In the winter Mike would shovel the snow out of the cage, heat the baseballs on the stove and wrap pipe insulation around the bat handle so his hands wouldn't sting. "I was out there every day," he says. "I would come home from school, get a snack, watch cartoons and then hit. Every spring I would see that I was hitting the ball farther and farther."
Eventually Vince enclosed the batting cage by adding a roof and paneling, along with a heater. "It was such an ugly thing; I can't believe the neighbors didn't complain," he says. "Actually the zoning board came by once to investigate. When they asked what it was, I told them it was my son's ticket to the major leagues."
Vince had grown up a few blocks from Lasorda in Norristown, Pa., and he had idolized Tommy, who was six years older and the town's best ballplayer. "I was his little buddy," Vince says. "We were inseparable—like family. Actually my mother and his mother were fourth cousins."
Years later, when Vince, who parlayed a used-car dealership into a string of successful businesses, and Tommy, who went from being a mediocre minor league player to manager of a world champion, got together in the off-season, they would half-kiddingly kick around the prospect of Mike's one day wearing Dodger Blue. "It's something we had hoped would happen," says Lasorda.
Still, who could have known that this kid—the batboy who worked the Dodger games when the team played in Philly—would someday grow into a major league uniform of his own? None other than Ted Williams, that's who.
It just so happened that Williams was a friend of a friend of Vince's, and it just so happened that the Hall of Famer had a few hours to spare one Saturday morning in 1984 before making an appearance at a card show near the Piazzas' home. Breakfast that morning was followed by some cuts in the cage and a little batting instruction for 16-year-old Mike from an expert—an event the family videotaped. "I couldn't even talk because I was so nervous," says Piazza.
Williams filled the gaps with his usual deft touch. "Mike hits it harder than I did when I was 16," he says on the tape. "I guarantee you, this kid will hit the ball. I never saw anybody who looked better at his age." And no wonder. When Williams asked Mike, "Son, do you have my book on hitting?" the kid smiled. Fie had memorized it.
As a senior in 1986 Piazza broke the Phoenixville High career home run record (previously held by major leaguer Andre Thornton), but big league scouts didn't show much interest in him. He played first base and hit over .400, but he lumbered along the base paths as if they were made of quicksand. "I have talked to a lot of scouts since then who said they didn't like anything about me," says Piazza. "They said that I couldn't run or hit."
So Lasorda made a phone call to a good friend, Ron Fraser, then the University of Miami baseball coach. "I got Mike into Miami," Lasorda says. But Piazza was in over his head at Miami. As a backup first baseman his freshman year, he had one hit in just nine at bats and quit the Hurricanes at the end of the season. Piazza then transferred to Miami-Dade North Community College for his sophomore year and hit .364 playing for another one of Lasorda's cronies, Demie Mainieri. To help attract scholarship offers from four-year schools, Lasorda arranged for Piazza to be drafted by the Dodgers.
He was L.A.'s final pick, the 1,389th player chosen overall, and the news arrived in the form of a mailgram that read like a Publisher's Clearing House sweepstakes: "Congratulations! You have been...." No one takes courtesy picks seriously, so it wasn't until two months later, in early August 1988, that a Dodger scout finally got around to calling Piazza—and when he did, it was to find out which school Piazza would be attending that fall. Piazza responded with a request for a try-out instead.