Tommy Lasorda is on his feet, pontificating again. As he watches an old movie on the big-screen TV in his office, changes out of his sweaty batting practice T-shirt and eats simultaneously from two of the largest bowls of salad ever tossed, Lasorda spews superlatives—and shreds of lettuce—about the Los Angeles Dodgers' latest lock to win a National League Rookie of the Year award, catcher Mike Piazza.
"Michael will be a marquee player for us, an impact player," says Lasorda, the Dodgers' manager for 17 years. "People will come from all over the country to see him play." That might sound like typical Dodger Blue bluster, but there is good reason to take every Lasorda mouthful as gospel. He has been right about Piazza before.
A distant relative of Lasorda's and a son of the manager's closest friend, Vincent Piazza, Mike was a courtesy pick in the 62nd round of the 1988 free-agent amateur draft. "I asked the Dodgers to draft him as a favor," Lasorda says. "And, thank God, they did."
When L.A. didn't re-sign 13-year veteran Mike Scioscia in the off-season, the Dodgers opened spring training this year without a regular catcher. But Piazza, with all of 21 big league games under his belt, made short work of the four-man fight for the job by swinging a hot bat from the outset. He hit .478 and four home runs in the spring, and he hasn't cooled off since.
At week's end Piazza was ranked among the top 10 players in the National League in five offensive categories, with a .331 average, 15 home runs, 52 RBIs, a .556 slugging percentage and 143 total bases. What's more, the 24-year-old rookie had led the Dodgers—a team coming off its worst finish, last in the National League West, since 1905—into third place, with 11 game-winning RBIs.
"He is a very good mistake hitter," says Atlanta Brave pitcher Greg Maddux, whom Piazza has tagged for three hits in four at bats. "I hung a changeup to him, and he hit it out of the park. He's one of the better hitters in the game right now; he has tremendous bat speed. A lot of people have trouble in their second or third year after a really good first season, but I would be really surprised if he did."
Piazza has already hit as many home runs as Johnny Bench did in his Rookie of the Year season with the Cincinnati Reds (1968), and he could wind up as the first rookie catcher to hit .300 since Benito Santiago did it with the San Diego Padres in '87. Piazza is making headlines 40 years after Roy Campanella had the greatest season ever by a Dodger catcher: Campy hit .312, with 41 home runs and 142 RBIs, in 1953. Piazza says Campanella, who was a fixture at Dodger Stadium until his death last Saturday night (POINT AFTER, page 70), "was very inspirational to me and helped me out a lot."
Barring a total collapse at the plate, Piazza is in line to become the sixth Dodger to be named Rookie of the Year in the last 15 seasons, joining Rick Sutcliffe (1979), Steve Howe ('80), Fernando Valenzuela ('81), Steve Sax ('82) and Eric Karros ('92). Now it's hard to tell who did the favor for whom. Sure, Lasorda opened a door for him, but Piazza has blown it off its hinges.
"Sometimes I look around, and I think, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " Piazza says. "Someday someone is going to drag me away and put me in a Looney Tune."
His improbable story began not when he sneaked into professional baseball through the back door but when he was 11, playing in his backyard. At an age when most boys are building forts and tree houses, Piazza and his father were assembling a big league pitching machine and erecting a makeshift batting cage behind their modest house in the Philadelphia suburb of Phoenixville. From then on, South Spring Lane echoed with the ping of aluminum on leather, no matter what the season or time of day.