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Playin' the Dodger Blues

In the course of a few traumatic days, Mike Piazza's world turned upside down -- and SI was there when he heard the news that his L.A. days were over


By Michael Bamberger

Issue date: May 25, 1998

Sports Illustrated Flashback The surreal stuff would happen later. The wordless request for an autograph from a teammate, a kiss from Lasorda, old girlfriends on voice mail, a phone conversation with his father, a three-hour imprisonment in the manager's office, a friendship repaired, a Dodgers game on the car radio, a little girl's simple question. Mike Piazza had no idea it was coming. How could he? He was baptized as a Dodger at age 13, another runt batboy with big league dreams. Tommy Lasorda was his father's goombah, his own godfather, practically. Yeah, he had turned down $80 million for six years, said he would play out the season and test the free-agent market. But in his heart of hearts, he figured he was a Dodger for life. He never had a clue that Thursday, May 14, 1998, might be his last day in Dodger blue, that particular and rich hue made famous by Robinson and Koufax, by Garvey and Valenzuela, by Lasorda, and by Michael J. Piazza himself. As far as Piazza knew, this day would be like any other.

THURSDAY, 12:01 A.M.

Piazza is sitting with four friends at a corner table of a diner in Hermosa Beach, about 20 miles south of Dodger Stadium. He has ordered a postgame supper and is doing a dead-on imitation of Peter Gammons, the ESPN baseball analyst, interviewing Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, the Texas Rangers catcher.

Piazza as Gammons (with gravity): Pudge, you could make a lot more money playing somewhere else, yet you choose to play here. Why?

Piazza as Rodriguez (with Hispanic accent): Well, Texas has been very, very good to me and this is my home and I am very, very happy here.

Piazza as Gammons (with authority): O.K., Pudge, very, very good. As for another catcher, Mike Piazza, I understand his knees are bone-to-bone. Bone-to-bone!

Piazza laughs, pleased with the quality of his performance, secure in the health of his knees and his standing in the game. If his second five years in the majors are as good as his first, Piazza, who is 29, will become the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history. He knows it, and he knows that everybody else in baseball knows it, too.

THURSDAY, 1:28 A.M.

Piazza is at his neighborhood bar, Harry O's, in Manhattan Beach, playing drums with the Fish Tacos. He's gigged at Harry O's before, but never with this band. He lays down a beat for the other guys, a guitarist and a bassist, and they pick up on it, riffing, improvising lyrics. At the bar heads are bobbing in unison, while one particularly good-looking woman in a bar full of good-looking women stirs her drink absently. Piazza is lost. His eyes are closed and his nose is scrunched up and his upper lip is resting on the top of his teeth. When the band is done, he comes off the stage and the drink-stirring woman says, "Hey, Mike, don't quit your day job." Piazza throws a chin in her direction, snorts a laugh, grabs his Rolling Rock off the bar, says nothing. He's not quitting his day job, not yet. He wants to play through at least 2005. That's why he's looking for a seven-year contract. In the meantime music is his escape. He likes women, the weight room, church, the golf course, cars, the ballpark, restaurants. But when he plays air guitar on a baseball bat -- performing only for himself, backed by his $70,000 Krell stereo system -- time stops for him. He goes into a drift.

THURSDAY, 1:15 P.M.

Piazza is leaving the Starbucks on Highland Avenue--the main street in Manhattan Beach--where he has late breakfast when the Dodgers are home. He's there with his friend Eddie Braun, a film stuntman. They have a routine. Braun drives to Piazza's house, and then they go in Piazza's red Cadillac, with Braun behind the wheel, to Highland Avenue. First they stop at a newsstand called Current Events, which they regard as a lending library, where they pick up car, stereo and surfing magazines and newspapers, and walk across Highland to Starbucks, where they solve the world's problems. On this day, they are returning the mags and the papers to Current Events when they run into Frank Lankford, a rookie pitcher on the Dodgers, a kid Piazza has taken a liking to. Piazza has instructed Lankford about where to live, to shop, to eat, to hang out. "Hey, Frankie," Piazza says, "nice job last night." Lankford had pitched the ninth inning in the Dodgers' 9-4 victory over the Phillies on Wednesday night. Lankford faced four batters, walked one guy, got his ERA down to 5.95. Piazza introduces Lankford to a woman in the store.

"She's a cheerleader," Piazza says. "For the Oakland Raiders." "A Raiderette," Lankford says, smiling shyly. He's chit-chatting with one of the premier players in the game and a Raiderette. He's 27 and he's in the bigs for the first time in his life and his ERA is down to 5.95 and he's loving life.

Poor Lankford. He has no idea what the day has in store for him either.

THURSDAY, 3:50 P.M.

A film crew, a dozen or so people, has been waiting for Piazza at Dodger Stadium, behind home plate. It is there to film a short promotional spot for the Classic Sports Network. Piazza arrives and says, "I got 30, 40 minutes. That enough time?" The director is all business, a pro. He knows what he wants. While a woman dabs makeup on Piazza, the director hands a script to the catcher and says, "You just repeat after me." The film rolls.

Director: I'm old school.

Piazza: I'm old school.

Director: Old school like Sandy Koufax.

Piazza: Old school like Sandy Koufax.

Director: Old school like Jackie Robinson.

Piazza: Old school like Jackie Robinson.

Director: Old school like Roy Campanella.

Piazza: Old school like Roy Campanella.

Director: I'll always be old school.

Piazza: I'll always be old school.

Director: Who is that Hall of Famer from Philadelphia who passed away?

Piazza: Old school like Richie Ashburn.

Director: Who's old school from when you were a kid?

Piazza: Mike Schmidt was old school.

Director: Other sports? How 'bout Wilt Chamberlain?

Piazza: Wilt Chamberlain had a lot of girls.

The crew laughs. The director says, "Cut." He turns to Piazza and says, "Beautiful."

A perfect shoot.

Maybe they can salvage something from it.

THURSDAY, 7:05 P.M.

The Dodgers-Phillies game is a little gem, unless you are a Dodgers fan. It's the finale of a four-game series. The Dodgers lost the first two, won the third. By the weak standards of mid-May, the fourth game is important. Splitting a home series against a team that won just 68 times the previous year, that would be awful, but after the first three games, that is the best Los Angeles can do. The Dodgers are in a dull patch, a good team losing more than winning, already a half-dozen games behind the San Diego Padres in the National League West. Thirty thousand people are on hand to watch Hideo Nomo pitch for the Dodgers and Mark Portugal for the Phils. TVs in the back rooms of the stadium are tuned to the final episode of Seinfeld.

In a sprawling, sleek modern house on Valley Forge Mountain, outside Philadelphia, Piazza's father, Vince, has settled into a chair to watch the game on TV. Vince, on an epic scale, is a car salesman, a real-estate investor and an entrepreneur who is worth about $70 million. Vince Piazza is a first-generation American, Sicilian to the bone, who left high school without a diploma but with outsized drive. His first love was baseball. He grew poor up in Norristown, a working-class town surrounded by leafy suburban Philadelphia, a few years behind his boyhood idol, Lasorda, the kid down the street who was signed by the Dodgers. Lasorda had made it.

Vince spent most of his adult life trying to find a way into baseball, through his son and on his own. On Sept. 1, 1992, his son arrived: He was called up to the Dodgers, his first trip to the majors. Nine days later, Vince was rejected by baseball's owners as an investor in a group trying to buy the San Francisco Giants. At the time, a reporter asked a baseball official if the problem was money or background. "Background," the official said. That answer cost baseball more than $6 million to settle a suit and resulted in a letter of apology from Bud Selig to Vince. Since then, Mike has begun a career bound for Cooperstown, and Vince has come to the realization that baseball is not a place for the prudent businessman.

Mike learned the game by watching the Phillies, sitting beside his father at Veterans Stadium, in the second row, behind the third base dugout, close enough to Mike Schmidt to see steam coming out of his nose on cold spring nights. Schmidt embodied cool to Piazza, and the kid tried to copy him in every way. Schmidt dug into the batter's box slow and sure, as if the plate were his, not the pitcher's, and Piazza does the same thing today.

In the 1980s, when the Dodgers came to town, little Mike was the batboy. By then, Lasorda was the Dodgers' manager and Vince was Lasorda's adviser on various and fruitful investments. In 1989, after Mike had played two years of unspectacular college baseball, Lasorda asked the Dodgers to draft him, which they did, in the 62nd round, as the 1,390th player selected. A courtesy pick, baseball people call it. You could say it worked out, all the way around.

In the first inning on Thursday night, Piazza comes to bat in a minifunk of his own. Entering the season, Piazza was a career .334 hitter with 168 home runs and 533 runs batted in. Last year his numbers were positively gaudy: .362, 40 homers, 124 RBIs. As a catcher who worked in 152 games. As he steps in, slow and sure, to face Portugal, Piazza is batting .290 with nine homers and 30 RBIs. Not up to his standards.

The game is a blur, just 2 1/2 hours long. The starters throw strikes and pitch eight innings each. The Phils lead 2-0 after eight and win 4-0. Piazza goes hitless in his four at bats. In his final chance, in the ninth, he reaches base on an error, on a broken-bat grounder to short. The next batter, Eric Karros, grounds into a fielder's choice and the game is over. Piazza trots off the field and into the clubhouse, frustrated by the loss and by his 0-fer. His batting average is down to .282. He isn't worried. He's had one swing thought for his entire career, and it has never failed him: Swing hard. He undresses and showers. As he walks back to his locker, a trainer says to him, "Fred wants to see you." Fred is Fred Claire, the Dodgers' general manager. Claire never asks to see players after a game unless something's up.

Piazza shakes his head and says, "I've been traded."

It is 10:00 p.m., and for Mike Piazza the day is ordinary no more. The most dumbfounding 24 hours of his life are about to begin.

Turns out Claire wants to see Lankford, too. Lefthander Dennis Reyes is coming back to the team from a stint on the Dodgers AAA team, in Albuquerque, and to make room on the roster, Lankford will be returning to the Yankees organization and to their AAA team, in Columbus, Ohio. Goodbye, Manhattan Beach. Goodbye, bigs. Goodbye, Raiderettes.

THURSDAY, 10:05 P.M.

There are five people in the trainer's office, off the clubhouse. Claire; Bill Russell, the Dodgers manager; Derrick Hall, the team's publicity director; Todd Zeile, the third baseman; and Piazza. Claire, a decent and cautious man, is nervous and to the point: You are both being traded to the Florida Marlins, but it's not official yet.

"For who?" Piazza says.

"I can't say," Claire answers.

"You don't know or you're not saying," Piazza says.

"I'm not saying," Claire answers. "It's not a done deal."

But almost immediately Piazza figures it out. He knows the Marlins are eager to deal outfielder Gary Sheffield, to unloadhis salary, so he has to be part of it. He won't find out until later that it's a two-for-five deal, that it's Sheffield, along with catcher Charles Johnson, third baseman Bobby Bonilla, outfielder Jim Eisenreich and minor league pitcher Manuel Barrios.

There are no hugs, no handshakes, no apologies, no statements of gratitude. Zeile's a native Californian, married to Julianne McNamara, a gold medalist in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. They have two young children and have recently moved into their dream house. He is stone-faced. Piazza just laughs. "I wish I could say it's been a little slice of heaven," he says. He walks out and into the silent, nearly empty clubhouse. But the word is already out. One player lingering in the clubhouse guesses that the Marlins will trade Piazza to the Yankees. Another guesses the Phillies. Piazza shrugs. He is ready to believe anything and nothing. "I'm with the Fishes," he says.

Piazza heads to his car. He declines to sign autographs for the throngs leaning on the parking lot fence. Instead he calls his agent, Dan Lozano, on a cell phone. Lozano, the only agent Piazza has ever had, is in a hotel room in Boston when Piazza reaches him with the news.

"You're lying," Lozano says.

"I'm not, dude," Piazza says.

"You're making this up, right?" the agent asks.

"Hey, at least I can stay in my crib," Piazza says. He owns a house -- on a golf course, near the ocean -- a half-hour drive from Pro Player Stadium, where the Marlins play. For Piazza that's the lone positive about being a temporary Fish, for Florida is a team in complete disarray.

It is nearly midnight. Thursday, May 14, 1998, is about to come to an end. Piazza sits behind the wheel of his Cadillac, at the foot of his driveway, in front of the town house he owns in Manhattan Beach, just talking, trying to sort things out. "I think there's a one-in-a-million chance that they're trying to scare me into signing a deal," he says. "They present this trade to me and then tell me tomorrow that it's fallen through, just to get me to sign. That's Fox's style, you know? Conquer and divide." A long day is drawing to a close. Piazza is in denial, too. Who can blame him?

FRIDAY, 11:00 A.M.

In his town house Piazza has two phone lines, plus his cell phone. They are all ringing constantly. Teri O'Toole, Piazza's housekeeper-cook-personal assistant, handles the barrage as if she has worked a switchboard all her life. (She is also Piazza's personal artist. When Piazza bought several expensive, modern, bright, abstract paintings, he instructed O'Toole to paint a couple of her own, in the same style, which she did, in his garage, and they are excellent.) On this peculiar day the background music in the town house is a Los Angeles sports radio station, 1150-AM, KXTA. The host, Jim Rome, is practically screaming the same line over and over: "You don't trade a Hall of Fame player!" Most of the callers agree with him. When Rome goes into a Godfather riff about how Fred Claire's going to wake up one morning and find the head of a horse in his bed, Piazza laughs uproariously.

In Piazza's bedroom two men with the ultimate niche job -- they are valets and clothing advisers to professional athletes -- are packing for Piazza, filling three boxes with fine silk shirts and Super 100 merlino wool suits and $500 shoes, all of them Italian. The three boxes, each the size of a small refrigerator crate, will be shipped to Piazza's home in Florida. They are also packing a suitcase that Piazza will take with him to St. Louis, where the Marlins are playing the Cardinals. Piazza is in the bedroom, too, trying on new suits in need of adjustments, commenting on the drape of the leg and the fit across the chest and a particular pimple emerging between his eyebrows. "I look like a f---ing Cyclops," he says, and everybody laughs.

He has no idea where his life will take him next. His plan -- to fly to St. Louis on Saturday morning and to dress in a Marlins uniform -- is based on guesses and suppositions, on incomplete information. Anything could happen. Sheffield could sabotage the deal by invoking the no-trade clause in his contract. Florida could move Piazza before he plays even one game as a Marlin. The Dodgers could announce that the trade is off. All order has been stolen from Piazza's life, and in its place a drunken circus has erupted around him. But in the center there is Piazza, loose and focused.

Rome calls Piazza during a commercial break, and Piazza thanks him for what he has said, promises that when he's ready to talk about the trade, Rome will be the guy he will talk to. On the other line, the guard at the entrance to the development Piazza lives in announces the arrival of several TV crews. Piazza says, "Tell them to go away." He returns to Rome. "Bunch of gravy-trainers camped outside the gate here," he says. "Can you believe that?"

Dave (Bonesy) Dickinson arrives at the front door. He is a Dodgers clubhouse attendant, a close and discreet friend of Piazza's. One of his roles in the friendship is to screen the women interested in meeting Piazza, and that is a nearly full-time job, for Piazza is a good-looking guy with a sense of humor who is earning $8 million this year and who wears good suits well. Women are drawn to him. (In fact, every week, among the hundreds of letters Piazza receives, there are proposals for marriage and trysts. Some of the letters detail specific sex acts that the correspondents want to perform on Piazza. All of Piazza's mail is forwarded to a married, middle-aged woman in Seattle, the mother of a friend, and she never allows Piazza to see the explicit stuff, which is how Piazza wants it. "Better not to be tempted," he says.) Dickinson carries three Dodger-blue equipment bags into the town house, filled with nine bats, two mitts, shin guards, chest protectors and face masks. The two men hug. Dickinson is emotional, disbelieving, not quite able to form full sentences. "I'm gonna hire you away, dude," Piazza says. "Could you do that, man? How 'bout Miami, Bonesy? What do you think?" Bonesy slips out quietly, carrying a souvenir he has asked for, an All-Star batting-practice jersey Piazza has signed for him. Dickinson is not ready to think about his own future, not yet. He's still trying to absorb the fact that Mike Piazza is no longer a Dodger. Piazza calls out to him. "Tell the guys to...to take it easy," he says.

O'Toole hands Piazza a phone. She knows what calls Piazza wants to take. When Fabio -- the Italian model, not much of a baseball fan -- called, he got right through. ("Hey, Fabio, what's up? They're sending me to the Florida team. Can you believe that?") Now Dan Lozano is on the other line. The agent, excited, speaks so loudly Piazza has to hold the phone away from his ear.

"As of eight this morning, five teams had called Dombrowski, wanting to make a deal," Lozano says. Dombrowski is Dave Dombrowski, the Marlins general manager.

"What teams?" Piazza asks.

"He wouldn't say," Lozano says. "It gets better. The Dodgers want you to dress for tonight's game."

"I'm not going to the park," Piazza says. "It's gonna be a zoo there."

"They say until the deal is done, until Sheffield makes up his mind, you're a Dodger," Lozano says.

"This is such bull----," Piazza says. "Who knows when Sheffield's gonna make up his mind? He's got a [World Series] ring, he's got a house in Florida. Maybe he doesn't want to go anywhere. He can hold out as long as he wants, ask the Dodgers for anything. He's got the Dodgers by the balls. What are they gonna do? Say the deal's off? And have all that egg on their face? No way."

"You're right."

"Is Zeile going tonight?"

"I haven't heard," Lozano says.

"Well, tell Todd I'll do what he wants to do," Piazza says.

"I think you got to go," Lozano says.

"Yeah," Piazza says, nodding in agreement, disgust registering on his face for the first time. "I'm not talking, though. I don't want to say anything I'm gonna regret. Yeah, all right, I'll go. I'll talk to you later. Love ya, man."

"Love you, too."

Click.

Piazza is silent. The house is still and quiet for the first time all morning. The day is growing weirder by the minute. "I'm gonna take a shower," he says.

FRIDAY, 2:30 P.M.

Before he leaves for the park, Piazza speaks to his father on the telephone. They talk father to son, business partner to business partner, friend to friend. "I think it's personal, between Danny [Lozano] and Bob Graziano," the son says. Graziano is the team president, Fred Claire's boss. "Fred is so far out of the loop, it's not even funny. I think Danny beat them twice on the first two contracts, and Graziano wasn't going to let it happen again. Look, I feel totally proud of the way I handled everything. If I had taken their offer, I would have never been able to look at myself in the mirror. You know that. They could've made it easy on themselves, give me the seven years, pay me till 2050 with two-percent interest, I wouldn't have cared."

Vince Piazza says what Mike wishes he could say.

"No, no, you can't say that," Mike says. "You'd like to say that, but you can't. You got to take the high road. I'll talk to you. I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm all right. I'll talk to you. I love you."

Piazza hands the phone to O'Toole. "How come everybody is so worried about me?" he asks. "I just got my sorry ass shipped to another team, that's all."

He selects a shirt to wear, settling on a signed Mario Lemieux jersey, because, he reasons, Lemieux has class and Piazza wants to carry himself with class. He eats his lunch, gets into the Cadillac, tunes in to KXTA and drives to the park. It's 3:30 p.m. The game, against the Montreal Expos, starts at 7:05. Piazza imagines what the response would be like if he batted once as a pinch hitter and homered. That would be awesome, he concludes. He's cheerful.

He arrives in the players' parking lot at Dodger Stadium and sees that the place is crawling with TV news crews and reporters. Intent on not talking, he makes a dash into the stadium, running past microphones and lenses, escorted by security guards who are huffing and puffing to keep up with him. In no time, and with no comment, Piazza slips into Russell's office; two security guards are stationed outside the door. Now the vigil begins, waiting to find out if Sheffield will sign, waiting to find out if he will have to suit up for the game, waiting, waiting. The rumor in the bowels of the stadium is that Sheffield's flight to Los Angeles was delayed and that a Fox corporate jet went to pick him up, and that he and his agent are in the stadium, meeting with the Dodgers bosses.

Eric Karros comes into the manager's office. Karros and Piazza came up through the Dodgers organization together. They were Rookies of the Year in consecutive seasons. They shared a house in Manhattan Beach. For a long time they were best friends. In recent years they have grown apart. Piazza became one of baseball's most significant and recognizable figures, while Karros's career unfolded less spectacularly. Karros got engaged -- he plans to be married in November -- while Piazza's bachelor life continues to thrive. The two men (teammates, for the moment, anyway) are sitting on a couch. Karros says, "You know what's strange? You're the marquee player in the deal, but you're not the one holding it up." Piazza looks at his old friend and sees his sadness. In that moment a friendship has been made whole again.

Lasorda arrives. He has had a long day. His first call, early in the morning, was from a radio station, asking him to comment on the news. "He was a dear friend, and this is a terrible loss," Lasorda said. He thought the question was about the death of Frank Sinatra, but it was about the Piazza trade. In the new regime Lasorda has been relegated to the role of team ambassador. That was the first he had heard about the trade. Later in the day, when asked about the deal, he adopted the company line, saying that he was sorry to see Piazza go but that the team has to act in its best interests, protect its future. In Russell's office he's a different man. He gets right in Piazza's face and says, "Before you're out of this game, you'll break every offensive record ever set by a catcher, you'll have a harem, and you'll have more money than you'll know what to do with." The two men hug, and Lasorda kisses Piazza on the cheek.

Meanwhile, Hideo Nomo has slipped into the manager's office. "Nomo-san," Piazza says, shaking the pitcher's hand and speaking a few sentences of tourist Japanese with him. Piazza is fond of Nomo. When Piazza goes to Japan, which he does quite regularly, Nomo takes him all around. Nomo, with a certain formality and without a word, presents a jersey to Piazza. "You want me to sign?" Piazza asks. Nomo nods, shakes Piazza's hand and walks out of the room backward.

As game time approaches, the clubhouse is cleared of reporters and TV cameras, and the word comes down from Claire's office that Piazza will not have to suit up for the game. He goes to the clubhouse to gather a few things from his locker, and a receiving line forms almost immediately. The Latin players, led by Raul Mondesi, give Piazza immense bear hugs. Several players ask for autographs. Clubbies and trainers pose for pictures with him. Piazza smiles, loose, jovial. Then he walks down a runway, surrounded by security guards, and out of the stadium. The game is in its first inning. Some fans in the leftfield seats, and a small gathering on the fence of the players' parking lot, spot Piazza and start cheering for him, shrieking, clapping. Piazza never looks up. He raises his right hand shoulder high, in acknowledgment. He reaches for his car key, opens the door to his Cadillac and turns on the ignition. Immediately the radio goes on, and with it Rick Monday's voice, describing the game for a million Los Angelenos. Slowly, Piazza reaches for the radio dial and turns the game off. He slides in a tape. He wants to hear his music, not their game.

"I feel peace, knowing I didn't sell out my values," he says. "I feel like Patton, relieved of his duties, Omar Bradley ready to replace him. At least I can feel like I laid it all out on the line every day -- I left my ass on that field -- and I feel likelife is one tremendous learning experience. I feel at peace. I feel calm. I'll remember the standing ovations, the people, the autographs. It's the end of a marriage. That's sad. But it's not a death. Leaves fall off trees. They grow back. There's a game going on, and I'm driving home. The hardest thing to come to grips with is to think that I might not be a Dodger anymore."

FRIDAY, 8:33 P.M.

While the Dodgers and the Expos continue playing at Dodger Stadium, Piazza has dinner at a pizza place in Hermosa Beach called Paisano. A little girl, eight or nine years old, on Rollerblades, adorable, skates up to Piazza's table and says, "Aren't you supposed to be at the ballpark tonight?" Piazza just smiles, signs a paper plate for her and says, "Yeah."

Piazza had no idea it was coming. How could he? He was baptized a Dodger at the age of 13.

"How come everybody is so worried about me? I just got my sorry ass shipped to another team, that's all."

All order has been stolen from Piazza's life. In its place a drunken circus has erupted around him.

"I feel like Patton, relieved of his duties, Omar Bradley ready to replace him. I feel at peace."

Issue date: May 25, 1998


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