Monday, January 09, 2012

Sipping With Mike Piazza

Was pleasantly surprised this weekend to see a piece on Mike Piazza in the weekend WSJ, in which the Dodger superstar catcher and heterosexual male reflected on his career and on good wine:

Is it better to be lucky or good? Mike Piazza, by his own admission, is a bit of both. The 43-year-old former baseball catcher believes that luck has been an essential component of his success. "My career is a miracle, in a way," he said.

Mr. Piazza made this assertion halfway through a recent lunch at Gotham Bar and Grill in Manhattan. The ex-Met lives in Miami with his wife and two daughters but was back in New York for a few days, making a charity appearance and visiting friends. "I love coming back to New York. It's always really emotional for me," said Mr. Piazza, taking up a glass of Pierre Gimonnet Blanc de Blancs Champagne that Gotham wine director Eric Zillier had just poured. Mr. Piazza sniffed the wine. "That smells really good. I love Champagne—Cristal, Dom Pérignon." He laughed. "As an athlete you're drawn by the status."

There were lots of high-status years for Mr. Piazza, starting in 1992 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and ending 15 years later in 2007 with the Oakland A's. But arguably his greatest years (1998-2005) were spent in a Mets uniform. During that time Mr. Piazza helped his team reach the playoffs twice (1999 and 2000), broke Carlton Fisk's record for greatest number of home runs by a catcher (Mr. Piazza had 427 during his career) and made a deeply emotional two-run home run that secured a Mets victory in their first post-9/11 game. When Mr. Piazza left the team, Mets fans gave him an eight-minute standing ovation. "That's one thing that's remarkable about New York; once you get in with the fans they love you forever," he said.

Mr. Piazza grew up outside Philadelphia, where his father, Vince, an aspiring ball player turned car dealer and wine importer, introduced him to both wine and baseball. But it was his father's friend, famed Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who had a profound influence on Mr. Piazza's career. Mr. Lasorda was the one who advised Mr. Piazza to switch from first baseman to catcher. "He said there were a lot of first basemen and not a lot of catchers, and I'd be able to play more." Mr. Piazza recalled. For his part, Mr. Piazza reasoned, "I knew that I didn't have to hit all the time to contribute to the team."

One year after his professional debut with the Dodgers, Mr. Piazza was named MLB Rookie of the Year. He spent four more years in Los Angeles, and during that time managed to squeeze in a few visits to the Napa Valley. He recalled a particularly memorable visit to Opus One, where he was permitted to buy a single case of wine. Those were apparently the rules. Even for him? Well, yes and no. "Actually, I went out to the parking lot with the first case and came back a few minutes later and bought another case," Mr. Piazza confessed. [...]

But any potential wine project would have to wait until he was finished with his memoir, "Open Mike" ("I stole the title from an L.A. columnist," he admitted). The book, which will be published in 2013, covers his time as a player and his philosophy of life. What else was he doing with his time? Well, there were his two young children. And there was golf. He'd been playing a lot of golf. "It's a really humbling game," he said.

Did he miss baseball? (Some predictable questions still have to be asked.) "You never lose the desire to play, but you lose the desire to prepare to play," Mr. Piazza said. And of course, there was the pain and the toll on his knees—he didn't miss that. And in the manner of retired veterans of all kinds, he lamented the way the game had changed. "You don't have the veteran middle on the bench like you used to—teams today have really eliminated bench-type players. As a rookie I was lucky to be catching a veteran staff—I had Oral Hershiser, Jim Gott, who pitched for Philadelphia. Jim was really animated—I loved catching for that guy."

"Oral" Hershiser? Sheesh, WSJ. I know you're New York-centric and all, but a drop of proofreading wouldn't hurt.

photo: Carter Berg, WSJ

4 comments:

Dusty Baker said...

Who was the lucky guy Piazza was wooing in this photo?

I KID, I KID.

Orel said...

SoSG Oral?

Steve Sax said...

Dusty: +1

Johnny Blanchard said...

I knew he'd be a perfect match for my older sister back in the heyday. Regardless of sexuality, actually.

Anyway, I guess you could "argue" his best days were with the Mets? Why the eff is this a given? Frickin 159 OPS+ with the 'gers and 136 with the Mets. The day he goes in to the Hall of Fame with a Mets cap is the day I cry, and begin my formal boycott of Fox shows.

Sorry for being off topic, Mike was a spectacular metro/homo/hetero sexual ball player.