JUGS Sports | Newsletter 34: The Perfect Season

The Perfect Season, by Tim McCarver and Danny Peary, is a comprehensive account of 1998 and the perfect souvenir of baseball's greatest year. It's a $20 gem, available from Just Books, at 1-800-874-4568. Here is an excerpt:

If anybody would have asked me, two years ago, which superstar, other than Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony Gwynn, was the most likely to play his entire career with the same organization, I might have said the Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza. Like Tommy Lasorda, a lifelong friend of Mike's father, Piazza seemed to bleed Dodger Blue. Having been drafted out of high school by the Dodgers (as a favor to Lasorda) as their 61st selection and the 1,390th overall pick in the 1988 draft, Piazza played several years in their minor league system before he joined the parent club and, surprisingly, became the Rookie of the Year and a perennial All-Star, put up Hall of Fame numbers, and emerged as the team's handsome and charismatic poster boy.

Mike seemed content to stay put in L.A. Yes, he was asking for the largest contract in baseball history, to remain in Los Angeles once his contract ran out at the end of the 1998 season, but it seemed unlikely that the Dodgers would let their franchise player get away at any cost. It was as impossible a scenario to imagine as the O'Malleys' selling the team that had been in their family for more than four decades.

Yet the O'Malleys did shock the sports world by selling the Dodgers to media magnate Rupert Murdoch in mid-March, initiating a tumultuous season in which GM Fred Clare and manager Bill Russell would be handed their walking papers and Piazza would be sent packing.

The sale of the team was the beginning of the end for Piazza, as a Dodger, because the new ownership hadn't the attachment to him that would have made his signing imperative. "It's unfortunate to see the way the Dodgers have lost the separation from the other organizations," Piazza would later comment. "The old regime set it apart. Now it's obviously a bottom-line business. They're only seeing the paper part of things, not the emotional part. To me, that's the disappointing thing."

Oddly, what the Dodgers would give outsider Kevin Brown, after the 1998 season, would be about $25 million more than Piazza's asking price, yet they were willing to say "So long" to the player who had set almost every Dodgers single-season hitting record. But first, they waited while his popularity with the Dodgers fans diminished. It didn't take long because the press vilified him for wanting so much money to stay and for breaking off negotiations. Forget what he'd done in the past; now he was called a greedy "poison apple," without loyalty to team, teammate, or fans.

Many of the fans believed what they read and turned on their one-time hero. As their boos and catcalls rained down on him, the frazzled Piazza understandably struggled early in the year. But, as he would do so often in '98, he overcame his personal travails and started hitting in the clutch, even belting three grand slams in April to tie the major-league record.

While giving himself the proper send off, he also reminded the Dodgers fans why they had appreciated his efforts since 1992. I think that by the time he was traded, the fans blamed the team more than Piazza for his departure. Ever the classy guy that he is, Piazza took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times to thank them for their support over the years. Piazza paraphernalia would continue to sell briskly at Dodger Stadium, even after he was gone; and when he returned in another uniform, he received a hero's welcome, akin to John Glenn's when he returned from outer space.

Mike Piazza, and his .331 lifetime average, departed the Dodgers on May 15 in a blockbuster trade that involved the highest group of salaries ever in a transaction. He and third baseman Todd Zeile went to the Florida Marlins; and Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich and catcher Charles Johnson came west. Surely the disorientation Piazza felt putting on a new cap and jersey was heightened because he knew that the Marlins, who were unloading all their high-salaried players, had no intention of keeping him.

To his credit, once again, he worked and played hard although he knew that he was headed elsewhere. It was probably somewhat of a relief that the fans in Florida weren't judging him on every at-bat, as had sometimes been the case in L.A. But, of course, this might have been because the Marlin fans had been driven to complete apathy by the cruel fire sale of the players who had brought them a world championship in 1997.

A week after he arrived in Miami, on May 22, Piazza was informed he had been dealt again, this time for prospects. Now he was headed to the New York Mets, who had lost their star catcher Todd Hundley to off-season elbow surgery. It seemed like the ideal destination for a star accustomed to glamour and glitter. He was simply moving from Hollywood to Broadway. Mets fans, long deprived of a marquee player, were so excited, that there was a standing ovation at Shea Stadium when Piazza's acquisition was announced, and, when he made his debut for the Mets on May 23, Shea had its first sellout in five years.

After his treatment in L.A., Piazza couldn't help but be exhilarated by the thunderous applause he received every time he strode to the plate. And he must have wondered if this was how it would be for as long as he was a Met. When the Mets immediately came alive and went on a hot streak, putting up crooked numbers in bunches, the large crowds could not have been friendlier to Piazza and patiently waited for him to break out in a big way.

However, when the Mets cooled off and returned to playing like they did before Piazza's arrival, the fans began to sour on the player who was supposed to be the savior. Every time he failed to produce with the men on base, he was booed heavily, by more and more fans. Piazza was perhaps the first player ever to experience bicoastal booing from home crowds in the same season! You could see the joy that he felt when he first came to New York disappear from his face. And every time he did homer or drive in a key run, he refused to show any emotion, as if he were saying, "Yeah, you're cheering me now, but I heard those boos when I walked to the plate."

I saw Piazza on a regular basis and could tell that he was not having fun. I'm sure there came a time when he was just counting the days until the end of the season and thinking about signing with another team for 1999. The fans were driving him out of town. At least the fans in Los Angeles had booed him because of his salary demands, but that wasn't the case in New York. Piazza is a tough, hardworking individual who plays hard and does all the things you want from your superstars, yet he was booed for no apparent reason at Shea, other than, "Hey, you're not hitting right now." Maybe if he weren't replacing (and eventually displacing?) the popular Hundley, the fans would have been more tolerant, but it was as unfair treatment as he could have received.

Perhaps he learned from team leaders Al Leiter, Lenny Harris and John Franco how to deal with New York's most vitriolic fans, because Piazza was able to come out of his funk, look like he loved the game again, and be an amazing force during the last six weeks of the season. As he began to put on an incredible display of clutch power hitting, his new attitude was a refreshing "I might as well get booed by the best if I was going to get booed by anyone." It wasn't just the impressive numbers he put up, but the way he delivered for his new team, with dramatic flair. Sometimes the only way the Mets could win was if he'd hit a home run. And he'd do it. If the team desperately needed an RBI late in the game, he'd give it to them. And everyone would say, "Well, can he do it again tomorrow?" And he'd do it again. It seemed like every other game that the Mets won, it was Piazza's bat that won it for them.

Equally impressive was how Piazza was handling himself behind the plate. He isn't the defensive catcher that the healthy Hundley is, but he did an admirable job and showed Hundley's toughness. He was beat up behind the plate on a daily basis but was remarkably resilient. As a matter of fact, in August he was struck so hard in the groin that his protective cup cracked. "I was catching side saddle for a couple of games," Mike said. It wasn't just the foul tips and the plays at the plate, but having to block balls in the dirt. In Los Angeles, he mostly caught pitchers who threw high fast balls, straight changes, and curve balls, none of which are pitches with bite.

However, on the Mets, he caught pitchers who threw sliders, sinkers, and splitters in the dirt. The Dodger pitcher who most frequently threw the splitter was Hideo Nomo, and he joined the Mets later in the season. So Piazza got no relief. He was always going down in the dirt to prevent pitches from bouncing away and was repeatedly being hit by balls shooting off the hard ground. Still, he hung in there....

Piazza showed the Mets fans what the Dodgers fans had almost forgotten: that he is a sensational hitter who doesn't just do well when things are in his favor but most impressive when the odds are against him. That he overcame as many hardships as he did during 1998 season and still batted .328 with 32 homers and 111 RBIs, is the mark of a man. If there were such a prize as the Most Courageous Player of the Year Award, Mike Piazza would have received my vote for 1998.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tim McCarver is a remarkably insightful baseball analyst and was a tough no-nonsense catcher for 21 big-league seasons. He and Danny Peary have written an extraordinary, fine collection of essays, describing a lot of little-known parts of an extraordinary baseball year-1998. The Perfect Season is a perfect gift for the player, coach, and/or fan in your family. Call Just Books to order your copy today. The number is toll-free: 1-800-874-4568.