NEW YORK -- It would have been nearly impossible to grow up a baseball fan in Southern California in the early 1990s and not revere Mike Piazza. He was an instant celebrity, shining even brighter than the other National League Rookie of the Year Award winners the Dodgers were pumping out on a yearly basis at that time. Piazza was both a pure hitter and a slugger, playing a position in which hitting for power was a foreign concept. And he was, most famously, a 62nd-round Draft pick.
"He was the ultimate underdog story," said Travis d'Arnaud -- not merely one of those Southern California kids, but a successor to Piazza behind the plate for the Mets. "To come up and just make an immediate impact with the team that my dad had us grew up watching was huge. I pretty much just tried to do everything like him, and imitate him in every way possible."
Over the years, d'Arnaud's relationship with Piazza has developed from fandom to friendship, with Piazza annually giving him tutorials during Spring Training. For d'Arnaud, a better mentor would be hard to find; Piazza is set to enter the Hall of Fame this weekend, with coverage beginning on MLB Network and MLB.com at 11 a.m. ET Sunday. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony for both Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. starts live at 1:30.
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Catchers around baseball will be watching, or at least taking note. The game's current generation of backstops did not all need to grow up in California or New York to appreciate Piazza, who along with Ivan Rodriguez -- a first-timer on next year's Hall of Fame ballot -- defined the position for more than a decade.
But while Rodriguez was a defensive whiz with strong offensive chops, Piazza is widely regarded as the greatest-hitting catcher of all time. His 396 home runs at the position are tops in Major League history, while his .922 career OPS dwarfs that of anyone before or since. Prefer context-dependent stats? Piazza's career 142 adjusted OPS is also best.
"Definitely, Mike Piazza was the best hitting catcher in the game," Cubs catcher Miguel Montero said. "It was fun to watch him hit. There weren't high expectations for him, and look at him -- a Hall of Famer, and well-deserved. This guy was a great, great hitter. Catcher, he got the job done, simple as that."
"Obviously, his offensive numbers are ridiculous as a catcher, but it was cool to see how hard he worked," added Cubs backup catcher David Ross, who was briefly Piazza's teammate on the Padres in the spring of 2006. "That was always his thing."
From d'Arnaud's perspective, Piazza proved that catchers could not just hit, but be bona fide sluggers -- mashing for power, using the whole field, doing all the things his other favorite players could do, only better. They are lessons Piazza has since provided d'Arnaud in person, showing up each spring to Port St. Lucie, Fla.
"I used to be a shortstop," d'Arnaud said of his early childhood position. "Watching him made it easier for me to transition into a catcher, just trying to imitate him."
The two first met during the opening ceremonies of the 2011 Baseball World Cup, where Piazza was a coach for Team Italy and d'Arnaud was a catcher for Team USA. That chat was brief, but d'Arnaud remembered it when he next encountered Piazza as a Mets spring instructor.
"I felt like a little kid at the candy store," d'Arnaud said. "My mouth wouldn't stop moving, just asking him questions about every little thing, and he was there for every question. He had an answer for every question, a response for every little comment I said, every little thing about the game. It just helped me learn even more about the game."