. "It truly was an incredible experience, and I've always cherished and valued my time there. I will always be eternally grateful for the opportunity."
Piazza became so productive and famous that the unthinkable happened. Entering his free-agent season of 1998, Piazza's camp unsuccessfully tried to pressure the FOX studio heads running the club into a $100 million contract extension, believing he couldn't be traded. The studio execs were just as rigid that nobody was untradeable, even if it meant blowing up the roster. Both sides overplayed their hand in a classic ego war, and both sides lost.
Piazza was shipped to the Marlins, who flipped him to the Mets, for whom Piazza cemented his Hall credentials. The Dodgers, some would argue, have never recovered.
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In a conference call last week with reporters, Piazza reflected on the pivotal moments of his time with Dodgers.
"It was a blessing and sometimes a little bit of a toughening to be associated with Tommy [Lasorda] with the Dodgers, because of the expectations and a lot of the staff knew that I was being looked out from Tommy," Piazza said. "It was just one of those things where I was having trouble learning the catching position and struggling a little bit. And [I] got into some screaming with the coach and wasn't getting along with some of the staff, and [I] wasn't having any fun and was struggling a little bit. Apparently, I felt like at the time, I just wasn't having any fun and just decided to quit the game.
"I was fortunate that Reggie Smith and Dave Wallace, who were coaches at the time, addressed me and said that I needed to go back. I did and I apologized, and I was just fortunate that I had great coaches and great people looking out for me to encourage me to go back and work."
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Originally signed in 1988, Piazza arrived in the big leagues as a September callup in 1992, and he was a fan favorite in L.A. from Opening Day 1993 almost until the day he was traded to the Marlins on May 14, 1998. He undermined his popularity with a tactical blunder, complaining publicly on Opening Day of that year of his free-agent season, presumably to create fan pressure on FOX. It backfired, and instead he was booed at home by the fans that once adored him, which stunned him and emboldened the studio execs to unload the best hitter to ever call Dodger Stadium home.
"It was obviously very difficult at the time, because coming up through the Dodgers, I thought obviously I was going to be there for life, or for the bulk of my career," he said. "It was just a perfect storm of things coming together. They obviously, Mr. [Peter] O'Malley sold the team to FOX, they wanted to sort of insert a new direction right away. It seemed like we were both digging in our heels. They wanted to step in right away and send a message, and then I obviously wanted to get an extension, which was coming up on my free-agent year."
It has been more than 18 years since Piazza was traded by the Dodgers, and there are still good feelings for him throughout much of the fan base. But given his lifelong connection to Lasorda and the franchise, there will surely be some lamenting the fact that it won't be a Dodgers cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.