CATCH A RISING STAR MIKE PIAZZA, THE HARD-HITTING RECEIVER OF THE LOS ANGELES DODGERS, MAY NOT BE OSCAR MATERIAL, BUT HE'S AUDITIONING FOR AN MVP

May 12, 1996

For all their proximity to the movie and TV studios, the Los
Angeles Dodgers have produced precious little in the way of
actors. You'd think, as much celebrity as these guys gain
playing ball, there would be a dozen or more Dodgers with their
own shows, their fame transporting them past drive-time sports
talk into something more cable-ready. Yet after all these years,
Chuck Connors of The Rifleman, a first baseman from back in the
franchise's Brooklyn days, remains their Olivier. Why is it that
the one Garvey who turned out to be telegenic is Cyndi?

So here comes Mike Piazza, hulking and handsome (albeit with a
somewhat disturbing Fu Manchu on his mug) and English-speaking.
If this guy isn't making it in front of a camera, well, that
means that nobody in the organization is in line for a SAG card.
He's got youth, charisma, and he cleans up real well. (The
mustache, a baseball superstition, is removed during the
off-season.) In fact, he knows his way around a soundstage, at
least a little bit. Three years in the major leagues and Piazza
has already bagged small parts on Baywatch, Married...With
Children and The Bold and the Beautiful, and in the
soon-to-be-released big-screen spoof Spy Hard. Nothing you need
to alert the Academy to, but it's work.

Still, can he reach that next level, maybe not an Emma Thompson
movie set in an English manor house, maybe not even The
Rifleman, but how about a film set in a major league ballpark?
No way. Last summer Piazza read for The Fan, a Robert De Niro
vehicle, and he never got so much as a callback. "It was for the
part of a big league catcher," says Piazza, sounding a little
bit more disappointed than he wants to, "and I didn't get the
part. I mean, I'm not Master Thespian even if I have done a
Baywatch, but I'm not convincing enough to play a catcher? Come
on."

So for the moment, you'll have to follow Piazza's career in
Baseball Weekly instead of Variety. Baseball, at least, has come
to a grudging acceptance that Piazza indeed is a catcher, even
if he can't play one on film. In only three seasons in the major
leagues this erstwhile unwatched and unwanted prospect, this
courtesy pick in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, this family
friend of Tommy Lasorda's, has put up numbers that describe a
Hall of Fame trajectory. Oh, he's convincing enough, all right,
playing Dodgers dinner theater. The Oscar may not loom like a
hanging curve, but that Triple Crown sure looks like somebody's
mistake pitch.

Of course, after his performance in 1995, when he had 32 homers,
drove in 93 runs and batted .346 in only 112 games, it is
difficult to think of Piazza as anything but a batman. It didn't
help that he let a few balls (12) get past him on defense. And
he still hasn't shaken the reputation as a guy who mulls over
his last at bat when he's supposed to be thinking about
catching. "You have to understand," says Dodgers knuckleballer
Tom Candiotti, "when Mike came up, there was a veteran staff,
which was used to a veteran catcher in Mike Scioscia. Mike
[Piazza] just didn't feel he could be assertive, which I can
understand. But he's become a lot more confident now. As for me,
with his eye-hand coordination, he actually catches my pitches.
That gives me a few called strikes. Anyway, what pitcher would
complain about having his bat in the lineup."

Piazza admits that he has needed a while to get the hang of his
craft, and he was aware of the Dodgers' lack of confidence in
his skills. But because there's nowhere else to play him (Eric
Karros is entrenched at first base, the only other position that
Piazza is quick enough to handle), he is resigned to improving.
"It's gotten to the point now that I love catching," says the
6'3", 215-pound Piazza. "It takes a lot of pressure off my
hitting, where I'm maybe too obsessive anyway. I probably need
to catch. I'll never be a textbook catcher--I'm too big, can't
get down far enough--but I think I can do my job. It's to the
point now that sometimes when I'm hitting, I'm actually thinking
ahead to how we're going to get the other guys out."

Meanwhile the Dodgers' team ERA, which last season was the
second lowest in the National League (3.66), was the lowest
after the first month of this season (2.72). And Piazza has
coaxed these results from the Los Angeles staff even though no
other catcher has to walk to the mound to confer with pitchers
of such disparate heritages--Dominican (Pedro Astacio and Ramon
Martinez), Japanese (Hideo Nomo), Korean (Chan Ho Park), Mexican
(Ismael Valdes) and Knuckleballer (Candiotti). The Dodgers might
do better sending their catching prospects to Berlitz rather
than San Bernardino. So forgive Piazza if he makes the
occasional cultural error, as he did on April 14 when he walked
to the mound and began speaking Spanish to Nomo. "Brain cramp,"
says Piazza, who usually addresses Nomo in English.

In his first three seasons (two of which were strike-shortened),
during which he hit 91 homers, drove in 297 runs and averaged
.327, Piazza, whatever his defensive liabilities, earned
comparisons to all of the great catchers. Not even Johnny Bench
got off to as fast a start as Piazza did. For that matter,
Piazza shines when he's clumped with baseball's alltime leading
home run hitters. Nobody but Babe Ruth and Ted Williams hit as
many home runs and batted for a higher average in their first
three years as every-day players as Piazza did. "He's the best
hitter I've ever played with," says L.A. centerfielder Brett
Butler, a 16-year veteran. "Forget his power. Here's a guy who
can't run a lick, and he's chasing Tony Gwynn for the batting
title last year. I played with Dale Murphy, whom I consider a
great hitter, and he hit for power and average on occasion. But
not always. Piazza is ridiculous."

Then came the first 2 1/2 weeks of this season, in which Piazza,
who last year finished with the highest slugging percentage
(.606) in Los Angeles Dodgers history, "slumped," going 55 plate
appearances without an extra-base hit, although he did bat a
torrid .382. "No rhythm," he complained. "It's not there." It is
now: At week's end Piazza was batting .350 with six homers and
24 RBIs.

Given that, it's astounding that Piazza's presence on the
Dodgers is almost accidental. After all, Lasorda, the Los
Angeles manager, prevailed on members of the front office to
draft the son of his hometown (Norristown, Pa.) buddy Vince
Piazza. And it was up to Lasorda to persuade a scout, Ben Wade,
to sign young Piazza. Even after watching 19-year-old Mike crush
balls off a batting practice pitcher at Dodger Stadium, Wade
was still unsure. The organization had better prospects for
first base than this guy.

"Would you sign him if he was a catcher?" Lasorda asked Wade.

"Sure, but he's a first baseman," replied Wade.

Said Lasorda, "He's a catcher now."

The story of Mike's string-pulling father is famous: how wealthy
Vince asked his lifelong friend Lasorda to grease his kid's
path. Young Mike was not oblivious to his father's influence on
his playing career, and he understood that his father, a high
school dropout who became a used-car and computer-service mogul
worth an estimated $100 million, was overeager on his behalf.
But it wasn't as if Mike wasn't doing his part. Long before his
father bought the 12,000-square-foot house overlooking the
Valley Forge National Historic Park (including a barn that
Washington slept in), the son was disciplining himself in a way
that makes his supposedly privileged upbringing seem a joke,
taking pitches in a jury-rigged batting cage that Vince had
constructed at their more modest home in the Philadelphia suburb
of Phoenixville.

To this day, the only thing the son seems to have inherited from
his father is the desperation of the self-made man, the kind of
drive that made him the only millionaire's son ever to sign up
for Campo Las Palmas baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.
While his father pursues an interest in expensive playthings (he
made an aborted run at buying the San Francisco Giants several
years ago) and is so encrusted in jewelry that it's a wonder he
can lift his arms, the son pursues a lifestyle so modest that it
seems to belie his pedigree. He has been known to date (an
observer of the L.A. scene recalls a Lakers game when the
celebrity-studded audience was riveted not so much by Piazza's
entrance as by that of the girl on his arm), but when Nike sent
some players on a tour to Hawaii following the 1993 season, the
person on Mike's arm was Vince. Mike even likes to take his
vacations near gyms. He claims he'll party like the next guy,
but the fact is that Piazza's recent New Year's Eves have all
been celebrated by taking BP in his family's upgraded basement
cage.

Neither his father's money nor his own has weakened this work
ethic. Butler doesn't see all this work firsthand, only the
absurd expectations that make it necessary and, in a way,
understandable. "He thinks he should get a hit every time up,"
Butler says. "When he doesn't, well, let's say you can tell he's
not happy."

Mostly, though he's happy. The fame is flattering, the money he
makes at 27 ($2.7 million) and the money he'll make at 28 (when
he's a free agent) is pleasant, too. Besides, his needs are
relatively simple. His main extravagance is a $25,000 sound
system on which he plays music from Anthrax, Motorhead and
Slayer. But as that is the wildly out-of-scale centerpiece in a
modest town house in Manhattan Beach (but not on Manhattan
Beach), Piazza doesn't dare turn up the volume more than
halfway; any louder and he might reduce the complex to rubble in
a simulation of the Northridge earthquake.

One more extravagance, and maybe the only other one: Before a
recent road trip Alex the Clothier appeared in Piazza's town
house to pack Piazza's bags. At one point Alex came out of the
bedroom and wondered where Piazza was keeping his pocket
squares. The most revealing part of the whole visit was not that
Piazza had a suitcase-packing clothier but how embarrassed he
was to acknowledge it. "You have to look good on the road, you
know," he kept saying.

Modest though he may be, Piazza is not unmindful of his
achievements. Still, he refuses to be grouped with the great-
hitting catchers of yore. "Bench and Campanella?" he says. "I
don't see myself in that class at all. They did it their whole
career. Maybe five, seven years down the line, if I'm still
doing what I'm doing, O.K." When Beckett Baseball Card Monthly
wanted him to pose holding pictures of Bench and Campanella this
spring, Piazza refused. "I've only played three years, never won
a World Series," he said. "I have much more to accomplish."

Sometimes his modesty is extreme, even comical. It's one thing
to turn down a part on Melrose Place because he would have had
to portray a wife abuser. That's not modesty, that's an image
check. But it's another to think twice about the part in Spy
Hard simply because at a meeting with the directors of all the
secret agencies--the CIA, the FBI, the YMCA (don't ask)--he was
asked to play the director of the MVP. "You see," says his agent
and friend, Dan Lozano, "he figures he hasn't actually won the
MVP yet. It would be presumptuous."

As Piazza continues to improve as a player, that modesty cannot
endure before it becomes false modesty. If he is not yet the
best player in baseball, as Lasorda proclaims him to be, he is
certainly in that mix. It can't be too much longer before his
role as director of the MVP is not a stretch whatsoever. It'll
just be, in these parts anyway, the worst kind of typecasting.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Piazza, who has had small parts in three television series, hammed it up on a Los Angeles set last week. [Mike Piazza and two women attendants] COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Despite his diligence in working on his defense, Piazza has been unable to shake his shaky reputation behind the plate. [Mike Piazza throwing baseball] COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Offensively, Piazza ranked among the best after three seasons with 91 homers, 297 RBIs and a .327 average. [Mike Piazza batting]

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