There is no doubt in Tom Lasorda’s mind: Mike Piazza belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
“Absolutely,” said Lasorda, the former Dodgers manager. “He has more home runs than any catcher in the history of the game. He has a lifetime batting average over .300.”
However, when the 2013 Hall of Fame election results are revealed Wednesday, there’s a significant possibility Piazza won’t receive the percentage of votes required to gain entry into baseball’s most exclusive fraternity.
Piazza has not been linked to steroid use in sworn testimonies by former associates the way Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were. And he is not known to have failed a drug test as critics believe Sammy Sosa did.
But Piazza was a power hitter in the so-called steroid era, which is enough to give pause to many of the more than 600 baseball writers who decide which players deserve to be enshrined in the museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Some voters are uncertain what to make of Piazza’s 427 home runs, .308 career average and 12 All-Star game appearances. A similar guilt-by-association has hurt Jeff Bagwell, who hit 449 home runs but failed to get elected in his first two times on the ballot.
When Piazza’s 16-year career was starting with the Dodgers, his story was a source of inspiration to his fans: he had been selected in the 62nd round of baseball’s amateur draft, only because his father was a longtime friend of Lasorda. That same story now elicits skepticism from a public made cynical by the countless drug scandals to hit professional sports over the last decade.
The most substantial allegations of drug use against Piazza were limited to four paragraphs in a 2010 biography of Clemens by former Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman. According to Pearlman, Piazza confided to some reporters that he used performance-enhancing substances. Pearlman also quoted two former major league players saying that Piazza’s steroid use was suspected throughout baseball. One of the players was former journeyman Reggie Jefferson; the other was not named.
Through the agency that represents him, Piazza declined to be interviewed for this story. But he has insisted he was a clean player. In 2002, he told the New York Times that he used androstenedione early in his career, but stopped because it didn’t help. The muscle-building substance made famous by Mark McGwire wasn’t on baseball’s list of banned substances at the time.
Lasorda, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, takes a hard-line stance against steroid users, saying they don’t deserve baseball’s most sacred honor. He said he wouldn’t vote for Bonds, Clemens or Sosa.
“They did it illegally,” Lasorda said.
Lasorda is convinced Piazza isn’t among the drug cheats.
“I love the young man,” said Lasorda, who is godfather to Piazza’s brother. “He comes from a great family.”
Excluding Piazza from the Hall of the Fame based on hearsay and suspicion would be wrong, Lasorda argued.
“Suspicion is nothing,” Lasorda said.
The voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Assn. of America hold a wide range of views. To gain entry into the Hall of Fame, a player has to be on 75% of the ballots. (The Los Angeles Times doesn’t allow its reporters to cast ballots.)
Some, like Rick Hurd of the Contra Costa Times, won’t vote for any first-time candidate who played in the steroid era, regardless of whether the player was accused of using drugs. Hurd considers reaching the Hall of Fame on the first ballot to be baseball’s highest honor and he doesn’t want to bestow that on anyone who might have cheated. That being said, Hurd expects to vote for Bonds, Clemens and Piazza next year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who won’t take steroid allegations into consideration when voting. Nightengale’s ballot included votes for Piazza, Bonds, Clemens and Sosa.
“It’s impossible to tell who used and who didn’t,” Nightengale said. “So I vote for the best players of that era.”
Nightengale said he also plans to cast a Hall of Fame vote for Manny Ramirez when he becomes eligible. Ramirez was suspended twice for violating baseball’s drug policy.
The majority of writers appear to stand somewhere between Hurd and Nightengale. Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times said he didn’t vote for any player who has been linked to steroids, and he didn’t vote for Piazza. Baker considered Pearlman’s assertions enough of a reason to exclude Piazza from his ballot. He argued that if Piazza wanted to clear his name, he should have taken legal action against Pearlman or the publisher of his book.
Mel Antonen of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network didn’t vote for Bonds, Clemens or Sosa, but did vote for Piazza. He doesn’t think there is enough evidence against Piazza to exclude him.
“It was unfair to Bagwell and it would be unfair to Piazza,” Antonen said.
If Piazza is inducted, there’s debate as to whether he would be enshrined as a Dodger or New York Met.
Under Fox ownership, the Dodgers sent Piazza to the Florida Marlins in 1998 after he turned down their offer for a contract extension. Piazza was the team’s most popular player at the time.
The Marlins flipped Piazza to the Mets soon after. He played there until 2005.
Although the decision is the Hall of Fame’s, Piazza has said he would want his plaque to depict him wearing a Mets cap.
“He thought he was treated better when he was with the Mets,” Lasorda said. “I can’t say anything to him because that’s his feeling.”
But Lasorda is trying to change Piazza’s mind about something else. He wants him to return to Dodger Stadium, something he hasn’t done since retiring in 2008.
The Dodgers wanted to honor Piazza with a bobblehead night last season. Piazza declined the offer.
“He doesn’t want to come back because he thinks the fans will boo,” Lasorda said. “I’ve got to make him believe they will not boo.”
Piazza received a standing ovation in his first game at Dodger Stadium as a Met, but was booed in subsequent visits.
Lasorda’s goal is to get Piazza to work for the Dodgers in an official capacity. He said he introduced Piazza to Dodgers Chairman Mark Walter last year and that Walter took a liking to him.
“I will continue to try to get him here,” Lasorda said.