A 62nd-round draft choice selected mainly as a personal favor to Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza quickly established himself in Los Angeles as one of the greatest offensive catchers baseball has ever seen. Although Piazza fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing for the Dodgers, his career took a sudden and dramatic turn in his sixth season when he found himself traded twice in one week, eventually winding up with the New York Mets. After a rocky start in New York, he signed a long term deal and helped restore the Mets to prominence.
Born in 1968 in Norristown, PA — a suburb of Philadelphia — Piazza grew up rooting for the Phillies and the Flyers. He idolized Phillie slugger Mike Schmidt and even worked as a Veterans Stadium batboy. Piazza also looked up to his father Vince, a high school dropout who turned his used car lot into a multi-million dollar franchise. Thanks to his father begging a favor out of Lasorda — a family friend — Piazza also got personal batting instruction from Hall of Fame outfielder Ted Williams.
Unbelievable as it seems, the right-handed slugger generated no interest from baseball scouts out of high school. He went to Miami-Dade North Community College and was picked up by the Dodgers in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, behind 1,389 players. He might not have been selected at all if not for the longtime friendship between his father and Lasorda, the godfather to one of Piazza’s brothers.
It took Piazza four minor league seasons to reach Los Angeles, but once he did, he never looked back. In his rookie season of 1993 Piazza batted .318 and set Dodger rookie records with 35 home runs and 112 RBIs. After the season he was the unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year.
After his auspicious debut that season, Piazza did nothing but improve. After batting .319 with 24 homers in the strike-shortened 1994 season, Piazza finished second to Tony Gwynn in the 1995 National League batting race with a .346 average — tying him with Tommy Davis for the highest single-season Dodger batting average since the club moved to Los Angeles. But the season ended on a down note when his club was swept by Davey Johnson’s Cincinnati Reds in the first round of the National League playoffs.
The next season saw more of the same as Piazza again put up huge numbers (.336, 36 homers, 105 RBIs) while finishing second in the NL MVP voting to Ken Caminiti. The season was highlighted by Piazza’s fourth straight All-Star appearance, this time in his native Philadelphia. The hometown boy made good, slamming a massive homer into the left-field upper deck at Veterans Stadium and winning game MVP honors. But his best efforts couldn’t prevent another first-round playoff sweep, this time at the hands of the Atlanta Braves.
As good as he had been to that point, no one could have predicted the incredible season Piazza would have in 1997. Producing arguably the best offensive season ever for a catcher, Piazza posted career highs with a .362 batting average, .638 slugging percentage, 40 home runs, 124 RBIs, 201 hits and 355 total bases, joining Roy Campanella and Todd Hundley as the only catchers to hit forty homers in a season. One of his longest shots came on September 21, when he launched an estimated 478-foot home run out of Dodger Stadium. To that point, only Willie Stargell had accomplished the feat.
Unfortunately, the season would again end poorly. The Dodgers led the NL West outright as late as September 17th, but were eliminated on the final weekend of the season, losing the title to their longtime rival San Francisco Giants. It was the first time in three years the Dodgers had missed the postseason. Piazza again finished second in the MVP voting, this time to Colorado Rockies right fielder Larry Walker.
Early in the 1998 season, the Dodgers grew concerned that they couldn’t afford to re-sign Piazza at the astronomical salary he was demanding. Worried they might lose him to free agency, the Dodgers made a blockbuster deal on May 15th that sent their All-Star catcher to the Florida Marlins along with third baseman Todd Zeile for outfielder Gary Sheffield, catcher Charles Johnson, third baseman Bobby Bonilla and utility outfielder Jim Eisenreich.
Piazza and Zeile were not expected to stay with the cash-strapped Marlins for long, and the Marlins soon continued their post-World Series firesale by sending the much sought-after Piazza to the New York Mets one week later for top prospect Preston Wilson (son of former Met Mookie Wilson) and minor-league pitchers Ed Yarnall and Goeff Goetz.
Piazza arrived with both fans and players quickly anointing him as the Mets’ savior. New York buzzed with anticipation, and John Franco, a long-time Met, gave up his number 31 so that Piazza would feel right at home. But the situation quickly became ugly. Not only were the expectations for Piazza high, but as a catcher he played the same position as injured fan-favorite Todd Hundley. Met fans had little tolerance for slumps, and early struggles led to boos whenever Piazza made an out.
Nonetheless, despite being traded twice and being thrust into a highly pressurized situation in New York, Piazza soon turned it around and showed New Yorkers why he was one of the game’s true superstars. He hit .351 in the second half (including .378 in September as he carried the Mets offense through a playoff push which fell just short) to finish the year at .328, fourth in the league. Shortly after the season, he signed a seven-year deal with the Mets, a development that once seemed unlikely, given his initial reception in New York.
For the first time in years, the Mets entered the next season with legitimate hopes of making the playoffs, and Piazza finally got a chance to enjoy the city as his home. With Piazza as the team’s centerpiece, management brought in a quality supporting cast in the form of Robin Ventura and Armando Benitez, and broke the bank to keep pitcher Al Leiter. But there was no doubt that Mike Piazza had become The Man in New York.
He certainly lived up to his expectations, batting .303 with 40 homers and 124 RBIs. The season included a 24-game hitting streak (tying Hubie Brooks‘ franchise record), and his seventh straight All-Star appearance. A close race for the wild card wore on Piazza, however, as he was forced to play everyday, battling the fatigue that comes with catching. The Mets earned a playoff berth by beating the Reds in a one-game playoff, but struggled for offense in the postseason as Piazza’s bat tired under the strain of a long season.
Despite a series of stirring comebacks, the Mets fell short of a subway series with their crosstown rival Yankees. Piazza went only 4-24 in the NLCS, and the Mets entered the 2000 season planning rest him frequently to preserve his body for the stretch run. Piazza responded with another fine season, drawing chants of “MVP!” from the Shea Stadium faithful.