Mike Piazza may be the biggest underdog story in the history of Major League Baseball.
Drafted in just the 62nd round, Piazza exceeded all expectations and became one of the best hitting catchers the game of baseball has ever seen.
Piazza redefined what it meant to be a Major League catcher during his 16 years in the league.
Playing for five different teams in his career, he is most remembered as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he immediately impressed and showcased his hitting skills, and the New York Mets, who he helped take to the World Series.
Piazza remains an ambassador for the game of baseball and a role model for catchers to this day.
Early Life/High School
Michael Joseph Piazza was born on September 4th, 1968 to parents Veronica and Vincent Piazza in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Piazza essentially focused all of his energy and time on baseball as a young boy and teenager.
A Philadelphia Phillies fan, Piazza idolized the great Mike Schmidt and would watch him closely on T.V. and while attending Phillies games.
He studied Schmidt’s bat, his defense, and his demeanor on the field.
Vince Piazza saw the talent in his son and worked with him to become to best baseball player he could be.
Rain, sleet, or shine, the Piazzas would be out in their yard, the father throwing batting practice to his son.
Luckily for Piazza, his father had connections to legendary Dodgers’ manager Tommy Lasorda, who invited Piazza to serve as a batboy for the Dodgers on rare occasions, where he and coach Manny Mota would give him hitting tips.
Piazza also managed to receive private hitting instruction from Ted Williams, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history.
Williams instructed Piazza to maintain a consistent swing and discouraged him from ever letting anyone tell him to make changes to it.
Piazza’s invaluable training as a boy paid off, as he increasingly became a better hitter and all-around hitter by the time he entered high school.
In his town’s Little League, Piazza set a record with 10 home runs.
Piazza played first base for his hometown Phoenixville High School, where he became one of the most talked-about high school players in Pennsylvania.
He began his sophomore season on the varsity team but was soon moved to the junior varsity team, where he broke out.
In his junior year, Piazza hit over .500 with 12 home runs, many of them hit for impressive distances the other high school players rarely reached.
He matched his production the next year, where he hit 11 home runs and had 42 RBI, becoming one of the best high school hitters in all of Pennsylvania.
College/Minor League Career
Following his high school career, Piazza elected to enroll at the University of Miami but was sidelined as a backup for the entire season.
Piazza had trouble attracting the attention of collegiate and Major League scouts, who admired his power potential but thought he was slow, cumbersome, and lacked any real defensive capability.
After a disappointing year at Miami, he enrolled in Miami-Dade North Community College hoping to draw more attention.
While he played well in his first year there, he was still not receiving the buzz he thought he had earned.
As a favor to Vincent Piazza, who grew up with Tommy Lasorda, Lasorda convinced the Dodgers to draft Piazza in a low-risk spot after he failed to be scouted.
The Dodgers drafted Piazza 1,390th overall in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, where they quickly converted him to catcher.
Lasorda believed Piazza had a better chance of making it to the Major Leagues as a catcher, especially one as talented with the bat as Piazza.
Piazza began training hard to learn to catch and soon found himself reporting to the Dodgers’ minor league system.
Piazza spent the next few seasons bouncing around the Dodgers’ farm system, honing his skills as a catcher and learning to adjust to professional pitching.
After two years in the low minors, Piazza was promoted to the Class AA San Antonio Missions.
He would spend very little time in San Antonio with the Dodgers opting to promote him to the AAA Albuquerque Dukes, where he began to show he was a potential Major Leaguer.
With the Dukes in 1992, Piazza became a contender for player of the year awards for minor leaguers and showed impressive power and hitting ability, batting nearly .350 and slugging 16 home runs.
In September of that year, the Dodgers called Piazza up from the minors, where he immediately began making an impact.
Major League Career
In his big league debut against the Chicago Cubs, Piazza numbered three hits including his first extra-base hit, a double.
As a September call-up, Piazza showed potential in just under a month’s worth of games before the end of the season.
Setting his sights on 1993, Piazza continued to work in the offseason to improve his skills and began the season as Los Angeles’ starting catcher.
He immediately set the National League on fire, taking home Rookie of the Year honors and becoming an anomaly for a catcher.
There had been great-hitting catchers before Piazza, but his sheer size and longball potential were truly rare for his time.
He finished the 1993 campaign with a staggering 35 home runs, 112 runs driven in, and a batting average of .318.
He was also selected to his first All-Star team.
An impressive campaign for any player, let alone a rookie catcher.
Piazza’s next handful of seasons in Los Angeles were no different, as he continued his historic offensive tear.
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Piazza hit 24 home runs and again batted over .300.
He was selected to his 2nd All-Star team and would make eight more All-Star appearances in a row.
1995 and 1996 were also very productive for Piazza.
In both seasons he hit over 30 home runs with batting averages in the mid-.300s.
Finishing second in the N.L. MVP Award in 1996, Piazza had solidified himself as baseball’s best hitting catcher and one of the best overall sluggers in the game.
Determined to avenge his second-place finish, Piazza had his best year to date in 1997, reaching the 40 home run mark with an astounding .362 batting average coupled with a .431 on-base percentage.
He again finished second in N.L. MVP voting.
Before the start of the 1998 season, the Dodgers offered Piazza a sizeable contract extension worth $81 million over six years.
Piazza wanted more money and a seventh year tacked on and decided to turn down the Dodgers’ offer.
Instead of offering the slugging catcher another contract, the Dodgers decided to trade Piazza to the Florida Marlins in May of that year for notable players including Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla.
The Marlins, looking to shed salary, sent him to the New York Mets just eight days later.
Piazza energized the Mets’ fan base almost immediately.
From May of 1998 to the end of the season, Piazza hit 23 home runs, batted .348, and drove in 76 runs.
After the season, the Mets signed Piazza to the richest contract in baseball history, a seven-year deal worth $91 million.
Reflecting on signing Piazza, co-owner Nelson Doubleday said:
“This tells the fans that we appreciate the fact that they came back to watch us play after we acquired Mike. They wanted a marquee player, we needed a marquee player and we got them a marquee player.”
Now secured in a long-term deal, Piazza could focus on playing baseball.
The Mets made the postseason in both 1999 and 2000 with Piazza remaining a force in the middle of their lineup.
The 1999 season saw the slugging catcher again reach the 40 home run mark, and in 2000 he played in his first and only World Series of his career.
10/2/99: PIT @ NYM: Mike Piazza (40th of season, 240th of career) off Mike Williams (@mikepiazza31) pic.twitter.com/FibgOEukbo
— Mets Home Run a Day (@MetsHRADay) February 10, 2022
While the Mets lost the series to their rival New York Yankees, Piazza and Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens became embroiled in an infamous altercation in which Clemens threw a piece of Piazza’s broken bat towards him as he was running to first base.
Clemens’ actions were heavily criticized, considering he had given Piazza a concussion earlier that year after hitting him in the head with a pitch.
Piazza is also known for a home run he hit at Shea Stadium in New York following the 9/11 attacks.
In the first game in New York following the attacks, Piazza hit a towering home run against the Atlanta Braves that gave the Mets the lead in the eighth inning.
The crowd erupted in cheers as Piazza rounded the bases and then came out for a curtain call.
It was a cathartic moment for a city that had experienced unspeakable tragedy just a week before.
The Mets and Braves were amid a heated N.L. East Division race as the season was coming to a close, but Braves pitcher Greg Maddux did not mind the loss.
“It seems only fitting that Mike hit a game-winning home run. You never like to lose, but that one was pretty easy to accept.”
While the rest of Piazza’s Mets tenure was productive, the team became concerned with Piazza’s health and wanted to keep his bat in the lineup, even if it meant as a first baseman and not a catcher.
Again tasked with learning a new position, Piazza began training at first base and eventually found himself splitting time between catching and playing first.
Despite Piazza being a durable catcher up to this point in his career, splitting time with a less physically demanding position may have lengthened his career and preserved some of his offensive capability.
In 2004, Piazza passed Hall of Fame catcher Carlton Fisk for most home runs ever hit by a catcher with 352.
Following the 2005 season, his last with the Mets, Piazza elected to try out free agency for the first time in his career.
On October 2nd, 2005, Mike Piazza played his final game as a Met.
Since then, the #Mets have used 35 different catchers. Only 4 of them are still on an active MLB roster.
Quite the graveyard. #LGM pic.twitter.com/IB6EfSKDao
— Carson (@MetsfanOnYT) February 18, 2022
After eight seasons in New York, Piazza signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the San Diego Padres.
While many American League teams were interested in signing Piazza to be their designated hitter, Piazza wanted to stay in the National League and continue catching.
His one year in San Diego proved fruitful for Piazza and the Padres, as Piazza hit 22 home runs while playing half his games in San Diego’s pitcher-friendly Petco Park.
The Padres won the N.L. West Division title, but fell to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
Piazza’s last Major League season came in 2007 with the Oakland Athletics after signing a one-year deal worth almost $9 million, but he spent much of the season on the disabled list.
He decided to retire after that season.
Life After Baseball
Mike Piazza finished his Major League career as one of the best hitting catchers the game had ever seen.
While he was not a defensive liability at all, he is still primarily remembered for his hitting ability.
He finished his career with 59.5 WAR, over 2,000 hits, 427 home runs (including 396 as a catcher), and had a career batting average of .308.
Piazza was selected to 12 All-Star games, won the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award, and finished second in MVP voting twice.
In retirement, Piazza has stayed involved in baseball, primarily with the Mets.
As one of the Mets’ most important players of the late 1990s and 2000s, Piazza and Hall of Fame Mets pitcher Tom Seaver had the honors of closing Shea Stadium.
Shea was a New York landmark and many fans were upset to see the field close after hosting Mets games for over 40 seasons.
Seaver threw out the “final pitch” to Piazza, and they walked off into the outfield.
The two would reunite in 2009 during the opening of the Mets’ new Citi Field, where Seaver threw the first pitch again to Piazza.
In 2016, Piazza was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, the ultimate reward for a Major League player.
Elected with Ken Griffey Jr., Piazza made it in his fourth year of eligibility.
He chose to wear a Mets cap on his plaque, becoming just the second player to enter the Hall as a Met, the first being Tom Seaver.
Despite being drafted and raised in the Dodgers’ organization, Piazza felt more connected to the Mets.
Reflecting on his time in New York, Piazza said:
“The Mets fans were just so gracious to me, and even in my post-career as well. Every time I go back, I can’t tell you how much I feel embraced. It’s very special, and it’s a relationship that – I can’t describe how emotional it is for me.”
Just six days after his Hall of Fame induction, Piazza’s number 31 was retired by the Mets during a ceremony at Citi Field.
Piazza’s number was just the fourth ever retired by the Mets, including Tom Seaver, Casey Stengel, and Gil Hodges.
Despite an inspiring underdog story, Piazza was often suspected and accused of using illegal steroids.
Piazza fit in nicely with the baseball culture of the 1990s, big, muscular sluggers who hit towering home runs and never seemed to get hurt.
Piazza’s status as the game’s best hitting catcher only caused more suspicion.
That said, there has never been any evidence linking Piazza to steroid use or illegal drugs.
He has admitted to using substances in the past that are currently banned by Major League Baseball but were not banned when he was using them.
Piazza admitted he had taken legal amphetamines in his early career, as well as a drug known as androstenedione, which was found in Mark McGwire’s locker in the late ’90s.
Wanting to distance himself from the “steroid era”, Piazza stopped taking it.
Both substances are now banned by Major League Baseball.
Looking to stay involved in baseball, Piazza was chosen to manage Italy’s national team in the 2021 World Baseball Classic, which was canceled due to the ongoing Covid-19 Pandemic.
Piazza had previously served as Italy’s hitting coach during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, in which the team finished in 7th place, and was a member of the team in 2006.
In 2016, Piazza bought A.C. Reggiana, a third-division Italian soccer team.
This decision was met with a lot of excitement in the small town of Reggio Emilia, who believed Piazza was going to turn the struggling franchise around.
His ownership did not go as planned, however, as the team began losing money.
Piazza liquidated the franchise in 2018 and backed out of the ownership group.
Mike Piazza is one of the best catchers of all time, certainly the best hitting catcher ever.
He belongs in the same circles as Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Yogi Berra, catchers who were not only good with the glove but who paved the way for Piazza and his style of play.
Drafted in just the 62nd round, Piazza was chosen after 1,389 other players.
He is the lowest draft pick to ever make the Hall of Fame, and likely will remain so for the foreseeable future.
His career is a true underdog story, and he will be remembered as one of the greatest players of the 1990s and 2000s.
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