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Mike Piazza's Main Line Roots and Major League Legacy

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Illustration by Dewey Saunders
There was a sense of disappointment—and definitely a change in plans—when Phoenixville native Mike Piazza was among 37 retired baseball superstars denied entry into the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this year. A longtime Phoenixville sportswriter-photographer pair, Barry Sankey and Barry Taglieber were among the devotees planning on making the trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the annual summer ceremony. “We’ve known him since he was a little kid and followed his career closely ever since,” Sankey says.

Sankey spent decades at the now-defunct Evening Phoenix newspaper, which covered Piazza from the Phoenixville Youth Babe Ruth League on up. When Piazza was with the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, he and Taglieber documented the all-star’s trips to Veterans Stadium for Phillies games.

“He was always cordial to us,” says Sankey of his memories of Piazza.

For the first time since 1996, the 600-plus eligible voters—all 10-year members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America—weren’t cordial to anyone on a Hall of Fame ballot deep-fried in controversy. The slate was arguably the most talented it’s ever been, but it was also the most tainted.

Finally, the bulk of the best steroid-era players came to the block. Whether guilty or guilty by association, they were butchered. Most at issue was the guideline pertaining to “integrity, sportsmanship [and] character.” The threshold for election to baseball’s Hall of Fame is high: Candidates must be
named on 75 percent of cast ballots. Alas, the threshold for tolerating known and possible cheaters is quite low.

Sadly, Mike Piazza’s MLB debut was overshadowed by his father, Vince, and his contested involvement with investors trying to buy and relocate the San Francisco Giants. He eventually played hardball and sued the league his son would begin to dominate. Back then, even Piazza called it a “weird baptism.”

Piazza’s start was also plagued by insinuations of nepotism when he was inaccurately labeled as Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda’s godson—though Piazza was a Dodgers bat boy when they played in Philadelphia. By the 1988 draft, 1,389 other players were selected before Piazza, who was seen as a courtesy pick in the 62nd round.

Such was the stuff that provides the grist for Piazza’s new autobiography, Long Shot—no doubt timed for what he must have figured was a sure-shot first-ballot election. And while Piazza has made himself available to the press now that he has a book to promote, he and no one else in his family would return multiple interview requests for this story.

Vince Piazza’s childhood friend from his Norristown days, Lasorda never denied that he asked the Dodgers to draft Mike as a favor. But he was forever adamant in the aftermath: “Thank God they did.” Whatever clouds hang over Piazza, he did receive the fourth most Hall of Fame votes (57.8 percent of those cast), behind Craig Biggio (68.2), Jack Morris (67.7) and Jeff Bagwell (59.6).

The ballot’s biggest names finished farther down the list. Roger Clemens, who won 354 games and seven Cy Young Awards, finished eighth. Barry Bonds—the game’s all-time home-run leader—finished ninth. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro also received little vote support.

Perhaps baseball’s best-hitting catcher ever, Piazza made 10 straight All-Star Game appearances and was named an All-Star 12 times in a 16-year career that ended in 2007. He was Rookie of the Year in 1993, hitting 35 home runs for the Dodgers.

Piazza finished his career with a .308 career average. Among Hall of Fame catchers, only Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey have higher numbers. Only Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench have more career RBIs, and none have more home runs (396) or a higher slugging percentage (.545). Counting his time at first base, Piazza finished with 427 career home runs.

Piazza’s  best year was 1997, when he hit .362, pounding out 40 home runs and driving in 124. His was the best batting average in Los Angeles history. In 1998, the New York Mets signed him to a seven-year, franchise-record deal worth $91 million.
 

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Mike Piazza was born in Norristown, a beleaguered borough that has produced Tommy Lasorda and other noted baseball names. Then there are such unheralded natives as Roy Thomas, a premier leadoff hitter in Phillies history. Thomas led the league in hitting three times and in runs scored eight of his 11 years. He could endlessly foul off pitches. Because of him, in fact, the foul-ball strike was adopted.

After a move to Phoenixville, Vince Piazza raised his family in a modest home. When he became a prominent businessman, they relocated to a 50-acre estate in Valley Forge National Historical Park.

What was once a backyard batting cage in Phoenixville became the entire basement in Valley Forge. Ted Williams even paid a 16-year-old Piazza a batting-cage visit in 1984, before appearing at a local card show.

As a Phoenixville Area High School senior in 1986, Piazza broke the career home-run record previously held by then-major leaguer André Thornton. He accomplished a similar feat in the old Ches-Mont League.

Piazza returned to Phoenixville in April 2012 to have his high school number (13) retired at “Doc” Kennedy Field, named after his old coach. Kennedy’s No. 18 was also retired that day. Piazza—who, for years, donated equipment to his old youth league—was inducted into the Phoenixville Area School District Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 20, 2012. But he didn’t attend the ceremonies.

As a backup first baseman at the University of Miami, Piazza went one for nine, then quit at the end of his freshman season. He transferred to Miami Dade College and hit .364. When a Dodgers’ scout finally called him two months after the draft, he asked the player where he’d be attending school that fall. Piazza responded by asking for a tryout. It led to a $15,000 signing bonus.

Piazza replaced Springfield native Mike Scioscia on the Dodgers roster in 1993. That spring, the 24-year-old (who’d appeared in 21 games with the Dodgers the previous year) hit .478 and launched four home runs.

While Piazza was fine-tuning his skills, his dad was busy amassing 50-some car dealerships and diversifying into the high-tech sector. He was also trying to buy a baseball team. Bids for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1986) and the San Diego Padres (1990) fell short.

Then, in late summer 1992, the $115 million sale of the San Francisco Giants to a Tampa Bay ownership group was made public. Piazza’s dad and Vincent N. Tirendi (then of Villanova, now living in West Chester) were reportedly putting up 45 percent of the purchase price. The team was to move to St. Petersburg, Fla., and be renamed the Tampa Bay Giants.

In September, the other owners nixed the sale. The press was told there was a “serious question” about the Pennsylvania investors—i.e. Piazza and Tirendi. Pressed, Fred Kuhlmann, then-chairman of the ownership committee and part-owner of the St. Louis Cardinals, said the concerns centered on background investigations during a “security check.”

An Italian who quickly multiplied his millions, Piazza took the insinuation as a euphemism for “organized crime.” After games, his son was asked if his father was a mobster—a word the media used and baseball allowed.

Three months later, the two Vinces filed suit. They sued baseball for a reported $100 million in compensatory damages, which might have tripled with a victory (and that didn’t include punitive damages). They claimed MLB owners formed a monopoly to foil their bid to buy the team. The suit notoriously challenged what was then a 72-year-old exemption from the nation’s antitrust laws, baseball’s most sacred cow. The way Piazza’s dad saw it, baseball didn’t want a second team in Florida to compete with the Florida Marlins, so it blocked the sale, damaging him in the process, violating his civil rights and interfering with a contract.

The two parties reached a reported $6 million out-of-court settlement that included a written apology from Major League Baseball. Before that, Philadelphia attorney Bruce Kauffmann was able to trace the source of baseball’s objections to onetime Bryn Mawr resident Brad Cohen, a former real estate wunderkind also known as “the Main Line swindler.”  According to Kauffmann, Cohen made anonymous calls from prison, implicating Vince Piazza—apparent payback for a ruined business deal years before. Hopefully, none of this is keeping his son out of the Hall of Fame.

If the vote was up to Steve Pellegrini—or his recently deceased wife, Joanne, for that matter—Piazza would be prepping for a July 28 induction ceremony. Joanne’s Bala Cynwyd memorabilia collection features hundreds of Piazza items, including bats, balls, uniforms and catching equipment. She also assembled more than 3,000 different baseball cards, allegedly every one Piazza ever appeared on.

“She’d buy a lot of 500 cards to pick out his three,” says Pellegrini. “From the time Piazza was a rookie, she became interested in him. She enjoyed watching him play. Mike had movie-star quality about him.”

After her death in July 2011, Pellegrini liquidated the collection, employing the services of Hunt Auctions in Exton and Ron Rhoads of Spring City. Sadly, while Joanne believed the collection had collective merit and value, that isn’t how it turned out.

“We would’ve made much more if we waited until he made the Hall of Fame, then pieced it out,” says Pellegrini. “At best, we didn’t even make back what she paid in. We also figured that other collectors would like to have some of it, so we gave them a chance to own it.”

Piazza still has a chance at the Hall of Fame. But Pellegrini had him pegged as a first-ballot inductee.

“People talk steroids, and that’s crazy,” he says. “He’s not in with the batch of the rest of those guys. He was always in super physical condition and looked the same from his rookie year on. We looked at all the pictures—and we had so many. All the others’ [bodies] changed overnight, but Piazza … no.”