Mike Piazza would never exist today. He would have to be created by the Hollywood machine that once embraced him.
He was taken in the 62nd round of the 1988 baseball draft. There are no longer 62 rounds in the draft.
He was given a private tryout at a locked Dodger Stadium as a favor to his family friend and quasi uncle, Tom Lasorda. There are few managers remaining with the longevity and power to make such arrangements.
After two minor league seasons, he was no better than an average Class-A catcher, yet he was promoted to a higher Class A the following spring. Today’s organizations rarely have the patience — or is it paternal instincts? — to show such trust in such light-producing low draft picks.
The Dodgers discovered, shaped and delivered Mike Piazza to the stage where he eventually became one of the greatest hitting catchers in baseball history. All of which makes it so sad to see him so alienated for reasons he so angrily attributes to the team’s very soul.
Fifteen years after being traded away in a fit of ignorance by a long-departed Fox official, Piazza has used this anniversary to pick a fight with, of all people, Vin Scully.
In his new book, “Long Shot,” Piazza blamed Scully for causing Dodgers fans to boo him in his final weeks with the team until he was traded to the Florida Marlins in May 1998. It is these boos, which later rained down upon Piazza when he played for the New York Mets, that have caused him to avoid Dodger Stadium since his retirement five years ago. Last season he even refused the Dodgers’ offer of ultimate respect when he declined to return for what would have been his own bobblehead night.
Piazza blames Scully for stirring the fans’ ire in a 1998 interview in which the legendary announcer challenges the slugger for giving the Dodgers an ultimatum on stalled contract talks. Piazza had criticized the Dodgers in an opening-day story in The Times, even implying that the contract impasse would affect his play. He is now accusing Scully of turning his words against him.
“The way the whole contract drama looked to them — many of whom were taking their view from Scully — was that, by setting a deadline and insisting on so much money, I was demonstrating a conspicuous lack of loyalty to the ballclub,” Piazza wrote of the fans, later adding, “Vin Scully was crushing me.”
When contacted by The Times’ Bill Shaikin about the charges, Scully was clearly wounded, saying, “I have no idea where he is coming from. I really have no idea. I can’t imagine saying something about a player and his contract. I just don’t do that.”
The folks at KTLA unearthed a video of that Scully interview from 1998 and, indeed, he crushed nobody. He simply asked Piazza about the ultimatum and gave him a chance to clear the air.
Fifteen years later, Piazza has misguidedly polluted it again. In an attempt to sell a book that he surely hopes will edge him closer to the Hall of Fame — he fell short this winter in his first year of eligibility amid rumors of steroid use — he has pushed himself further from his Dodgers home.
“I’m very disappointed in that, I’m sorry he would even do that,” Lasorda said Thursday. “I don’t know what he was thinking.”
If Piazza was thinking he was criticized on his way out of town, he’s right, but it didn’t come from Scully; it came from newspaper columnists who accused him of being selfish, one of them writing, “It’s time for Mike Piazza to zip it.”
Those words were mine. In that same 1998 column, I also wrote, “Piazza may love L.A., but he is not Eric Karros, he is an East Coast guy, he will disappear in a minute.”
If that has not happened in the last 15 years, it’s happened now, Piazza completely removing himself from the Dodgers landscape with an unfair blow to their living monument.
“I think it’s inappropriate,” said Fred Claire, the former Dodgers general manager who conducted those contract discussions with Piazza. “Vinny has always respected the game. He’s deserving of that same respect.”
Claire, who lost his job after protesting the Piazza trade, believes that if Piazza had just kept his mouth shut back then, Piazza could have remained a Dodger for life.
“I wanted to sign him, the money was there to sign him ... we would have worked out this contract,” Claire said. “They made a mistake about making an issue about the contract on opening day of the season. That was not good judgment.”
One wonders if Piazza’s anger toward Scully in this book is actually misdirected anger at himself. He really should have been a Dodger forever. He should have been the Kobe Bryant of Chavez Ravine. He should be settling into retirement on the fields of Glendale, behind the batting cage at Dodger Stadium, in the community where he was once the most beloved of ballplayers.
Even 15 years later, the fans would have embraced him. This was a guy who once hit a ball into the parking lot, who once knocked the San Francisco Giants out of the playoffs. If he had accepted the Dodgers’ bobblehead offer last summer, you would still be hearing echoes of that standing ovation. How could he not have understood that? How could he have misread such affection for contempt, and responded with such venom?
“I wanted him to come back and be part of the festivities here, but he didn’t want to do it,” said Lasorda. “I kept telling him, ‘Mike, believe me, I’ll stake my reputation on those fans, they’re not going to boo you.’ ”
He can’t say that now. It was indeed once a longshot that Mike Piazza could go from the 62nd round to Dodger Stadium. It is sadly now a longshot that he could imminently return.