"Would you sign him if he was a catcher?" Lasorda asked Wade.
"Sure, but he's a first baseman," replied Wade.
Said Lasorda, "He's a catcher now."
The story of Mike's string-pulling father is famous: how wealthy Vince asked his lifelong friend Lasorda to grease his kid's path. Young Mike was not oblivious to his father's influence on his playing career, and he understood that his father, a high school dropout who became a used-car and computer-service mogul worth an estimated $100 million, was overeager on his behalf. But it wasn't as if Mike wasn't doing his part. Long before his father bought the 12,000-square-foot house overlooking the Valley Forge National Historic Park (including a barn that Washington slept in), the son was disciplining himself in a way that makes his supposedly privileged upbringing seem a joke, taking pitches in a jury-rigged batting cage that Vince had constructed at their more modest home in the Philadelphia suburb of Phoenixville.
To this day, the only thing the son seems to have inherited from his father is the desperation of the self-made man, the kind of drive that made him the only millionaire's son ever to sign up for Campo Las Palmas baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. While his father pursues an interest in expensive playthings (he made an aborted run at buying the San Francisco Giants several years ago) and is so encrusted in jewelry that it's a wonder he can lift his arms, the son pursues a lifestyle so modest that it seems to belie his pedigree. He has been known to date (an observer of the LA. scene recalls a Lakers game when the celebrity-studded audience was riveted not so much by Piazza's entrance as by that of the girl on his arm), but when Nike sent some players on a tour to Hawaii following the 1993 season, the person on Mike's arm was Vince. Mike even likes to take his vacations near gyms. He claims he'll party like the next guy, but the fact is that Piazza's recent New Year's Eves have all been celebrated by taking BP in his family's upgraded basement cage.
Neither his father's money nor his own has weakened this work ethic. Butler doesn't see all this work firsthand, only the absurd expectations that make it necessary and, in a way, understandable. "He thinks he should get a hit every time up," Butler says. "When he doesn't, well, let's say you can tell he's not happy."
Mostly, though he's happy. The fame is flattering, the money he makes at 27 ($2.7 million) and the money he'll make at 28 (when he's a free agent) is pleasant, too. Besides, his needs are relatively simple. His main extravagance is a $25,000 sound system on which he plays music from Anthrax, Motörhead and Slayer. But as that is the wildly out-of-scale centerpiece in a modest town house in Manhattan Beach (but not on Manhattan Beach), Piazza doesn't dare turn up the volume more than halfway; any louder and he might reduce the complex to rubble in a simulation of the Northridge earthquake.
One more extravagance, and maybe the only other one: Before a recent road trip Alex the Clothier appeared in Piazza's town house to pack Piazza's bags. At one point Alex came out of the bedroom and wondered where Piazza was keeping his pocket squares. The most revealing part of the whole visit was not that Piazza had a suitcase-packing clothier but how embarrassed he was to acknowledge it. "You have to look good on the road, you know," he kept saying.
Modest though he may be, Piazza is not unmindful of his achievements. Still, he refuses to be grouped with the great-hitting catchers of yore. "Bench and Campanella?" he says. "I don't see myself in that class at all. They did it their whole career. Maybe five, seven years down the line, if I'm still doing what I'm doing, O.K." When Beckett Baseball Card Monthly wanted him to pose holding pictures of Bench and Campanella this spring, Piazza refused. "I've only played three years, never won a World Series," he said. "I have much more to accomplish."
Sometimes his modesty is extreme, even comical. It's one thing to turn down a part on Melrose Place because he would have had to portray a wife abuser. That's not modesty, that's an image check. But it's another to think twice about the part in Spy Hard simply because at a meeting with the directors of all the secret agencies—the CIA, the FBI, the YMCA (don't ask)—he was asked to play the director of the MVP. "You see," says his agent and friend, Dan Lozano, "he figures he hasn't actually won the MVP yet. It would be presumptuous."