Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 24, 2013

Book Review: A Bat On One Shoulder, A Chip On The Other

Of the twenty-four former ball players making their first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot this past winter, only six received more than five percent of the vote, the threshold for continued eligibility. As all fans know, the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who comprise the Hall’s electorate favored no candidate, old or new, with the requisite seventy-five percent of the vote for election to the Hall. Since a candidate remains on the ballot for fifteen years as long as he exceeds that five percent each year, Cooperstown has now entered a lengthy period in which the role of performance enhancers in the game and the proper evaluation of those who played during the Steroids Era will be an annual debate.

Of all the many strongly held opinions on the issue, to my mind none is more poisonous than the view expressed by some writers that they will not vote for any former player whom they suspect may have used steroids. This is a standard of proof, or more accurately non-proof, that is beneath contempt in a nation that prides itself on due process and the rule of law. It is a stance so benighted and contrary to the spirit of fair play that it will almost certainly collapse in time. The signal of its undoing will be the eventual election to the Hall of a former hero who never failed a test or was directly accused of being a user; but because of the time in which he played had to deal with the questions, the rumors, and the suspicions that were part and parcel of the era. There’s a very fair chance the player to do it will be Mike Piazza. If so, it will be yet one more barrier broken by the best hitting catcher of all time.

In “Long Shot,” Piazza’s new autobiography (Simon & Shuster, coauthored by Lonnie Wheeler), the twelve-time All-Star plainly states that “election to the Hall of Fame would, for me, validate everything.” For many fans, especially those of the Dodgers and Mets, Piazza’s numbers speak for themselves and need no validation. But the hunger for recognition is understandable given the unlikely road traveled by the second of Vince and Veronica Piazza’s six sons; from a childhood in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania to the white-hot lights of Hollywood and Gotham.

Vince Piazza’s own dreams of playing the Great Game had ended as a teenager when he was forced to work to help support his family. Be he quickly identified Mike as mirroring his love for the game. Vince built a backyard batting cage and threw hundred of pitches to his son after school. The father took his boys into Philadelphia whenever the Dodgers, managed by his childhood friend Tommy Lasorda, came to town. From his seat along the third base line Mike grew up worshipping Phillies legend Mike Schmidt.

While all those hours swinging a bat in the backyard helped Piazza develop a power stroke at the plate, he lacked a natural position and was ponderously slow. Anything but the classic five-tool player that major league scouts seek, he was passed over out of high school and almost certainly would never have been drafted out of college but for his father’s connection to Lasorda. In the NFL and NBA players are drafted based largely upon their ability to help a club immediately. But virtually every player selected in the MLB Amateur Draft starts out in the minors, and most never see the inside of a big league stadium without buying a ticket. So it’s not unheard of for a team to make a courtesy pick; choosing a player in the later rounds as a favor to someone in management or an individual with connections to the team. So it was that thanks to Lasorda, Mike Piazza was selected by the Dodgers in the 62nd round, the 1,390th pick of the 1998 draft.

At first the Dodgers didn’t even call to offer a contract, the front office apparently not realizing that an actual offer was part of the deal. When he eventually signed and got into the minor leagues, Piazza was forced to confront managers and other players who doubted his ability, even as he took up catching as a position he could credibly play. The experiences hardened him, eliminating once and for all the childhood dream of a pure and noble game. By the time he made his major league debut as a late season call-up in 1992, Piazza had developed an attitude. He played angry throughout his career, and freely admits that at times he was not a good teammate, distrusted management and was suspicious of the media’s motivations. If there is one consistently sad theme running through the book, it is the sense that while living out his dream and becoming a rich man, far too often Mike Piazza wasn’t having any fun.  Yet one can’t help but be drawn in; the book is well worth reading.

Surly or not, on the field he was a wonder. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1993 when he batted .318 and slugged 35 home runs. It was the first of ten times that he hit .300 or better, the first of nine years with 30 or more home runs. By 1998 Dodgers management was painting Piazza as selfish for his contract demands, and he was traded in midseason to Miami. Within days the low-budget Marlins flipped him to the Mets. Booed early on at Shea Stadium, Piazza became the beloved face of the franchise once he committed to a long-term contract to stay in New York. He took the Mets to the NLCS in 1999 and to the Subway Series against the Yankees in 2000. As a Met in 2004 he slugged his 352nd home run, breaking Carlton Fisk’s record for career homers by a catcher.

By the time he announced his retirement in May, 2008, Piazza had 427 home runs and a .308 lifetime average. Six times he recorded the trifecta of a .300 or better average, 30 or more homers, and 100 or more RBIs. He is one of only ten players who never recorded a 100 strikeout season while maintaining an average above .300 and slugging 400 or more home runs. The others on the list include names like Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Musial, and Aaron. While in his book Piazza readily admits his defensive shortcomings, especially at throwing out base runners, he makes the valid point that there is more to catching than firing the ball down to second. He career catcher’s ERA was more than half a run lower than the MLB average, and he caught two no-hitters.

Yet all those numbers got Piazza just 57.8% of the vote when the Hall of Fame results were announced in January, good enough for fourth place in the balloting but 98 votes short of the 75% majority required for election. Like every slugger of his generation, Piazza faced repeated questions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s about performance enhancers. In “Long Shot” he offers a detailed and definitive denial of ever using banned substances. He understandably laments the fact that he and many others have been tarred by the broad brush with which some have insisted on painting the time. While neither condoning nor excusing those who did resort to chemical aid, he also points out that it was a time of sea change in the game in terms of hitters realizing the value of strength training, something he was committed to even as a teenager.

There will likely always be those in the media who will demand that every player of Piazza’s generation somehow prove a negative. But I think in time the self-appointed guardians of a purity that has never really existed in the Hall of Fame will be vanquished. In truth, Piazza’s first time vote total is not a bad starting point. Many players have done worse on the first ballot and eventually been elected, and no matter one’s numbers there is no shame in not crossing the threshold on the first try. Among his illustrious predecessors both Yogi Berra and Fisk were passed over in their first year of eligibility. If, and I believe the more accurate conjunction is when, Mike Piazza is elected to the Hall of Fame, it will be an entirely fitting recognition of the greatest hitting catcher of all time. Mets fans will celebrate and Dodgers fans will join in while lamenting what they let get away. As a bonus to fans everywhere, it will also help speed the end of an ugly time of guilt by innuendo.

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Responses

  1. Completely agree on all counts. The man is an obvious HOF-er, and the longer it takes him to get elected, the greater the loss of credibility of the BBWAA. His home run the first game back at home after 9/11, a game-winner, if I remember correctly, was one of those moments that immediately identify him to Mets fans as a true HOF-er.
    Nicely done, as always.
    Bill

    • Thanks for your kind words Bill, and great thanks for reblogging. I am truly grateful for the exposure to your far larger audience. As he makes clear in the book, the game-winning HR on 9/21/01, in the first game played in NYC after the 9/11 attacks, remains one of the most special moments of Piazza’s career. In the end his numbers are immutable, so I truly believe that in time Piazza’s call to the Hall will come. Thanks again.
      Mike

  2. Reblogged this on The On Deck Circle and commented:
    One of the best articles I’ve read on this particular subject. Don’t skip this one.

  3. Yes. A fine article. i loved Mike when he was with the Dodgers. Everybody loved Mike. There are few guys who hit a ball harder. But to comment on the author’s condemnation of HOF judges who admit to rejecting anyone even suspected of using steroids: True that is simply unfair and stupid. But the profusion of athletes who vehemently denied steroids use and then who were later proven to have used steroids is shameful, and a blot on the sport.

    • Thanks for reading. As for those players who have cheated and then lied about it, I couldn’t agree more. In the end they humiliate themselves and demean the game. But the writers who respond in the manner that I’ve described inevitably indict the innocent along with the guilty; a classic case of “two wrongs.” Again, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment!
      Mike

      • My pleasure. And, hey, April is around the corner.


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