The Sports Bookie -- Review of "Long Shot" by Mike Piazza

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Mike Piazza played major-league baseball with a chip on his shoulder.

No matter what he accomplished as a player, the former catcher always believed he had to defend himself. He was a 62nd-round draft choice — a courtesy pick — of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. He had to fight the perception that his path to the majors was helped enormously by his father's friend — and Dodgers manager — Tom Lasorda.

Yet Piazza earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1993, hit 427 career homers (396 as a catcher, tops among all who players squatted behind the plate), appeared in a World Series and hit .308 in his career. In his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame, he collected 58 percent of the vote.

Not bad for a long shot, which appropriately, is the title of Piazza's autobiography.

“Maybe I needed to feel disrespected, because that was what fed the beast inside me,” Piazza writes in “Long Shot,” a candid, insightful collaboration with Lonnie Wheeler (Simon & Schuster; $27, hardback, 374 pages). “Maybe I needed the extra pressure, because that was the right current for my kind of wiring.”

Maybe so. Reminds me of the Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man”:

There's a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
He refuses to bend, he refuses to crawl,
He's always at home with his back to the wall.”

Piazza, the product of a working-class family, refused to compromise. In his book, he addresses steroids; Roger Clemens; rumors about his sexuality; his difficulties with Hispanic players; and his testy relationship with the media, teammates and ownership of the Dodgers, and to a lesser extent, the New York Mets. He tells the story of a wide-eyed, idealistic baseball player from Pennsylvania who became hardened by the harsh realities of professional baseball.

Piazza received an $800,000 advance from Simon & Schuster to write “Long Shot” and originally was paired with Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger. However, Bamberger withdrew from the project; he told Murray Chass of The New York Times — one of Piazza's biggest critics through the years — that the catcher “wouldn't commit at that point to being forthcoming.”

Enter Wheeler, who has a knack of filling in the factual gaps while allowing the subject to do most of the talking. He did so with Bob Gibson's second autobiography (“Stranger to the Game”), with Henry Aaron (“I Had A Hammer”), and most effectively, with a pitcher-hitter dialogue with Gibson and Reggie Jackson (“Sixty Feet, Six Inches”). He uses the same formula with Piazza, to good effect.

On the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, Piazza admits to using products during the 1990s that have since been banned, like amphetamines and Vioxx. And androstenedione, which was found in the Monster Pak that he bought over the counter at nutrition supermarkets like GNC. But he denies using steroids, and that chip on the shoulder appears as he addresses it. He argues that hard work — not shortcuts — made him a success.

“Apparently, my career was a story that nobody cared to believe,” Piazza writes. “Apparently, my success was the work of steroids. Had to be. Those were the rumors.”

Piazza disagrees with the notion that there was a steroids culture in baseball during the late 1990s, but concedes there was a drug mentality that “blurred the lines between what was acceptable and what wasn't.”

But Piazza flatly denies using steroids, and claims the power surge that took place in the late 1990s could be attributed to two rounds of franchise expansion, better nutrition, advances in conditioning, newer ballparks with smaller dimensions and even players switching to lighter bats.

“The sea change came in the gym,” he writes, and not from steroid injections. “I'll go to my grave screaming about that.”

Piazza does express admiration for Barry Bonds, with the caveat that he would not pass judgment. He does write that Bonds was the most dominant player he ever competed against.

“If I could have swapped uniforms and been somebody else for a day or two, he's the guy I would have wanted to be,” he writes.

Piazza's run-ins with Clemens made for great fodder in the New York media, and was seen on a national scale during the 2000 World Series. Piazza had gone 7-for-12 against Clemens before he was hit in the head with a pitch on July 8, 2000, at Yankee Stadium.

“Clemens had always come across to me as the playground bully,” Piazza writes.

Things got uglier in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series at Yankee Stadium, when Piazza shattered his bat while fouling off a pitch and Clemens threw the jagged edge of the bat barrel at him.

Remarkably, there was no fight, although Piazza confessed to working with a karate trainer in the event he had to engage the beefier Clemens at the mound.

There was so much confusion, Piazza writes, and Clemens' bizarre antics made him wonder whether the pitcher had malicious intent or was just reacting in the heat of the moment. Plus, Piazza had to gauge whether it was smart to get tossed out of a World Series game.

“His hurl of the bat had looked preposterously violent, and yet, there he stood, admitting his mistake and protesting his innocence,” Piazza writes.

Reaction was mixed, as one columnist “effectively called me a wimp.” Teammate Darryl Hamilton questioned his pride.
Looking back, Piazza admits now that “there should have been a fight.”

On the rumors that he was gay, Piazza reiterates what he first said in 2002 — he is not.

“What offended me most … was not the charge of being homosexual,” he writes. “It was the general insinuation that, if I were gay, I wouldn't want everybody knowing about it.

“I found it hugely insulting that people believed I'd go so far out of my way — living with Playmates, vacationing with actresses, showing up at nightclubs — to act out a lifestyle that would amount to a charade. If I was gay, I'd be gay all the way.”

An interesting dynamic Piazza addresses was his prickly relationship with Spanish-speaking pitchers — Piazza feuded with Pedro Martinez, and he said he was verbally assaulted and hit by pitches throughout his professional career from pitchers like Martinez, Ramon Martinez, Ismael Valdez, Guillermo Mota and Julian Tavarez.

“I felt as though there was some kind of a weird Hispanic conspiracy against me, almost like a secret brotherhood, a Latin mafia-type of thing that had it in for me,” Piazza writes, conceding that he knew that assertion sounded paranoid.

Piazza's stories about Lasorda and his father, Vince Piazza, are engaging and funny. There's no question that the elder Piazza pushed hard for his son to make it to the major leagues, but it wasn't Vince swinging the bat. Mike did the hitting, and while his defense was never stellar (he could block the ball but had trouble throwing out base runners), he knew how to handle pitchers.

Still, it was a ticklish situation for Piazza, and he admits that Lasorda “always kind of straddled that line between thrilling and embarrassing me.”

One of the more puzzling assertions by Piazza centered around his contract negotiations with Los Angeles that dragged into the spring of 1998. Piazza claims that Vin Scully was “crushing” him after he did a television interview with the venerable broadcaster, and that many L.A. fans were “taking their cue” from the influential voice of the Dodgers.

Scully, for his part, was bewildered by the claim and said so in several interviews this week.

Piazza's observations about Bobby Valentine, his manager with the Mets who had a tempestuous season managing the Red Sox in 2012, are interesting. Valentine was an old-school guy like his mentor Lasorda, but was not above playing mind games to keep his players in line.

Now that he's retired, Piazza no longer has a reason to be an angry young man. He is married and is the father of two daughters. He is involved with the Italian national baseball team and even had a group audience with Pope John Paul II a decade ago. And even though he did not gain entry to the Hall of Fame this year, there's a good chance he will be making a speech at Cooperstown in the near future.

That's not a long shot by any means.
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  1. turkeyred's Avatar
    WHY did he have to dish Vinnie? Here in Los Angeles he is a example of, yes, "all that is good about baseball".
    His comments on Vince Scully only make the book less believable. Because, why should we doubt this man who seems to be loved by all.
    That said, I’ll still get the book. Even if he is a Dodger hatter. Should be an intresting read.
    Great review!
    Thanks, Paul
  2. OnDeck's Avatar
    The only thing over Piazza’s head is that wonder ” did he or didn’t he use PED” Otherwise he should get in one day.