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‘Friendly’ Fire Targets Piazza

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Beautiful Dodgertown sits this spring in the cold shadow of three consecutive late-season collapses, buffeted by the question:

What is leadership?

Is it ranting and raving over losses? Is it calling clubhouse meetings during controversy? Or is it simply playing hard every game, all game?

And what is it worth?

Mike Piazza sat down in front of his locker Sunday and smiled. The question of missing Dodger leadership has just landed in his lap, put there by a most unlikely source:

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Brett Butler.

This season the Dodgers are expected to examine Piazza’s leadership skills, among other things, before giving him the richest contract in baseball history.

During an interview Friday at his Atlanta-area home, answering a general question, Butler surprisingly offered me his two cents.

“Mike Piazza is the greatest hitter I have ever been around. . . . but you can’t build around Piazza because he is not a leader,” said Butler, who retired last year after 16 major-league seasons, including most of the last seven years with the Dodgers.

Butler added, “You know all that stuff that went down last year about Mike being the leader, calling out the team, all that stuff?. It was all fabricated. Mike Piazza is a moody, self-centered, 90s player.”

Piazza heard the quotes, smiled again, and shrugged.

“To hear that coming from him, I’m a little disappointed,” Piazza said. “Brett obviously doesn’t know me as well as he thinks he does.”

Piazza had just caught nine innings, without complaint, in the season’s third spring training game. Some stars don’t play nine innings in any spring training game.

Piazza had just eluded hordes of autograph seekers not to go pose for some photo layout, but to run wind sprints with the minor-league catchers.

Many of the the team’s younger players witnessed just about every minute of it.

“You lead according to your personality,” Piazza said. “Guys can smell a fake. For me to be a rah-rah guy, that’s not me. I lead other ways.”

One of those ways could have been his four consecutive non-strike season totals of at least 32 home runs and 93 RBIs.

Another way could have been last year’s .406 average with eight home runs and 27 RBIs in September.

Yet Butler said Piazza’s personality grated on some teammates.

“We’re in [crunch] time during pennant races the last two years, and all Piazza seems to care about is winning the MVP from Larry Walker or the batting title from Tony Gwynn,” Butler said. “We’d be winning games 8-0, but if he isn’t getting his knocks [hits], he’d be all ticked off, walking up and down the dugout all mad.

“Do you want to spend $100 million and build your team around that. . . . or pay for a less talented guy who is more of a leader?”

Piazza shrugged again.

“When I was a kid, I wrote my goals on two different pieces of paper,” Piazza said. “On one piece, I wrote, ‘Be a major league baseball player.’ On the other piece, I wrote, ‘Win a World Series championship.’

“Boy, I wish I had those papers now. I feel that same way today. The only thing I care about, the only thing I really need to do, is win a world championship.”

During his time with the Dodgers, Butler has been accused by teammates of possessing some of the same ego problems of which he is accusing Piazza.

Despite his determination in overcoming cancer, and his commitment to family values, Butler was sometimes viewed as being as overbearing in the clubhouse as on the basepath, irritating more humble teammates.

So why print his quotes? As a clubhouse insider for so many years, Butler has had a front row seat for Piazza’s entire career.

But should you believe them? Maybe you have been watching Piazza just as long, and you don’t.

Butler’s comments are most instructive in that, Piazza better get used to stuff like this. Every part of his game will be examined this year in the wake of the $100-million decision that could forever cement his place on the Los Angeles sports landscape.

And examined by those far more visible and accountable than a recent retiree.

“Maybe Brett, who’s never won a World Series either, is very frustrated about something, and wants to make me a scapegoat,” Piazza said. “I always looked up to him, tried to learn from him. That’s why this is so disappointing.”

Piazza added, “We can’t be concerned about what Brett Butler says about our club, because he’s not on our club.”

Indeed, Piazza has enough to worry about.

People are going to wonder whether he can stay healthy enough to carry the Dodgers again down the stretch.

People are going to wonder whether he can continue last year’s improvements on his still-inconsistent defense.

And more than anything, people are going to wonder whether he will be distracted because the Dodgers missed agent Dan Lozano’s recent deadline to sign him without risking him in free agency next winter.

About that last question, Piazza said forget it.

“We didn’t mean to cause any distractions, but you know that in this business, the only way to get anything done is to set a deadline,” Piazza said. “I’ve got the best agent in the business, and I trust him fully, and he will handle it from here.

“All I’m going to do is play.”

Which may have been what put him at odds with Butler in the first place.

“You know why Ken Griffey is a leader, why Barry Bonds is a leader?” Butler asked. “It’s respect. They are respected because they are team players.

“We didn’t have any of that on the Dodgers. . . . Mike doesn’t want to be a leader, he just wants to play.”

So Piazza, perhaps too serious in demeanor to be the contagious force of Griffey, too laid-back in personality to be the unifying force of a Gwynn, admittedly just plays.

That was Roy Campanella’s final bit of advice to him several years ago before the Hall of Fame catcher died.

“He told me, people are going to expect other things from me, criticize me for other things, but it didn’t matter,” Piazza remembered. “He told me, ‘Just play the game.’ Every day, that’s what I try to do.”

And goodness, how he plays.

So is Brett Butler right? Without being inside the clubhouse for six months, it is impossible to determine.

A more important question would be, with other Dodger veterans having more time to lead because they spend less time with the team on their backs. . . . should it matter?


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