Making It In The Big Leagues Was A 'Long Shot' For Catcher Mike Piazza
Back in 1988, it wasn't until the 62nd round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft that the Los Angeles Dodgers finally picked Mike Piazza. Nobody expected him to make it in the big leagues. But he did. He made his major league debut with the Dodgers on Sept. 1, 1992, and he hit his first home run just 12 days later.
"Everyone thought I could hit, and I knew I could hit," Piazza tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "but I think to be able to catch — and catch Orel Hershiser and Jim Gott and Roger McDowell and Kevin Gross and these veteran guys ... I think that was probably more of a question mark than my hitting."
Piazza went on to win the National League's Rookie of the Year Award and to become a 12-time All-Star.
The title of Piazza's new memoir — Long Shot — reflects his odds of becoming a baseball star. In the book, Piazza talks about his life in the game and as a star player put in the media spotlight. There were rumors in the media that he was gay — he maintains that he is not — and that he had an ongoing feud for years with pitcher Roger Clemens.
Piazza says his feud with Clemens has become, for lack of a better word, "one of the highlights" of his career. "I just had to surrender and embrace the fact that people want to know about it," he says. As for his feelings about Clemens now that years have passed since they've played against each other, Piazza says he has always wanted to face the best pitchers, "the closers, the guys that were intimidators, so to speak." Clemens, from Piazza's point of view, is such a guy.
Piazza retired in 2007 and admits the transition was not easy.
"It is like a small death, I guess, in a way," he says. " ... My wife always laughed because when I was home for the first year she was thinking, 'This should be a celebration. We should be drinking champagne and toasting a great career.' But I was somewhat depressed. I wouldn't say clinically, but it's tough because it's the only thing you've ever known as an adult. It's the only thing I've ever done. It gives you purpose, it gives you a sense of contribution, and then it's gone."
On his father's encouragement
"My father ... really was a fanatic about baseball and really dreamed almost — sometimes more — than I did about becoming a major league player, and when I was about 11, he constructed a backyard hitting cage — a batting cage — with a machine, an automatic feeder, and so I was able to go out there many, many days in all types of weather and tirelessly hit, you know, again and again, hit curve balls, hit different types of pitches. The machine was able to do that."
On his father's childhood friend, Tommy Lasorda, taking an interest in his career and getting him to the big leagues
"I'd like to believe that my talent would have eventually carried me there, but I think being with the Dodgers in that unique position of having Tommy sort of look out for me and guide me in a way did help. Of course, I still had to put up the numbers and do the job, but Tommy was there. He worked with me many hours in spring training. ... He threw balls in the dirt and he would throw us batting practice, and we worked. I mean, to be honest with you ... I don't want to be that old guy who's like, 'Back when I played ...' but I do believe that back when I played, we worked. ... I mean, Tommy, after a game, would pull the batting cage out and we'd hit after the game, and now guys play five innings ... and they're home, they're on the golf course."
On playing in New York City
"New York, I've said many times, it's twice as good when you're winning and twice as bad when you're losing. ... A lot of players never could do it. I mean, they just couldn't deal with the media, maybe the off-field attractions, maybe just the pressure there. Some guys were happier being in some of the smaller cities. For me, I always looked at it as a challenge and I tried to be as accommodating as possible ... but I realized that you do have to set limits, and I think New York, in a way, wants you at times to be too available, and I had to sort of pull in the reins and strike a balance between being available and being a personality and letting my personal side out and getting my job done, because I knew that the most important thing on the field was my performance, and everything else needed to take a back seat."
On his July 2000 confrontation with Roger Clemens
"I got to the night game, and I'm first at bat and I took a pitch strike, which I usually do in my first at bat, and my next pitch, obviously, was right at my head and hit my helmet. And at the last second I was able to put my head down and at least not get hit in the face or the eye, which I thought was very dangerous, you know. I got into the clubhouse obviously [and] was a little woozy. I mean, I suffered a concussion and ... the doctor was a Yankees doctor and he was checking me out, and as soon as I got into the clubhouse he said, 'Well, Roger's on the phone.' ... At that time I was not in the mood to talk so I basically told him where to put the phone. I just was a little perplexed. ... I looked at him, I said, 'Well, you're here to make sure I don't have a hemorrhage or I'm not going to die or anything,' and he's worried about being a telephone operator."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, catcher Mike Piazza, had a career in the big leagues that was as unlikely as it was accomplished. He was drafted in the 62nd round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, mostly because Piazza's father was an old friend of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. Nobody in the organization expected him to amount to much, but by the time Piazza hung up his cleats in 2007, he had numbers that may well put him in the Hall of Fame.
He was a 12-time all-star who had a lifetime batting average of .308 and hit 427 homeruns, the most ever by a catcher. He spent nearly all of his career in the nation's two biggest media markets and made plenty of headlines - bickering with fellow players, being falsely outed as gay and engaging in an epic on-field confrontation with Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens.
Piazza has a new memoir called "Long Shot." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Mike Piazza, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who said that to master something difficult, you need to put in 10,000 hours of practice. And reading your book, it sounds like you might have put in that many by the third grade. How did you practice at home?
MIKE PIAZZA: Well, like most kids, typically, I started in Little League, you know, about seven years old. And my father, who was not able to play baseball but was a baseball fanatic, I mean he was extremely enthusiastic about the game, he loved Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams and all the players of the golden era, and really was a fanatic about baseball and really dreamed, almost sometimes more than I did, about becoming a major league player.
And when I was about 11, he constructed a backyard hitting cage, a batting cage, with a machine, automatic feeder. So I was able to go out there many, many days, in all types of weather, tirelessly hit, you know, again and again, hit curve balls, hit different types of pitches. The machine was able to do that. And just became, sort of, completely dedicated and dedicated my early, you know, childhood and even into my teenage years, to hitting a baseball.
DAVIES: Were you thinking of the big leagues then, or was it just fun?
PIAZZA: Well yeah, I was definitely dreaming. I mean, I think - I tell kids all the time you do have to dream. I mean, I envisioned hitting, you know, the game-winning homerun in the World Series. And fortunately I grew up in the Philadelphia area, and I was able to watch the great Phillies teams of the '70s. I mean, they had Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Steve Carlton.
And my father had season tickets when I was a kid. So I was able to watch their teams. And, you know, Mike Schmidt, as I said in the book, was my idol. And I used to watch his mannerisms and the way he played the game, the way he hit. And matter of fact, a friend of my father saw me play a Little League game one time. He said: You must like Mike Schmidt because he struts like him, you know, when he's up to hit and things like that.
PIAZZA: So yeah, I mean, you do have to - you do have to dream, but as you said, you still have to continue to work the craft, as well, from a purely mechanical and physical level.
DAVIES: You were unique, also, in that your dad had this longtime friendship with Tommy Lasorda. They came from the same area outside of Philly, Lasorda of course the legendary manager of the Dodgers. And so you had contact with big league baseball at an early age, right? You actually worked...
DAVIES: You were a batboy for the Dodgers when they were in Philly?
PIAZZA: Yeah, there was a funny story. When I first went to a Dodgers game at that stadium, and my dad was yelling at Tommy. And when they were kids in Norristown, they always took on the names of their favorite ballplayers, and Tommy's favorite ballplayer was Van Lingle Mungo, I think.
And so my dad was yelling at him: Hey Mungo, hey Mungo. And he turned around and started joshing with my dad over the rail, and they hugged. And I remember as a kid going wow, you know, my dad knows the coach of the team. He was coaching third. This was when Walter Austin was still the manager, before he took over the manager in '77.
So yeah, I was enthralled. And when the Dodgers clinched the pennant in Philadelphia in 1977, I was in the clubhouse. I have pictures of that in the book. I mean Dusty Baker picked my brother and I up, you know, and hoisted us up like, you know, he's a big uncle. And there was champagne. And I document that, very distinctly, how that was burned in my memory and was a huge influence, you know, inspiring me to want to become a major league player.
DAVIES: So you're a great player through high school. You played a lot of positions. And then when it's - didn't get drafted out of high school, you went and did some college ball in Florida. And, I mean, people who know your story, know the legendary number that you were drafted in the 62nd round by the Dodgers. And why did that happen?
PIAZZA: I was playing first base and actually swinging the bat pretty well. And I had an injury. I had a torn ligament in my hand. So I missed three weeks of the main scouting part of the year. When I came back, it was already late. Scouts had already figured out where they wanted to draft. And my dad said, you know, we should try and get Mike drafted because it would help in his college resume for his next school.
So eventually Tommy was - convinced Ben Wade, who was a scouting director for the Dodgers, to draft me. And once I was drafted, my dad's like, well, why not see if they want to sign him. And all summer went by, and at the end of the summer, they flew me out to L.A. for a tryout, and I played very well, hit the ball, you know, in the seats
And that's at the time when Tommy said he's going to convert to catcher. The story goes that he went to Ben Wade, and he said Ben, if this kid was a shortstop hitting the balls in the seats like that, would you sign him? He said yeah, I would. And he said Ben, well if he was a catcher, would you sign him? And Ben said absolutely. And Tommy said well, he's a catcher. And Ben's like no, he's not, he's a first baseman. So...
PIAZZA: At that time I think, as you read, you know, converting to a catcher was a big key in my career.
DAVIES: Right. I mean, so you were drafted in the 62nd round, kind of as a courtesy, to give you - to help you get a college scholarship and better placement in college.
PIAZZA: That's correct, yeah.
DAVIES: And so - but then you're part of the organization. You get a tryout. And you describe moving up through the minors as instructional league and then the minors, as is typical of any young guy drafted. And you had to learn catching, which is nothing simple, right.
PIAZZA: No, no small task.
PIAZZA: And I was fortunate. I went to instructional league, and my first catching coaches were a guy by the name of Kevin Kennedy and Johnny Roseboro, who had caught Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and Claude Osteen, and Johnny Podres and all those great Dodger pitchers of the '50s.
And they had two very unique styles. I mean, Kevin was a very mechanical, more or less block and throw and mechanically orientated instructor, and Johnny was unbelievable. He would sit back with a cigarette with his shirt open and just tell stories about Sandy Koufax and throwing a two-hit shutout, and getting out of the cab and, you know, throwing a no-hitter and, you know, just loved it. I mean, he was a joy to be around and took us back, you know, to that golden era of baseball.
And his stories about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and, you know, all the great Negro League players were also very much an influence and very inspiring to me.
DAVIES: So you played, I think, in the Caribbean, you played in Mexico, and eventually by 1992 found yourself in the AAA club for the Dodgers, which was in Albuquerque. And throughout that period, you know, looking back on it, I mean clearly you had enormous baseball talent. But during those years you were a guy that Tommy Lasorda knew and had a personal interest in.
And I wondered: Do you think if that weren't the case, that you would've made it?
PIAZZA: I'd like to believe I had the ability to. You know, in the story in the book, when I tried to at least catch on with the Phillies when I was having some problems with the Dodgers, Lee Elia, who was the manager of the Clearwater Phillies, told me Mike, he said baseball's like college. If you have the grades, you're going to graduate. If you're good, you're going to get to the big leagues.
And so, you know, I'd like to believe that my talent would've eventually carried me there, but I think being with the Dodgers in that unique position of having Tommy, sort of, look out for me and guide me in a way did help. Of course I still had to put up the numbers and do the job, but, you know, Tommy was there.
I mean, he worked with me many hours in spring training, in Dodger Town in Vero Beach. I mean, he threw balls in the dirt, and he would throw us batting practice. And we worked. I mean, to be honest with you, I - again back when I played - I don't want to be that old guy who's like back when I played - but I do believe when we were - back when I played, man we worked.
I mean Tommy, after a game, would pull the batting cage out, and we'd hit after the game. And now guys play five innings - and I was one of those guys, as well, later in my career. And, you know, they're home, they're on the golf course, there are other things in spring training. But Tommy was a workaholic. So it was a big, big part of my career.
DAVIES: So in 1992, you come up at the end of the year with the big club, with the Dodgers, and you do well. And so your rookie year, your first full year, is 1993. Did you have any idea that you would have the impact that you did?
PIAZZA: Well, I was confident, because that season you talked about in Mexico, allowed me to really work on being a complete hitter. And I hit the breaking ball a lot. The pitchers down there are very crafty, and they've been known to really throw a lot of breaking balls behind in the count. That's when I really started evolving as a hitter.
I went to big league spring training, and I had three homeruns the next year in big league spring training. So my confidence was there. I truly believed that I could hit at a big league level. And then coup that with having - being a catcher and coming up with a very veteran staff, that was kind of the key to me.
I think that everyone thought I could hit, and I knew I could hit, but I think to be able to catch and catch, you know, Orel Hershiser, and Jim Gott, and Roger McDowell, and Kevin Gross and these veteran guys - Tom Candiotti who was a knuckleballer, I think that was probably more of a question mark than my hitting.
DAVIES: Right, right, because you have to handle the pitchers, you have to throw runners out. There's a lot going on. We're speaking with Mike Piazza. His new book is called "Long Shot." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former big league catcher Mike Piazza. He has a new memoir about his life, coming up and in the big leagues. It's called "Long Shot."
Catchers take such a beating. I mean, you know, you do what, 200 or 300 deep knee bends just catching balls. You know, you take balls, foul tips into all parts of your body. You get balls in the dirt. And then there are those collisions at the plate. Did you have any strategies for surviving them?
DAVIES: You know, the runner coming in at third, you know, he can run you right over if you're standing there blocking the plate.
PIAZZA: Absolutely, and, you know, by nature, actually, the smaller guys pack more of a wallop than the bigger guys. So the minute you take somebody for granted - I mean, Mark Lemke, of all people, hit me one of the hardest hits that I've had in the big leagues. So for me it's preparation. I think you have to know the runner, you have to know the situation, you have to know your fielders' arm strength.
When I played with the Mets, Rey Ordonez was by far, you know, the best shortstop I've ever seen, and he had an absolute gun as an arm. So I know I was going to get a good throw with him and get more of a chance to set up, whereas when I was with the Dodgers, Jody Reed not so much.
PIAZZA: So, you know, you have to kind of prepare yourself. You have to know who's running and, as I said, the game situation. And Mike Scioscia, who when I was with the Dodgers, was completely - I mean, that was his forte. I mean...
DAVIES: He was the catcher who preceded you at the Dodgers, right.
PIAZZA: Absolutely and now is the manager of the Angels. And that was his forte. I mean, he was probably the best in the history of the game of blocking the plate. I mean, so he gave me his technique. I learned from Johnny Roseboro some techniques that he learned from Campanella. So I can only say, like, you know, you have to be prepared. You just have to sort of be able to absorb the blow.
But most importantly is to catch the ball because, you know, you don't want to take a shot without catching the ball. So it's a very challenging part of the game, which you have to be prepared for.
DAVIES: So in 1993 you had an incredible rookie season. You were named Rookie of the Year. I was just looking at the stats here, what is it, like, 35 homeruns, you hit .318, knocked in 112. I mean big, big, numbers. But you write that you weren't the easiest teammate to be around. Eric Karros, who was your good friend and Dodger teammate, said that he would see you after making an out in a tough situation, pound your first into the concrete.
PIAZZA: Yeah, that's true.
DAVIES: What was going on? What did your teammates think of this?
PIAZZA: Well, we had a nickname in baseball for guys that were - with hot tempers. They'd call them snapper, you know, like snapper turtles, I guess. And they would call me Snapper. It was funny. I mean, I can only describe is - there's a turning point in my life, in the minor leagues, when I was really having a tough time with one of the coaches. And I actually was going to walk away from the game.
And when I came back, I can't explain it. I was just incorrigible. I mean, I was a maniac. I was obsessed with not making an out. I was - it was bordering on an obsession. I mean, I just was completely - I did not want to give away an at-bat. I hated when I gave away an at-bat. I hated when I hit the ball hard and made an out.
And it wasn't until I was older, actually, until I kind of mellowed on that fact and realized that you're just three for 10. I mean, you're going to fail seven times out of 10, and that's - failure is part of baseball. And I think I was young, and I was still immature.
I mean, as you read in the book, too, you know, I was a little sheltered as a kid. I mean, I wasn't a social kid in high school. I was - just wasn't with the in crowd. And so I think my maturity level at the time, I was still pretty young, even though I was 23, 24 years old.
And it took time for me to at least realize that I had to be a little bit more level-headed, if you will, in the game, you know.
DAVIES: You know, Bill James, the kind of obsessive baseball statistician, wrote years ago - I don't know if he still believes this - that there's no such thing as clutch hitting, that you think you see it, but when you actually look at the numbers that these things tend to even out over a career.
But at least earlier in your career, this was kind of a knock on you, that you'd, you know, that you didn't quite come through when there were men on base and in big situations. What do you think? Is there such a thing as clutch hitting?
PIAZZA: Oh I respectfully disagree with Bill James. I mean, clutch hitting, to me, is - yeah, I mean, I knew there was times that I had shortcomings as a player. But eventually, as a player, I think there's a certain sort of I guess fork in the road where you really have to want to be the guy with the game on the line. And for me, when I got to New York and the pressures of New York, and realizing that I was expected to be that guy, that I had to thrive on it, almost revel in it.
And as you said, I mean, there was many situations that I was being criticized of that early in my career, but once I realized that I had to kind of surrender to that, and I was able to relax in those situations, I started coming through and got some really big hits, you know, in the main part of my career with the Mets.
So that's just another hurdle as a player. I think it's a compliment, in a way, because, you know, if you're throwing up huge numbers year after year, and the fact that people say well, he did this, but he didn't do that, I think is - you kind of have to take that as a little bit of a reverse compliment. So the point being, as a player you can never stop trying to strive to improve your game.
And if someone - you know, when I got the Mets I remember in '98, and I was getting booed because I wasn't driving anybody in, I was hitting like .350. But I was - you know, everyone was like, well, he's not hitting with runners in scoring position. So I felt like I was the poster child, I guess, if you will, for the guy who didn't hit with the runners in scoring position.
So as a player, you do have to kind of say, well just bring it on. You know, I will accept that challenge and take on that - try to take on that role.
DAVIES: You played in two of the biggest media markets in the country. And New York, where you were with the Mets, is something one of a kind. How did you figure that out? I mean, you became a semi-regular on "The Howard Stern Show," didn't you?
PIAZZA: I did. You never figure it out. Oh, it's just definitely taken as it comes, because New York, I've said many times, is it's twice as good when you're winning and twice as bad when you're losing, because it's a very interesting place to play. A lot of players never could do it. I mean, they just couldn't deal with the media, you know, maybe the off-field attractions, maybe just the pressure there.
Some guys were happier being in, you know, some of the smaller cities. For me, I never really - I always looked at it as a challenge. And I tried to be as accommodating as possible. But I realized that you do have to set limits. And I think New York, in a way, wants you, at times, to be to available. And I had to, sort of, pull in the reins and strike a balance between being available and being a personality, and letting my personal side out and getting my job done. Because I knew, that the most important thing on the field was my performance, and everything else needed to take a backseat.
DAVIES: One of the more interesting episodes with you and the media was in 2002, when a New York Post gossip columnist wrote a piece suggesting that a big gun on the Mets, didn't name you, but said this is somebody who dates models, is actually gay and is thinking about becoming openly gay. And in no time, your name is attached to this, it's all over talk radio, blogs, and you kind of - people are talking about you as the gay ballplayer.
How did you respond to that?
PIAZZA: Well, first off, I tried to keep a little bit of a sense of humor about it, only because I think that situation was completely unto New York itself. I mean one week they had me dating a starlet that I'd never met before, and the next week they had me being gay. So I tried to keep it in perspective.
PIAZZA: I can't really say. You know, the only thing was that I really felt like I had to address it from a team perspective because it just seemed like it was getting this buzz. I mean, this rumor was gaining some momentum. So I - you know, I don't want to say I called a press conference. I decided to address it. And then of course as in New York, sometimes a non-story is a story, and it just turned into this huge issue, I guess, about, you know, what was going on in that particular issue.
But again, I can't explain it. It was just one of those weird things, and it just seems like, even though I've had a great career, it just seems like sometimes the situations that are non-orthodox follow me around a little bit. And I just dealt with it as best as I could at the time.
GROSS: We'll hear more of Dave Davies' interview with Mike Piazza in the second half of the show. Piazza's new memoir is called "Long Shot." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with catcher Mike Piazza, who spent most of his career with the Dodgers and the Mets. He was a 12-time All-Star who hit 427 home runs, the most ever by a catcher. Piazza's final season was in 2007. Now he has a new memoir called "Long Shot."
DAVIES: Well, we've got to talk about you and Roger Clemens.
DAVIES: You know, the aggressive, you know, power pitching right-hander who pitched for a lot of teams. And you really crossed his path. When you were at the Mets he was playing for the Yankees. And there was this day, July of 2000, at Shea. At that point you had done extremely well against him. In 12 appearances I think you had seven hits, three of them homers. What happened? Could you tell us what happened?
PIAZZA: Well, yeah. Well, it's kind of interesting. I remember that day because I believe it was the day-night doubleheader. And we actually played at Shea Stadium in the afternoon. And then the second game, because of a rain out, was rescheduled for Yankee Stadium at night. So it was kind of an interesting time, because it was like a festival type of atmosphere in New York and very historic, everyone's talking about day-night doubleheader and one game at Shea in the next game at Yankee Stadium. And I believe Doc Gooden actually beat us, ironically, at Shea Stadium, so the day didn't start out well for us.
And, you know, again, I got to the night game, and I'm first at bat and I took a pitch strike, which I usually do in my first at bat, and the next pitch, obviously, was right at my head and hit me in the helmet. And at the last second I was able to put my head down and at least not get hit in the face or the eye, which I thought was very dangerous. You know, I got into the clubhouse, you know, obviously was a little woozy. I mean, I suffered a, you know, a concussion and then I got to the clubhouse and the Dodger, or the doctor - I should say - was a Yankees doctor and he was checking me out, and as soon as I got into the clubhouse so he said, well, Roger's on the phone. And I said basically...
DAVIES: Roger Clemens is calling from the...
PIAZZA: Roger Clemens wanted, the call, yeah.
DAVIES: From the other dugout.
PIAZZA: At that time I was not in the mood to talk, so I basically told him where to put the phone.
PIAZZA: And I just was a little perplexed at that, because I, as a doctor, I looked at him, I said, well, you're here to make sure I don't have a hemorrhage or, you know, I'm not going to die or anything, and, you know, he's worried about being the telephone operator. And, you know, after the game it's funny because, you know everyone says I called the press conference. Only because the media was, I mean you can only imagine how many media people were there. And I decided to go to the media room and just basically said I thought he did on purpose and that just touched off this drama, I guess, between him and I, you know, for a few years, which just took on a life of its own.
DAVIES: You know, there's sort of an old-school baseball attitude towards this, that, you know, throwing at players is part of the game and you take your lumps and you don't talk about it...
DAVIES: And the old veteran, Don Zimmer, former, player, you know, former manager...
DAVIES: ...kind of said he lost some respect for you because...
DAVIES: What's your reaction to that?
PIAZZA: I was very disappointed. And, yeah, I was not at all - and here's a guy, Don Zimmer, who has a metal plate in his head from getting hit in the head. So, in - a few years later actually, I believe Bernie Williams was hit in the head, I believe, a Chicago White Sox, if I'm not mistaken, and he was very upset about it. And I was thinking well, it's nice that you're upset about him, you know, Bernie getting hit but not me.
PIAZZA: So, I mean obviously he was, you know, obviously he's loyal to his team and I understand that. But yeah, Paul Blair I think said, you know, Piazza should have been looking for it, so it did. I mean look, America's favorite my feelings, but I would say definitely that it was a little disappointing. I mean Trot Nixon, I believe, who was the Red Sox outfielder made a good point - which was on my side. He said well, if Mike was 0 for 12 against him, does he get to throw his bat at him? You know, it's always the picture that gets to throw at the hitter. But if I was 0 for 12, do I get to throw my bat at him? So he was on my side and made some comments. So...
PIAZZA: ...it was interesting. Again, I look back, it was just one of those things that, you know, I just couldn't make up. It was just an interesting event.
DAVIES: It always struck me that it's one thing for a pitcher to throw at a hitter in retaliation. That's after the other team has thrown at one of the other guys. Not that that's the right thing to do. But when a guy has had success against you, but when you've done nothing but do your job and hit the ball...
DAVIES: ...to throw at somebody head, just seems, just outside the spirit of the game.
PIAZZA: No, it's true. And you're right. I mean I think as a pitcher, you know well as anybody, that they do have to pitch and side, pitching on the inside part of the play is very important. And again, you know, I've been in brawls before are guys got brushed back. But I think, you know, as we've said that, you know, hitting someone in the head is definitely, I feel, crossing the line and very, very dangerous.
PIAZZA: I mean...
DAVIES: Now, ballplayers get brushed act from time to time. But you saw this ball, the two seam fastball coming right at your face.
DAVIES: It hits you. You're down. Had a concussion. How long did the memory of that pitch coming at your face remain vivid? Is it still?
PIAZZA: Yeah. I still see it now, believe it or not. I can - it's one of those things that's just seared in your memory. You just, you can never - you just never forget. And I mean I'm blessed and lucky that obviously that, you know, I was able to at least get the helmet on it. But yeah, I mean it's one of those things too where you can take a 300 pound lineman, football player and a real tough guy and then put him in a cage and have the ball come at him and he looks like, you know, a little girl, you know?
PIAZZA: So it's one of those things as a hitter, it's kind of like I guess a racecar driver. You really can't be conscious of getting into an accident because you will not be able to perform. So as a hitter, you never - and even after that, I mean, you can't let it creep in your psyche because you will not be able to do your job. You cannot go back.
DAVIES: Was it hard getting back - it must've been hard getting back in the first time against the big league pitch after that.
PIAZZA: I would say it was. It definitely was. And, you know, I think my first at-bat was actually against Pedro Martinez, who is another guy who I'm afraid to give you a shave. So it was yes, you do have to discipline yourself and use every amount of your focus to block it out and get back on track, because this game is not for the weak. You cannot allow yourself to be having anxiety up there. It will not work.
DAVIES: Right. And you can you manage to continue hitting, playing well.
DAVIES: And so that in July of 2000. And then as the plot would unfold...
DAVIES: ...in October, your team meets the Yankees in the World Series. There you are. For people that don't remember the incident, what happens was, it's - I think a two-strike pitch.
DAVIES: You swing and your bat shatters into the ball. You start down the - first baseline because you're not sure where the ball is.
PIAZZA: Correct. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: And then it turns out the barrel of the bat, you know, with the sharp end on it ends up next to Clemens on the mound.
DAVIES: He picks it up and flings it...
PIAZZA: He actually caught it, believe it or not. Yeah.
DAVIES: In the air? Wow. Without bouncing.
PIAZZA: On a hop. Yeah. Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: And then flings it in your direction. And then his explanation to you and the umpire is, I thought it was the ball.
PIAZZA: Yeah. Still, I mean, you know, I think back and people today still ask me what were you thinking. I said, I don't know. What was he thinking? Why don't you ask him, he thought it was the ball. And Charlie Reliford, who was the umpire at the time, I believe, came up to me. And I said Charlie, what the expletive is he talking about? He goes I don't know. Let's play ball. And then all the other players came out and then there was a little bit of a scrum, I guess, and it just never developed into anything, but a lot of shouting. I mean guys from the Yankees were telling me to get back in the box and it just was, again, one of the most bizarre things. I kind of surrendered to the fact that, you know, this is one of the most, you know, one of the highlights, I guess, for lack of a better word, of my career and I just had to surrender and embrace the fact that people want to know about it so I told them verbatim what I was thinking at the time.
DAVIES: Now you and Clemens have been around each other since then, I know...
DAVIES: ...and have had cordially words, I suppose.
DAVIES: But I do want to read your description in your book, right after you described when he beaned you that time in July and gave you the concussion. You write (Reading) Roger Clemens has near perfect control. I wouldn't have batted an eye if he had just brushed me off the plate but, of course, that's what he said he was trying to do, and I wouldn't have thought twice about it if he put a ball in my ribs. But to stick one in my forehead, that's another story. Clemens had always come across to me as the playground bully, huffing and puffing and snorting, and yelling at batters, doing whatever he could to intimidate them.
Sounds to me like you have a pretty firm opinion of him as a player.
PIAZZA: Which some words need to be kept private. No. And, you know, I've said many times, you know, as a player you do have to admire, at least, competitive guys. I mean I've always felt like in my career I've always wanted to face the best pitchers, the closers, the guys that were, you know, the intimidators or so to speak, so I never shied away. And as you can tell from my stats, I always had pretty good bats against them as well. But yeah, I mean you know, to me it just seemed like he was very frustrated with my success. And as I've said before, you know, I basically said that I thought he did obviously hit me intentionally - which, as you mentioned - was a, you know, one of those on broken rules, I guess, that maybe I broke from the old-school guys that you should have said that. But I was very sensitive to it at the time and understandably so. It was a very dangerous thing to do.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Mike Piazza. His new book is called "Long Shot." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is former big league catcher Mike Piazza. He has a new memoir about his life coming up and in the big leagues. It's called "Long Shot."
You finish the game in 2007. And I've always wondered what's it like to go to the ballpark when you've left the big leagues? I mean before you would go every day. You had a parking place up front. You knew everybody. You were in the middle of it. What's it like to go and be in the stands or in a box?
PIAZZA: It's, I would say well, back to the career coming to an end, it was, it is like a small death, I guess in a way. And I've, you know, kind of talked about that in the book where I saw myself at the end of my career, that fire going out. And it's a little depressing. I mean, you know, my wife always laughed because when I was home for the first year she was like thinking this should be a celebration, we should be drinking champagne and, you know, toasting a great career. But I was somewhat depressed. I mean I wouldn't say clinically, but mean it was, it's tough because it's the only thing you've ever known as an adult. It's the only thing I've ever done. It gives you purpose. He gives you a sense of contribution, and then it's gone. And so yeah, it was a little painful. I mean I stayed away from the game for about two years where I really didn't go to a game, I watched very little, just the playoffs, and I needed to internalize those feelings and, sort of, start a new chapter in my life. And, you know, now I'm coaching a little bit, you know, with the Italian program and realize that I feel like I can give back to the game, but it has to be at a pace which, you know, I have a passion for, you know?
DAVIES: You were eligible in the Hall of Fame balloting, I think for the first time this year. This is the year that no player got in. It's hard to believe looking at your numbers that you are not destined for Cooperstown. Do you think that it's going to be hard for you, because you came from the steroid era?
PIAZZA: Well, I can't say. I can't really get inside of people's heads and know that that's what, you know, the situation is. But, you know, with what you mentioned, I do have to kind of try to keep it in historical perspective and realize that, you know, many great players have had to wait their turn. And as far as I'm concerned, I have a lot of respect for the process. I think it is the most prestigious Hall of Fame for a reason, because of the voting structure. And, you know, look, I mean Joe DiMaggio, three ballots for Joe DiMaggio. I mean three ballots for Yogi Berra. I mean it's not, I don't think...
DAVIES: You don't get in the first time rarely, right? Yeah.
DAVIES: Right. Right.
PIAZZA: I mean I didn't figure it was a slam dunk. I mean I just realized that you do - and there's some great players that had to wait a few more years. So I hope that's not the case, but again, you just have to understand that it's out of your hands and, you know, I'll put my body of work as a career up against any catcher. I mean I'm very proud of my numbers and something that it just has to run its course. I mean I'm optimistic, but again, I realize that, you know, you have to have respect for the process.
DAVIES: You write a good bit in the book about steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. And you make it clear you never took anything that was a banned substance, right?
DAVIES: Did it seem like it was a steroid culture around at all?
PIAZZA: I would say no, only because when, generally, when I was a kid, I tried to paint distinctly the evolution of the game and training for the game. As far as when I was younger, many old-timers said, you know, you don't lift weights, you'll get muscle-bound. Whatever that is, I mean that was their whole thing. You'll get slow. Your bat will slow down. And you watch this evolution, I guess, for lack of better word, of training for baseball. I mean in the '80s, guys started lifting weights. Guys started getting bigger. They used smaller bats. As I've documented in the book, you know, expansion creeped in and ballparks got smaller and things were a perfect storm, I guess, for the offensive output of the '90s. And ultimately, just general training for the game, you know, just being in the gym, I mean guys never, you know, did presses and curls and all these things, they just swung the bat. And so too, one of the things I mentioned, I mean sort of the de-stigmatizing of the strikeout.
I mean, guys today, I mean, there's guys that strike out 150 times. I mean, when I was younger, at least in my career, if you struck out 100 times in the big leagues that was a lot. So guys figure, you know what? I'd rather hit 25, 30 homeruns with 150 strikeout than 15 or 10 homeruns with, you know, hitting with a better average. So it's an interesting, you know, picture I try to paint.
And not to, as I said, discount, you know, illegal substances or PEDs but you do have to kind of keep it in a broader perspective.
DAVIES: Right. And I will note that for all the homers that you hit, what, 427, you never had a season where you struck out 100 times.
PIAZZA: No, not at all. And I always try to keep it, you know, one walk to one strikeout. I didn't do that. But yeah, I love making contact. I mean, when I was a kid it was funny, you know, I don't know if you remember, I mean everyone would say with two strikes choke up and put the ball in play.
DAVIES: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
PIAZZA: Nobody's doing that today. I don't think anybody chokes up anymore. I mean I think - I don't see anybody choke up the bat. So it's an interesting evolution, I guess, philosophy of the game. So yeah, I mean, you know, but I always enjoyed making contact. I was, you know, hit the ball well to all fields. I was a good opposite field hitter. I liked making contact.
And, you know, I see some of these guys today with the shifts and I just can't understand with that big hole on the other side of the field that you could drive a truck through, how would you not hit the ball there, you know?
DAVIES: Right. Right.
PIAZZA: You know, but - I don't get that.
DAVIES: You know, I have to say, you know, spending an hour talking to you, you seem to have a great perspective on the game and a sense of humor about the game and about yourself. But in the epilogue to the book, it still seems to me that there's, I don't know, a chip. You feel kind of underappreciated. Is that true?
PIAZZA: I wouldn't say underappreciated. I think that's a strong word. I just think, for me, the more I step away from the game, and as I've wondered, again, of all those events that we've talked about and the controversies and the trades and everything, I just wondered why that kind of happened to me. Not in a woe with me type of thing. And just - I just wrote this book because I felt like I had a very interesting life and a very interesting career.
And it's definitely not an orthodox career, you know? It was, you know, from a young age and, you know, having Ted Williams, an encounter with him, and with Tommy and all these things, the pictures as I, you know, point out in the book are very interesting. And so, yeah.
I mean, I guess I don't want to say I ponder about my legacy but, you know, it's just one of those things to where I hope that people can understand, take away, you know, at least the controversies from my career and just look at my career as a ball player and, you know, take that for what it is, you know.
DAVIES: Well, there are a lot of great baseball stories in this book that we didn't have time for, but it was a fun read. And Mike Piazza, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.
PIAZZA: I really enjoyed it. My pleasure and thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Mike Piazza spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. You can read an excerpt of Piazza's new memoir, "Long Shot," on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews David Bowie's first new studio album in a decade. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.