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.