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Coming Into His Own : Mike Piazza Isn’t Really Lasorda’s Godson, but He Has Become a Real Big Leaguer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there ever was a reason for the media to stop reporting that Dodger rookie catcher Mike Piazza is the godson of Manager Tom Lasorda, this is it:

He’s not.

Piazza’s official godfather is his uncle.

Lasorda is the godfather of Piazza’s younger brother, Tommy, who is also Lasorda’s namesake.

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“You take one brother, you take them all,” Lasorda said.

Lasorda, who is a distant cousin of Piazza’s father, Vince, was referred to within their families as Piazza’s godfather long before Piazza made it to the majors. Yet Lasorda has said all along that although he is Piazza’s godfather, Mike is not his godson.

No one seemed to get it.

Call it a cultural thing, as Lasorda does.

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“Our families are so close, that’s what we call it in Italian, godfather,” he said.

“If something happened to Mike’s parents, we (he and wife Jo) would take him over. “

It wasn’t until Mark Langill of the Pasadena Star News asked, “Are you really . . . " that Piazza responded to a label carried even on his baseball cards and in the Dodger media guide.

“I don’t really know when it got started, but it’s just always been that way,” Piazza said. “Tommy and my father have been friends forever, and he has always been in my corner. But now that I’m in the spotlight, our relationship is exploited because I’m doing well.”

He’s doing so well, in fact, that the label is beginning to peel off. Every city Piazza plays in, there are rookie-of-the-year signs displayed in the crowd. He leads the team in batting in every major category and is quickly taking the lead in fan popularity.

He has silenced many of his critics with his bat and hopes to someday quiet the rest with his defense. But his road to the majors hasn’t been easy, even with Lasorda helping him. There were roadblocks at every turn, some that even Lasorda couldn’t ram.

So Piazza did it on his own.

“He’s a hard worker,” said Eric Karros, who won last season’s rookie award.

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“One thing that is different (about their rookie seasons) is that he has had to deal with his relationship with Tommy and prove that that is not the reason he is here. And he’s done that.”

In batting practice recently, Piazza hit three consecutive pitches into the upper section of the left-field pavilion. When someone mentioned it to Lasorda, he looked unimpressed.

“He was doing that before he was even signed by the Dodgers,” Lasorda deadpanned.

*

What Lasorda saw in Piazza was power. Ted Williams saw it, too.

“I was at a baseball card show with a scout that knew Mr. Williams, and he told him about Mike’s hitting,” said Vince Piazza. “So when Mr. Williams asked if he could come over and see Mike’s swing, I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

Vince, who had built a batting cage for his son in the back yard of their house in Norristown, Pa., picked up Williams at a nearby hotel and brought him to their house.

“He watched Mike’s swing and he said, ‘If this kid is swinging this well now and he’s only 16, I guarantee you that he will hit in the major leagues,’ ” Vince recalled.

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Before Williams left, he told the young Piazza to read a book he had written on batting. Piazza told him he had read it already, and Williams asked him to go get it.

Inside the book, Williams wrote: “To my friend Mike, from Ted Williams. Don’t forget me. Someday I’ll be looking for you to get tickets to a game. Your friend, Ted Williams.” Most of the baseball world, though, remained skeptical about Piazza. That included the Dodgers. Even with Lasorda’s clout, no team drafted Piazza as a high school graduate.

“They said this guy couldn’t hit; couldn’t throw,” Lasorda said, shaking his head.

Lasorda’s longtime friend, Ron Fraser, former

University of Miami baseball coach, liked Piazza’s bat, and took him as a walk-on. But Piazza, then a first baseman, said the experience was a little overwhelming. He was on a team of veterans who had recently won the College World Series, and here he was, fresh out of a small-town school that played half as many games as the high schools in warmer climates.

“I sat on the bench and didn’t even make the travel squad, so I started studying and lifting weights,” Piazza said. “Actually, that is when I started taking weights seriously, and that had a lot to do with my success.”

With his career seemingly at a standstill, Piazza transferred to Miami-Dade North Community College. He played well there before splitting two knuckles and sitting out most of the season. The day his cast came off, he was in the batting cage, but it was too late to make the scouting reports. No team was interested.

Lasorda, trying to help Piazza get a scholarship to a four-year college, thought that if Piazza was at least drafted by a major league team, maybe that would impress some college baseball coach. The Dodgers obliged and made Piazza a throw-away pick--their 62nd-round choice in the June draft in 1988.

“I got a Mail-gram from the Dodgers,” Piazza said, smiling. “They didn’t even call me. It was more or less their way of saying good luck.”

But Lasorda wasn’t done yet. He had already had former Dodger catcher Joe Ferguson work out with Piazza to see if he could be converted to a catcher. Ferguson liked Piazza’s arm, and gave Lasorda the go-ahead sign.

Finally, two months after the draft, Dodger scouting director Ben Wade asked Piazza to fly out from Norristown for a workout at Dodger Stadium. Piazza, still unsigned, paid his own way.

“A lot of the scouts were there and I hit about 10 or 15 balls into the seats,” Piazza said. “Tommy was shagging balls in the outfield and he asked Ben Wade, ‘Well, what do you think?’ ”

Wade told Lasorda that he wanted to see Piazza play.

Said Piazza: “So Tommy asked him, ‘If he was a shortstop and he hit like this, would you need to see him play?’ And Ben said yes.

“So Tommy asked him, ‘If he was a catcher and he hit like this, would you need to see him play?’ And Ben said no.

“So Tommy said, ‘Then he’s a catcher.’ ”

Four seasons later, Piazza, 24, is the new pride of the Dodgers’ farm system. Every time you turn around, he’s in the midst of a streak. He leads the team in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. His eight home runs in 41 games are the most by a Dodger catcher since Mike Scioscia hit eight in 119 games in 1991.

But his defense is still being questioned. After he threw out 11 of 16 base stealers to start the season, Piazza’s success rate dropped. He has now thrown out 20 of 55, and seven of the last 16.

And as his hitting continued impressively, talk began to circulate that he might be converted to a third baseman.

“Who’s saying that?” Piazza asked. “I worked my butt off to get here as a catcher and I don’t know if I want to go back down to triple-A to learn third base.

“The problem is that I set a standard early by throwing out baserunners, and then when that started to tail off, people start talking. But I keep track of it and I’m throwing out 40% or better. Just like players who go into hitting slumps, catchers have throwing slumps.

“There are no excuses, but we are not machines.”

*

Piazza is not a quiet person by any means, but there is a quiet intensity about him.

“I’m fairly private,” he said. “I really don’t have that many friends, and there are only a few guys I hang out with.

“Sometimes, I can go into a shell. I don’t want to return phone calls to anybody, not even to my parents. I wouldn’t say that I’m moody. But sometimes I just don’t want to deal with things. . . .

“Maybe it is my way of getting away from the game and the expectations.”

Piazza said he is not feeling any pressure, but he also said he is not able to enjoy his success yet.

“I don’t want to let down mentally and physically,” he said. “I want to continue to work harder than I did to get here and not take things for granted.”

One of his closest friends, Dodger triple-A pitcher Greg Hansell, says Piazza is his own worst critic.

“Mike doesn’t expect too much from anyone, and he doesn’t want much from anyone else,” Hansell said, “but he also doesn’t want anyone to expect anything from him.”

Hansell said he learned from rooming with Piazza that sometimes he simply needs to be left alone.

“I think it goes back to his high school days,” Hansell said. “I would always ask him, ‘What did you do in high school?’ I think he was somewhat of a rebel and a loner and just got into his music and baseball.”

But one night recently, Piazza’s intensity came through loud and clear. After the Dodgers had suffered their toughest defeat of the season, a 7-6 setback against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium, Piazza’s voice could be heard throughout the underground tunnels adjacent to the Dodger clubhouse. His outburst was sparked by a new Dodger security policy that prevented a friend from meeting him outside the clubhouse as planned.

“I just snapped,” Piazza said. “Maybe that was a way of letting out my frustration about the game, but on the same note, that situation wasn’t handled well,” Piazza said. “After a loss like that, I felt I let the team down and the whole situation was frustrating.”

Hansell said that one of Piazza’s best traits is not allowing that emotion to control him on the field.

“He’s got a couple of sides to him, but you have to be able to get some emotion out and not let it overtake you, and Mike knows how to do that,” Hansell said.

“It hasn’t been easy for Mike. Even though Mike’s relationship with Tommy has been great for him, it sometimes made it difficult when his ability to play was overlooked because of their relationship.”

Lasorda, though, never doubted that Piazza could play.

“I can remember even back when Michael was 12,” Vince Piazza said. “Tommy came and spoke at his school and when he finished his speech, he looked out at the kids in the assembly and said, ‘You have a student here named Mike Piazza, and remember what I am telling you, because he is going to play for the Dodgers some day.’

“But there sure were a lot of doubting Thomases.”

All except one.


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