I celebrated my first National League pennant in 1977, in the clutches of Dusty Baker, who played left field for the Dodgers and had just been named MVP of the League Championship Series against the Phillies. Wearing a grin and a Dodgers cap, I was hoisted up in Dusty's left arm, and my brother Vince was wrapped in his right. My parents have a picture of it at their house in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
It was through the graces of my father and his hometown pal, Tommy Lasorda — who was in his first full year as a big-league manager — that we were permitted inside the Dodgers' clubhouse at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. I had just turned nine and was well along in my fascination with baseball. The season before was the first for which we'd had season tickets to Phillies games, box seats situated a few rows off third base — a strategic location that offered a couple of key advantages. One, I had a close-up look at every move and mannerism of my favorite player, Mike Schmidt. And two, Lasorda, that first year, was coaching third for Los Angeles.
He was already something of an icon around Norristown, Pennsylvania, where he had been a star left-handed pitcher, idolized especially by Italian kids like my dad, who was quite a bit younger. But I knew almost nothing about Tommy until we settled into our seats one night, the Dodgers came to bat in the top of the first inning, and my father suddenly bellowed out, "Hey, Mungo!" (When they were kids, Tommy and his buddies took on the names of their favorite big-leaguers. Lasorda's choice was Van Lingle Mungo, a fireballer for the Brooklyn Dodgers whom he mistakenly thought was left-handed.) Tommy shouted back, and it went on like that, between innings, for most of the night. I'm sure it wasn't the first time I was impressed by my dad, but it was the first time that I distinctly recall.
Even more pronounced is my memory of that clubhouse celebration in 1977. In addition to Dusty Baker's uncle-ish pickup, I remember the trash can full of ice and the players pouring it over the head of my dad's friend. I remember my first whiffs of champagne. I remember all these grown men in their underwear and shower shoes. (This, of course, was an old-school clubhouse, prior to the infiltration of female reporters and camera phones.) I remember being startled by the sight of Steve Yeager, the Dodgers' catcher, naked. And the last thing I remember from that night is my dad driving us home to Phoenixville — it was before his dealerships had taken off and we moved to Valley Forge — and then heading back out to party some more with the Dodgers' manager.
In those years, my mom would hardly see him when Lasorda was in town.
When he was sixteen, having dropped out of school by that time, my father took a job grinding welded seams at the Judson Brothers farm equipment factory in Collegeville, where his father was a steelworker. At the end of each week, he'd shuffle into line, just behind his old man, to collect his twenty-five dollars in cash. Then, on the spot, he'd hand over twenty-four of them to my grandfather.
That was the culture he grew up with. As a younger kid, he had a paper route and various other little jobs, and turned over most of that money to his father. Maybe he'd get a nickel back for some ice cream. At twenty, on the way to the train station, headed off to basic training after being drafted for the Korean War, my father, having nothing left of what he'd earned, asked my grandpa, "Hey, Dad, I don't really know if I'm gonna come back ... but if I do, what will I have to come home to?"
His father told him, "You were put on this earth to take care of me." My grandfather's first name was Rosario, but he became known as Russell when he immigrated to the United States from the southern coast of Sicily at the age of eleven. I should probably start with him.
I associated my grandfather with Sundays. Every week, my mom would take the five of us — all boys — to St. Ann Church in Phoenixville, and afterward my dad would say, "Let's go visit Grandma and Grandpa." Vince, in particular, looked forward to those afternoons, and made them better for the rest of us. He had a way of bringing people, and the family, together. We nicknamed him "United Nations."
Their house was in Norristown and one of the main attractions was the basement, where my grandfather kept a big wooden barrel to make wine out of grapes he crushed. Technically, it was fortified wine, a form of brandy, but we called it Dago Red. Grandpa was a handy, homey kind of guy — he kept a neat little garden out back — and on Sunday afternoons, we saw only his domestic side. There was a certain sweetness to it. But he was Sicilian to the bone, and with that came a stern, macho, controlling dimension, under which my father was brought up. You could call it a mean streak, although my dad wouldn't. In the tradition, he considered it tough love.
From Long Shot by Mike Piazza. Copyright 2013 by Mike Piazza. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.