One of the occasional features on this blog has been the story of a late-round draftee who became an MLB great. Here, from the Philadelphia Inquirer of Sunday, May 26, 1985, is a look at Mike Piazza:
There he was, down in the Veterans Stadium tunnel under left field last weekend, rubbing shoulders with Mike Marshall and Greg Brock, stroking batting-practice pitches from Manny Mota, bleeding the same shade of blue as Tommy Lasorda.
Mike Piazza blinked, just to make sure he hadn’t died and gone to Dodger Heaven.
Piazza, a junior at Phoenixville High, reacted to all this heady company he was keeping the way your average 16-year-old would. He was a bit in awe. But, really, there was no reason for him to be starstruck, because he’s having a better year than Marshall and Brock.
A 6-foot, 2-inch, 180-pound first baseman, Piazza, who doubles as the Dodgers batboy when they’re in Philadelphia, has already developed into one of the area’s most damaging sluggers, even though he’s one of the youngest in his junior class.
“Mike should really be a sophomore,” Phoenixville coach John “Doc” Kennedy said of Piazza, who won’t turn 17 until Sept. 4.
There is a stable full of pitchers who are happy he’s not, because Piazza this season torched them for 12 home runs, six doubles, three triples and 38 RBIs in 21 games (Phoenixville’s season ended Friday with a 3-2 loss to Sun Valley in a District 1 playoff game). His batting average was .514 (37 for 72) and his slugging percentage an incredible 1.181. Pitchers don’t need that kind of abuse for two more years.
Piazza had seven three-hit and two two-homer games, and he scored 28 runs. Five of his homers sailed over Phoenixville’s center-field fence, which stands 385 feet from home plate. He has also blasted a couple to the opposite field, where the fence is about 310 feet away.
“I’ve never had more respect for a hitter,” said Boyertown coach Dick Ludy, whose program has easily been the area’s most dominant over the last decade. “He’s hit two homers against us that would have gone out of any park in the big leagues, one at our place that went close to 400 feet. He was the top pick on our all-Ches-Mont League team.”
Said Kennedy: “He totally amazes me with his quick hands. Everything Mike hits is really stung. He drives the ball to all fields. And he’s a very good first baseman. He’s made only two errors. He’s dedicated a lot of time to hitting, and it shows.”
If you’ve been to Veterans Stadium for a Phillies-Dodgers game during the last three years, you probably saw Piazza as the Dodgers batboy. (Who said this kid couldn’t carry Pedro Guerrero’s bat?)
Piazza’s father, Vince, became friends with Lasorda when they were youngsters growing up in Norristown. Lasorda is godfather to Mike’s 2-year-old brother, named Tommy, of course.
“Three years ago Tommy called me and asked if I’d like to be the Dodgers’ batboy,” Mike said. “I couldn’t believe it. Two years ago he even took me on a road trip to New York for a five-game series against the Mets. And Tommy always lets me take a few swings in the batting cage under the tunnel at Veterans Stadium.
“Tommy and Manny Mota give me a lot of tips on hitting, and I can’t thank them enough for it. Manny noticed that I was uppercutting a little too much, something that a power hitter tends to do. He told me to keep my head down and try to swing down on the ball.
“I’m really lucky to get this kind of help,” Piazza added. “A lot of kids my age would give their right arms to be a batboy and get tips from people like that.”
Asked if Lasorda was aware of the kind of season he’s having, Piazza laughed and said: “Yeah, he knows. He said he wants to be my agent.”
For Piazza, there are no secrets to hitting. He has it stripped down to its basics.
“I don’t go up there thinking home run,” he added. “I just look for a good pitch, keep my hands back until the last possible moment, and relax. I haven’t thought about next year or beyond that, but I think I’d like to go to a college with a good baseball program. A lot more big-league players are coming out of colleges these days, and I’d like a good education. So far, though, things are going pretty well.”
I had heard about Piazza being drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round in 1988 as a favor to Lasorda, but the above shows that is not quite the whole story. In June 1985, the Inquirer said Piazza was “the area’s most-feared long-ball hitter, this 6-2, 180-pounder batted .514 with 12 home runs, six doubles, three triples and 38 RBIs in 22 games. . . . Had seven three-hit games and two two-homer games, and collected 37 hits in 72 at-bats. . . . Hit five homers over Phoenixville’s center-field fence, 385 feet away.”
Six years later, in June 1991, USA Today briefly profiled Piazza:
There’s a guy leading the California League with 20 home runs, and he’s a catcher. Really.
Well, sort of.
His name is Mike Piazza and he plays catcher for the Bakersfield Dodgers, but it’s a new position for him. In fact, he didn’t catch until he joined the Dodgers’ organization.
“I was a first baseman in junior college,” Piazza said. “As soon as I signed, the Dodgers converted me to catcher.”
The fact he is still learning the position is the chief reason why he’s still at the Single-A level despite 20 homers and 52 RBI.
“The feeling is that they (the Dodgers) want me to have a full year here and work on some of my defensive shortcomings,” he said.
While the parent club has the omnipresent catcher Mike Scioscia, Piazza said it converted him to catcher due to the number of first basemen in the organization.
“At the time, the Dodgers were really loaded with really good-hitting first basemen,” Piazza said. “It was just the best thing for me because there was more or less a logjam at first base.”
Piazza, 20, was drafted on the 62nd round by the Dodgers out of Miami Dade North College in the 1988 free-agent draft. He hit eight home runs in 198 at- bats at Salem (Ore.) in 1989, and had six homers in 278 at-bats at Vero Beach (Fla.) last season.