For all their proximity to the movie and TV studios, the Los Angeles Dodgers have produced precious little in the way of actors. You'd think, as much celebrity as these guys gain playing ball, there would be a dozen or more Dodgers with their own shows, their fame transporting them past drive-time sports talk into something more cable-ready. Yet after all these years, Chuck Connors of The Rifleman, a first baseman from back in the franchise's Brooklyn days, remains their Olivier. Why is it that the one Garvey who turned out to be telegenic is Cyndi?
So here comes Mike Piazza, hulking and handsome (albeit with a somewhat disturbing Fu Manchu on his mug) and English-speaking. If this guy isn't making it in front of a camera, well, that means that nobody in the organization is in line for a SAG card. He's got youth, charisma, and he cleans up real well. (The mustache, a baseball superstition, is removed during the off-season.) In fact, he knows his way around a soundstage, at least a little bit. Three years in the major leagues and Piazza has already bagged small parts on Baywatch, Married...With Children and The Bold and the Beautiful, and in the soon-to-be-released big-screen spoof Spy Hard. Nothing you need to alert the Academy to, but it's work.
Still, can he reach that next level, maybe not an Emma Thompson movie set in an English manor house, maybe not even The Rifleman, but how about a film set in a major league ballpark? No way. Last summer Piazza read for The Fan, a Robert De Niro vehicle, and he never got so much as a callback. "It was for the part of a big league catcher," says Piazza, sounding a little bit more disappointed than he wants to, "and I didn't get the part. I mean, I'm not Master Thespian even if I have done a Baywatch, but I'm not convincing enough to play a catcher? Come on."
So for the moment, you'll have to follow Piazza's career in Baseball Weekly instead of Variety. Baseball, at least, has come to a grudging acceptance that Piazza indeed is a catcher, even if he can't play one on film. In only three seasons in the major leagues this erstwhile unwatched and unwanted prospect, this courtesy pick in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, this family friend of Tommy Lasorda's, has put up numbers that describe a Hall of Fame trajectory. Oh, he's convincing enough, all right, playing Dodgers dinner theater. The Oscar may not loom like a hanging curve, but that Triple Crown sure looks like somebody's mistake pitch.
Of course, after his performance in 1995, when he had 32 homers, drove in 93 runs and batted .346 in only 112 games, it is difficult to think of Piazza as anything but a batman. It didn't help that he let a few balls (12) get past him on defense. And he still hasn't shaken the reputation as a guy who mulls over his last at bat when he's supposed to be thinking about catching. "You have to understand," says Dodgers knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, "when Mike came up, there was a veteran staff, which was used to a veteran catcher in Mike Scioscia. Mike [Piazza] just didn't feel he could be assertive, which I can understand. But he's become a lot more confident now. As for me, with his eye-hand coordination, he actually catches my pitches. That gives me a few called strikes. Anyway, what pitcher would complain about having his bat in the lineup."
Piazza admits that he has needed a while to get the hang of his craft, and he was aware of the Dodgers' lack of confidence in his skills. But because there's nowhere else to play him (Eric Karros is entrenched at first base, the only other position that Piazza is quick enough to handle), he is resigned to improving. "It's gotten to the point now that I love catching," says the 6' 3", 215-pound Piazza. "It takes a lot of pressure off my hitting, where I'm maybe too obsessive anyway. I probably need to catch. I'll never be a textbook catcher—I'm too big, can't get down far enough—but I think I can do my job. It's to the point now that sometimes when I'm hitting, I'm actually thinking ahead to how we're going to get the other guys out."
Meanwhile the Dodgers' team ERA, which last season was the second lowest in the National League (3.66), was the lowest after the first month of this season (2.72). And Piazza has coaxed these results from the Los Angeles staff even though no other catcher has to walk to the mound to confer with pitchers of such disparate heritages—Dominican (Pedro Astacio and Ramon Martinez), Japanese (Hideo Nomo), Korean (Chan Ho Park), Mexican (Ismael Valdes) and Knuckleballer (Candiotti). The Dodgers might do better sending their catching prospects to Berlitz rather than San Bernardino. So forgive Piazza if he makes the occasional cultural error, as he did on April 14 when he walked to the mound and began speaking Spanish to Nomo. "Brain cramp," says Piazza, who usually addresses Nomo in English.
In his first three seasons (two of which were strike-shortened), during which he hit 91 homers, drove in 297 runs and averaged .327, Piazza, whatever his defensive liabilities, earned comparisons to all of the great catchers. Not even Johnny Bench got off to as fast a start as Piazza did. For that matter, Piazza shines when he's clumped with baseball's alltime leading home run hitters. Nobody but Babe Ruth and Ted Williams hit as many home runs and batted for a higher average in their first three years as every-day players as Piazza did. "He's the best hitter I've ever played with," says L.A. centerfielder Brett Butler, a 16-year veteran. "Forget his power. Here's a guy who can't run a lick, and he's chasing Tony Gwynn for the batting title last year. I played with Dale Murphy, whom I consider a great hitter, and he hit for power and average on occasion. But not always. Piazza is ridiculous."
Then came the first 2½ weeks of this season, in which Piazza, who last year finished with the highest slugging percentage (.606) in Los Angeles Dodgers history, "slumped," going 55 plate appearances without an extra-base hit, although he did bat a torrid .382. "No rhythm," he complained. "It's not there." It is now: At week's end Piazza was batting .350 with six homers and 24 RBIs.
Given that, it's astounding that Piazza's presence on the Dodgers is almost accidental. After all, Lasorda, the Los Angeles manager, prevailed on members of the front office to draft the son of his hometown (Norristown, Pa.) buddy Vince Piazza. And it was up to Lasorda to persuade a scout, Ben Wade, to sign young Piazza. Even after watching 19-year-old Mike crush balls off a batting practice pitcher at Dodger Stadium, Wade was still unsure. The organization had better prospects for first base than this guy.