On 6 January 2016, Mike Piazza, former Major League catcher, 1st baseman, designated hitter, offensive extraordinaire, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame with 83% of the vote. And suddenly a thousand childhood memories came rushing back as Piazza’s name filled the baseball headlines for the week. When fathers take their sons to Cooperstown in 50 years, Mike Piazza’s plaque will don the NY of the Mets franchise, the team he spent 8 years, helping them get to the 2000 World Series against the New York Yankees. Mets Piazza was a guy that played All-Star caliber baseball. But pre-Mets Piazza was a hero.
Growing up in Los Angeles during the mid-1990s, the sports scene was flat. Despite it being a stereotype, LA is a town of stars and superstars are put on pedestals that make Braavos look like a Mattel doll. By 1995, the Lakers were in transition between the Magic and Shaq/Kobe eras, Gretzky was starting to get old on the Kings and would be traded a year later to St. Louis, and football began its 20 year (and counting) exodus from the City of Angels. Thankfully, this star-less situation created enough extra spotlight for the Boys in Blue to shine a little brighter in the California summer sun.
As a kid that fell in love with baseball, being enamored with these mid 90s Dodgers required little effort. Remember, this is a team that fielded 5 straight Rookie of the Year winners. With Vin Scully pouring liquid broadcast gold into our radios everyday (Before the billion dollar local TV sports era we live in now where I can watch MLB.TV in the bathroom at work. Not that I do.), Dodgers fans fell in love with a team bursting with talent.
First baseman Eric Karros was a runaway fan favorite, eventually setting the career record homeruns for anyone wearing an LA Dodgers jersey.
Hideo Nomo mesmerized both the fans and opposing batters with his tornado wind up that every kid Dodgers fan loved to emulate at the park. His success that first season in the majors also opened the door to the flood of Japanese baseball players, including future HOFer Ichiro Suzuki.
Raul Mondesi brought athleticism and flair to a franchise usually known for its curated image of history. Beyond his rocket arm from the outfield (reinforced by a tattoo of a canon on his right arm) and 20-20 skills, Mondesi was doubly as popular with a fanbase that features the best type of baseball fan in America: the Latino Dodgers Fan.
And of course, other names came through Chavez Ravine that made a great impression on young Dodgers fans like me: Todd Hollandsworth, Eric Young, Tim Wallach, Todd Ziele, Ramon Martinez, Mark Grudzielanek (who also doubled as the winner of every Mom’s Favorite Dodger to Look At for 5 years, a record until Andre Ethier showed up), and Chan Ho Park. But none meant more than Mike Piazza.
Mike Piazza was my hero. I’m sure 27% of this might have been because his name looked so much like pizza, and besides substituting playtime for schoolwork, opening Christmas presents, and Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings, I’m not sure there is anything more beloved by 90s kids than pizza. Still, Mike Piazza was also a god on the baseball diamond. The man could hit. Although 10 year old Mik was probably not tinkering with Sabrmetrics around 1996, its undeniable that he knew what Piazza was doing with a 36oz stick of wood. Originally selected by LA in the 62nd round of the 1988 MLB amateur draft (with the help of his father asking venerable Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda as a favor), Piazza broke out in 1993 with a .318/35 HR/.932 OPS season. He was 24 years old. By 1995, I had attended my first slew of Dodgers games, including a Back to School night that featured Mike Piazza’s character drawn as a comic book hero on the cover of the free binder I got for showing up. Guess what binder followed me around for the next 3 years. And for good reason as Piazza went on to average .348/36 HRs/107 RBI and a whopping 1.022 OPS and 175 OPS+ from ’95-’97. I would like to see Superman put up those numbers.
These were the days when getting tickets to games was still akin to breadlines in the former Soviet Union. The Wall may have come down in Berlin, but StubHub was still a decade away. I remember my Dad signing up for 3 Dodgers Kids Club packages, using our home address, our neighbors, and his work, because the $15 membership not only came with cool stuff like a Dodgers notebook, pen, and stickers, but 2 tickets to choose from a selection of games.
My Dad being the economical sports fan he was (and still is) realized what a deal it was to get Reserved Level seats, usually $10 a pop (yes, ten dollars) for half that price, plus all the freebie goodies that came with the Kids Club package. I like to think Billy Beane went to games as a kid under the same conditions. Of course, the Kids Club games weren’t exactly your Giants-Dodgers showdowns. I got to see a lot of Montreal Expos and Colorado Rockies come through Dodgers Stadium. But hey, the joke’s on you ownership! A chance to see Vlad’s first game in LA? Larry Walker, Dante Bichette, and The Big Cat in town? This weird team with a fish on its really cool teal hat? Yes please! And while we’re at it, how about some subpar pitching to allow for Mike Piazza to drive one 414 feet into the bleachers. The highlight of it all was the day hit one literally out of the park. I was told from an early age that Dodgers Stadium was a pitchers park (due to its massive foul territory that had since been gutted by The Parking Lot Attendant Owner Who Shall Not Be Named). And even though the outfield didn’t have some giant wall or three decked seating arrangement like other stadiums (hello cookie cutters! RIP The Vet), only once had a homerun been driven hard enough to make it the 450 feet plus into the parking lot. Until Mike Piazza did it. Making sure my dad taped the highlight of it later that night and watching it over and over again was the pinnacle of my love for Mike Piazza. These were the salad days.
And then, it all suddenly came to an end.
As the 1998 season started, I knew people on the radio were talking about things like “contract extension” and “new ownership”. Personally, 12 year old Mik was all for this Fox owners thing. Up till then, Fox was the TV channel I would spend 2 hours after school watching back to back Simpsons and Home Improvement episodes. Lot of crafting of how I am today came out of those wasted hours (and probably a good reason I never learned to lay off high fastballs). So to me, Fox meant those 2 hours of joy every day, why not bring that into my other childhood favorite, baseball? When you’re young, you only work with what you know, and you don’t know s*&t.
I remember where I was when I heard the news. I was in my Dad’s tiny little white Ford Festiva as the day was turning to dusk and the radio announced that Mike Piazza, my Mike Piazza, had been traded to the Florida Marlins. Remember those weird, cool teal hats with the fish on them? Yup, those Marlins. The 1997 World Series winning Marlins that seemed cool at the time, but in 2015 when that franchise has as many World Series titles as team names while LA fans have been waiting since the Reagan Administration for a championship: not so cool anymore. 12 year old Mik wasn’t exactly refreshing MLB Trade Rumors every day at work and ESPN was still in its SportsCenter and only SportsCenter days. The most baseball news I got was from Sports Illustrated for Kids, the 1998 MLB preview being my favorite because I was excited about the Albert Belle and Frank Thomas teaming on the Chicago White Sox (spoiler alert: didn’t end well). So you can imagine how 12 year old Mik reacted.
When you’re growing up, sports means something to you in a way that it will only mean to you when you’re not 18 yet. There are three eras of being a sports fan:
“The Molding” – where everything is positive and nothing can be wrong because you haven’t added any baggage yet, you’ve only started to learn about the games and everything is shiny and new
“The Maturing” – where you begin to understand the nuances of the game and can self-analyze on and off the field stuff, and
“The Grumpy Geaser” – which is really just any sports fan from college years beyond. You’ve gone through enough ups and downs to know that you can’t take it toooo seriously, and when you do, it’s at the extremes. Plus you’ve got a job, so all that free time to watch every single regular season game in every sport like you did in school is gone. They never warn us about this!
Hopefully, you can be eased into transitioning between each phase over time. I popped my Maturing Fan cherry on 15 May 1998.
Before 15 May, everything I knew about sports was only joy. I loved hot dogs at the stadium, I loved pretending to Be Like Mike on my buddy’s driveway hoop, I loved Jim Kelly, and I loved thinking that, hey maybe next year, was just really only a year away. In our current culture, sports can be streamed to your smartphone while your waiting in line at the ATM. All sports. People now can pick up any team and start rooting for them. Finding a Memphis Grizzlies t-shirt in LA in 2001 was like getting through the temple traps with Indiana Jones; now Amazon Prime has me an entire outfit tomorrow. Living in Washington the past 4 years has amplified this: most millennials in the DC area aren’t from the DC area. Yet they’ve picked up the Nationals club as “their team” or even “their 2nd team”, whatever the hell that means. Hell, even millennials that are from the DC area have picked up the Nationals as their team, which ok if you never really were into baseball before, but then A) what were you watching when you were 12 and B) if you were rooting for another team (the Ripken Os come to mind), then what the hell happened? I get it, we have constant access to everything sports, so we can veer to the team or player or jersey that brings us the most joy. That’s Sports Capitalism at its finest.
But nothing can ever replace that first phase, when you’re just a kid and everything in the world to you is your sports team and your favorite player. And on 15 May 1998, my favorite team traded away my favorite player. First lesson learned. Over the following years, I would come to know more about things like “contract negotiations”, “fire sale”, and “salary flexibility”. We can talk for hours about how the billion dollar owners at Fox were unable to pay the extra X million to keep a fan favorite, yet found $105m under the couch cushion for Kevin Brown only 7 months later. We can talk about how Gary Sheffield might have been a better player the next 7 years than Piazza. We can talk about his catching skills and opponent steal percentage. We can talk about a lot of things. On 15 May 1998, the only word I could muster was “why?”.
In 2016, Mike Piazza is officially on his way to the Hall of Fame. He brought joy to millions of baseball fans and pain to hundreds of baseballs. When I take Mik Jr., whoever that poor girl or boy will be, to Cooperstown in 20 years, I’ll show her or him Mike Piazza’s plaque, Mets hat and all. And I’ll tell them to never stop believing in heroes.