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Everybody Wants a Piece of Piazza : But Dodgers’ All-Star Catcher Prefers the Batting Cage to Hollywood’s Zoo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s New Year’s Eve. The phone has been ringing all day. Party invitations are stacked on the kitchen counter.

High school friends are pleading for him to go to their party. Women are begging for dates. Nightclubs are willing to pay for his attendance.

It’s 10 p.m., Dec. 31, 1994.

Do you know where Mike Piazza, the Dodgers’ All-Star catcher in his first two seasons and one of America’s most eligible bachelors, can be found?

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He’s in the basement batting cage at the family estate near Philadelphia, swinging at pitch after pitch, perspiring profusely, and couldn’t be caring less about Dick Clark and Times Square.

He finishes, takes a quick shower, sits back and watches television, then falls asleep without a sip of champagne.

“I went to New York a few years ago for New Year’s Eve,” Piazza says, “and it was the most miserable time I ever had. You stand out there, freeze your butt off, just to see a ball drop for 10 seconds.

“When it’s done, you’re standing there thinking, ‘Now what do I do?’

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“Besides, two years ago, I was in the cage on New Year’s Eve, things turned out all right that year, so now it’s like a tradition.

“Hey, it’s no big deal. I was in the cage on Christmas too.”

Piazza shrugs his massive shoulders and laughs softly. People don’t understand. Most never will.

They see him playing cameo roles on “Married with Children,” “Baywatch” or “The Bold and Beautiful.” They see him as a guest host on MTV. They see him playing golf with Charles Barkley. They see him being mobbed for autographs in the Forum Club at Laker games. They see him hanging out with Rocket Ismail. They see him sliding home on ESPN commercials.

He’s considered a celebrity now. Even in Hollywood, where you’re taught to act cool around stars, the guidelines are forgotten when it comes to Piazza. Men want to be seen next to him. Women want to go out with him. Kids idolize him.

There have been at least a dozen letters sent to the offices of the Beverly Hills Sports Council from women informing Piazza that they’ve named their babies after him. One woman has his name on her license plate. One woman in Bakersfield even named her horse after him.

The adulation, the goofy way people act when they see him, Piazza says, is flattering. It’s nice to be recognized as an honest-to-goodness celebrity at 26.

“But what people forget,” Piazza says, “is that I’m only known because of my success on the ballfield. Nobody knew who I was three years ago. I used to walk across this (spring-training) complex when I was in the minors, and nobody would ever stop me for my autograph.

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“I’ll never take this game for granted. Never. I’ve worked too hard to get here. It’s something I’ve always been taught, and lived by.

“I know this can be gone as easily as it came.”

It’s this work ethic--the old-fashioned kind--that transformed Piazza from a 62nd-round draft choice into the finest-hitting catcher in the game.

And there was no finer example of this ethic than his father, the only father of a major league player who’s richer than Barry Bonds.

Vince Piazza, a high school dropout, parlayed a used-car lot into a $100-million empire. The son of an impoverished welder, he quit school at 16 to help provide for the family. He worked nights at the B.F. Goodrich tire plant. During the day, he fixed up cars and sold them.

“I remember one time Tommy (Lasorda) came by and wanted to go to lunch,” Vince Piazza says of the Dodger manager. “I told him, ‘Hold on, I can’t go to lunch until I sell a hubcap or something first.’ ”

“True story,” Lasorda says, laughing, “it’s the honest-to-God’s truth.”

Vince Piazza amassed 50 car dealerships across the country by 1992, expanded into real estate and now has a computer service company that generates in excess of $200 million annually.

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You look at father and son today, and the father is the one with the extravagant taste. The son is the old-fashioned one.

Vince Piazza wears custom suits and a gold Rolex on his wrist; the son wears T-shirts and jeans, and occasionally a Timex.

The father drives a Mercedes, with a Ferrari sitting in the garage; the son drives a leased Cadillac.

The father lives in a 12,000-square-foot mansion that includes a magnificent view of the Valley Forge National Historical Park; the son lives in a modest three-bedroom townhouse in Manhattan Beach, and can’t even see the beach.

The father is worth in excess of $100 million; the son will earn $900,000 this season, and still watches what he spends on gas.

“I don’t need much to make me happy,” Mike Piazza says. “I mean, what good is having 450 horsepower in L.A. when you’re going to be sitting in traffic and burning out your clutch?

“Maybe it’s old-fashioned, but I like Cadillacs. You put one pinky on the wheel and cruise.”

Yet, there’s no question that father and son share the same passion: baseball.

Vince Piazza wanted nothing more than to have one of his sons become a major leaguer.

Mike Piazza wanted to be that player.

“It was me that gave Michael the tools,” Vince Piazza says, “but it was Michael who used them.”

Lasorda agrees: “And what happened turned into the greatest success story since Conrad Hilton. My God, what a story.”

*

Dodger fans have become well-versed in the Piazza story: Father and son build a batting cage from scrap wood outside their home. Son hits 300 balls a day, refusing to stop until his hands ache. Son goes to the University of Miami, transfers to Miami-Dade Community College and is selected in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft because father and Lasorda are best of friends. The Dodgers have no interest in signing the son until the father pays the air fare for him to try out at Dodger Stadium. The son is provided a $15,000 signing bonus, only after agreeing to meet the scout at the Philadelphia airport.

The son of the millionaire becomes the first American player to go to the Campo Las Palmas baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. He knows no Spanish. His 40 roommates know no English. He spends the next winter in Mexico. The next year, he is in the Arizona Fall League.

He does everything possible to make himself a big league player, only to find himself a victim of nepotism and petty jealousies because of his father’s relationship with Lasorda. He even quits out of frustration one night with Class A Vero Beach. Lasorda interferes, telling the minor league department to leave the kid alone.

“He went through some tough times, boy,” Lasorda says. “I was just hoping and praying they would leave him alone. I knew he could do it if given the opportunity because he was on such a mission.

“My God, now would you look at him.”

Only in America.

“I prayed to the good Lord that he would make my son a big ballplayer, but who ever dreamed this?” Vince Piazza asks. “I mean, there’s only two professional ballplayers that ever came out of Norristown (Pa.). One is a manager. The other is my son. And they’re on the same ballclub.

“You talk about believing in faith.”

Piazza, who set a major league record in 1993 for home runs by a rookie catcher with 35, has batted .319 with 59 homers and 204 RBIs the last two seasons. If not for the strike, he almost certainly would have joined Roy Campanella as the only catchers to hit more than 30 homers in consecutive seasons. Now, the Dodgers are counting on him to be their cleanup hitter.

“I was involved in a recent survey,” scout Mel Didier says, “and they asked me if I could pick any player in the National League to start a team, who would I pick.

“You know I thought about it, went over every player on every team, and came up with only one guy: Mike Piazza.

“He is that good.”

*

Two women walk slowly by the dinner table, take a long look at Piazza and his long brown hair, stare into his eyes, but he doesn’t look up. They walk away disillusioned, failing in their quest to start a conversation.

This is one of the first times Piazza has been seen in public at Vero Beach. He stops and signs autographs for hours at Dodgertown, but once the game is over and most of his teammates have gone home, he hits the gym with buddy Eric Karros.

The season starts in only 10 days, and Piazza says this is no time for nightlife. It would only ruin his preparation for the season. Besides, it’s Vero Beach, what’s he going to do, anyway?

If Piazza wanted, he could be the toast of the town.

Instead, he turns down David Letterman, embarrassed that Letterman would even want him. He turns down Howard Stern, knowing it’s not good for the image. He turns down countless dating requests, preferring instead to go out only with women who might be in his future.

“I’m not into the Hollywood scene,” Piazza says. “Don’t get me wrong, I like to have as much fun as the next guy, but I’m not going to go out just to party. I’m here to play baseball.

“I used to think the ultimate would be to play just one game, you know, get my name in the Baseball Encyclopedia. But once you make it, you want more. You want to have success. I mean the ultimate would be to win a World Series in Los Angeles.”

He may not fulfill the image Hollywood wants, but Piazza isn’t changing his lifestyle for anyone. That can wait. Baseball can’t.

“You’ve got to understand,” Vince Piazza says, “the only thing Michael ever wanted to do was play baseball. When he was in high school and the other kids were at the dances, Michael was in the batting cage. When he would finish playing a game, he would come home and practice more.

“That hasn’t changed.”

Mike Piazza says: “People are always going to think what they want about you, no matter what you do. The press can have all kinds of expectations. They can write I’ll hit 40 home runs, but if I don’t, does that make me a failure?

“No, the only failure is not trying. And believe me, that’s not going to happen.”


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