For Piazza, Baseball Success Was A 'Long Shot'

Weekend Edition guest host Don Gonyea talks to former Major League catcher Mike Piazza about his new memoir, Long Shot, and his time in the major leagues as one of the best-hitting catchers of all time.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. The catcher has the most punishing job in baseball: calling pitches, keeping a mental rolodex of every hitter's strength and weakness, all the while, foul balls are bouncing off your mask, off your knuckles or worse. Oh, and they want you to hit too. Probably no catcher was better at the plate than Mike Piazza, who played 16 seasons, mostly with the Dodgers and the Mets. He has a new memoir out. It's called "Long Shot," because he was. Piazza was the 1,380th player selected in the 1988 draft. "Long Shot" covers the pressures of the game, his on-field clashes with the Yankees' Roger Clemens and an early encounter with a baseball giant.

MIKE PIAZZA: You know, it's kind of like having a combination of Superman and John Wayne, you know, show up at your house.

GONYEA: He's talking about Ted Williams, who, early on, through family connections, watched a young Piazza take swings in his backyard batting cage. Williams told him:

PIAZZA: You look good. You have a better swing than I did when I was 16, he goes, but that's only half the battle. The rest of it is up here, and he pointed at his head.

GONYEA: And Piazza's father made sure he didn't forget it.

PIAZZA: He knew I had to be, like, a blue collar-type of player. I mean, I had to apply myself and do repetition and really work my craft, and that's what I did.

GONYEA: You describe the thwack of the bat and the sound of that ball hitting the canvas at all hours. The neighbors were cool with that?

PIAZZA: Yeah. I mean, the neighbors - actually, it was so funny. When I got to the big leagues, I'll never forget, I hit my first home run in the big leagues with the Dodgers in '92. And my neighbors across the street were a couple. They were called the Wildensteins. I mean, they were an older couple. And they sent me a card and they said, congratulations, we heard how hard you worked for many years. And they said consider us your biggest fans. It was kind of like a neighborhood thing. You know, everybody was pulling for me, didn't complain. I mean, sometimes I was hitting 10:30 at night, and with aluminum bat, you know, it could be pretty loud.

GONYEA: Ping, ping, ping.

PIAZZA: Yeah. You know, like, a tuning fork, you know.

GONYEA: And as will happen after seven seasons with the Dodgers, the relationship had turned pretty sour. You were traded very briefly, what, just for a matter of days, to the Florida Marlins and then you went to find peace and tranquility in New York City playing for the Mets.

PIAZZA: Absolutely.

GONYEA: So, it was in New York City where you started this rivalry - and rivalry does not sound like a strong-enough word here - but this rivalry with Roger Clemens. He was with the Yankees. And in July of 2000, at Yankee Stadium, there's a doubleheader. You dig in to hit, Clemens is on the mound. A pitch comes up and inside. The ball hits you. What do you remember of that instant?

PIAZZA: Not much. A lot of pain and, you know, stars. I mean, he throws very hard. I mean, he's throwing mid-90s. I get into the trainer's room and the doctor there was saying Roger wants to talk to you. And I was not in the mood to talk, so I threw the phone and said some salty language, and basically just bubbled over into the World Series.

GONYEA: So, the World Series that year, it's the Subway Series. It's the Mets versus the Yankees. You're at the plate, you swing at a pitch, your bat breaks, the barrel end of the bat flies toward the mound. Let's give a listen at the key of Joe Buck making the call.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORLD SERIES GAME)

JOE BUCK: The barrel of the bat comes back at Roger Clemens and he fires the bat back toward Piazza, who is going down the first base line.

GONYEA: What's going through your head?

PIAZZA: You know, just confusion. I had took a few steps only because I didn't know where the ball was. So, when the bat flew by then I just took a left turn and I walked out to him and I basically - the clean version was, I said: what is your problem? And I believe he said I thought it was the ball, I thought it was the ball. And I go what is he talking about? The benches come out and it just turned into a scrum. And it was something that I suppressed in my memory. I didn't want to think that this was my only World Series memory. But, unfortunately, it is what it is.

GONYEA: So, one of the big topics surrounding baseball over the last decade-plus now has been steroids, performance-enhancing drugs. When we talk about them, Clemens's name is one that certainly comes up, along with Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, plenty of others. There has never been evidence linking you to steroids use, but that hasn't stopped your name from being mentioned. You address it in the book saying flatly that you never used steroids.

PIAZZA: Oh, and I never thought that was news. I mean, I knew people wanted to know my thoughts about the era. So, I basically wanted to impress upon people that the training culture changed. I mean, when I played in the minor leagues, we literally would go home after the game. And now, at least it's transitioned, guys would go to the gym. So, with that and then with the sort of de-stigmatizing of the strike-out, it was just they figured, you know, home runs are going to get me paid and that's all I really cared about. And that whole philosophy of when I was a kid of, you know, choke up and put the ball in play with two strikes disappeared almost overnight.

GONYEA: The cloud of steroids certainly hung over the Hall of Fame balloting this year. Clemens didn't get in, nor did Barry Bonds. Both likely would have been, you know, first ballot locks. What about your own position? You finished fourth in voting your first year of eligibility, shy of the votes needed. Do you feel like it kind of cast a shadow over everybody this year?

PIAZZA: I can't say. I really can't get inside people's minds and feel that that was the situation. I got a lot of support. I mean, I got close to 60 percent. You know, there's a lot of great players throughout history that just didn't get in on the first ballot. Joe DiMaggio took three ballots. Yogi Berra took three ballots. I just kind of feel that that's the case in my situation.

GONYEA: Before I let you go, I want to have you take us back to one specific moment in your career. It was September of 2001, 10 days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it was the Mets' first game back in New York. Describe the scene.

PIAZZA: It was very, very tough to get back on the field again because we really didn't know if we belonged there. We didn't know if it was the right time. We didn't know where we all fit in the grand scheme of things. I mean, Shea Stadium was a staging ground. We went to visit the first responders. And it was just crazy, I mean, to get on the field. And then for me, you know, as soon as I heard the first notes of bagpipes - I mean, every time I hear bagpipes now I get emotional anytime. But that particular night it was just riveting. It was very, very difficult to play. And I just remember praying, saying, please, you know, Lord, let me get through this night. I just want to get through this night, and ended up, you know, hitting, obviously, you know, a big home run.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BASEBALL GAME)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And it's hit deep to left center. Andruw Jones on the run. This one has a chance. Home run. Mike Piazza and the Mets lead 3-2.

PIAZZA: To this day, people come up to me and still, you know, talk about how much that home run meant to them and how much that game meant to them.

GONYEA: It was a nice moment.

PIAZZA: That's a great moment, yeah, no question.

GONYEA: Mike Piazza. His new book is called "Long Shot," written with Lonnie Wheeler. Mike Piazza, thank you for talking to us.

PIAZZA: My pleasure.

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