The Days of Mike Piazza Before He Turned Pro
Mike Piazza was afforded more luxuries than most amateur baseball players, and while his talent was obvious, many scouts in the late 1980s still had a lot of questions about the Phoenixville High School standout. The son of Vince Piazza, a long-time acquaintance of then-Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Mike Piazza spent a lot of time with the team as a youngster, even serving as the Dodger bat boy when the team traveled to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
"Three years ago, Tommy called me and asked if I'd like to be the Dodgers' batboy," Piazza told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1985. "I couldn't believe it. Two years ago, he even took me on a road trip to New York for a five-game series against the Mets. And Tommy always lets me take a few swings in the batting cage under the tunnel at Veterans Stadium. Tommy and (coach) Manny Mota give me a lot of tips on hitting, and I can't thank them enough for it. Manny noticed that I was uppercutting a little too much, something that a power hitter tends to do. He told me to keep my head down and try to wing down on the ball.
"I'm really lucky to get this kind of help," Piazza said. "A lot of kids my age would give their right arms to be a batboy and get tips from people like that."
Piazza had set his town's Little League home run record with 10—which was later destroyed by Creighton Gubanich, a highly touted catching prospect from Phoenixville who followed Piazza as the school star but only appeared in 18 MLB games, including one against Piazza on June 12, 1999. Piazza was a natural hitter from the get-go, following a tradition in Phoenixville, which was no stranger to a standout professional player, as Andre Thorton, a power-hitter of the 1980s, was enjoying significant success in the Major Leagues. Lasorda, meanwhile, had already realized Piazza had a special talent before he ever saw a high school pitch.
"I think I was probably around 12 years old and Tommy said, 'Hey, take Mike down in the cage and throw him some batting practice, and we'll come check him out,'" Piazza recalled in a "Against All Odds," a 2016 MLB Network special chronicling his career before his Hall of Fame induction. "I'm with the wood bat and just smashing the ball. Tommy was walking up the tunnel with my dad, and Tommy said to my dad, 'Who the hell is that hitting?' He turned around and it was me hitting."
That friendship between Lasorda and Vince Piazza—which Lasorda compared to two brothers—would prove to be worth even more. Lasorda once arranged for Hall of Famer Ted Williams—argued by some as the greatest pure hitter ever to play—to watch a teenage Mike Piazza take swings in the family's backyard batting cage. Not only did Williams give Piazza compliments on his abilities, he also taught the young ball player some strategies to improve his game.
"He looks good. This kid looks good. He hits the ball good," Williams said in a video shared in the MLB Network documentary. "Damn, this kid looks good. He really looks good. I'm not kidding you."
"I'm going to tell you the truth," Williams later added. "I don't think I hit the ball as good as he does when I was 16. ... This kid hits the ball harder than I ever did at 15 or 16."
The story of Williams and Piazza meeting was never well-known, as Piazza always carried himself with an enviable humility and maintained an incredible drive to be successful. Combined with his backyard batting cage—provided by his father, who was very successful in car sales and once was part of a group of investors who hoped to buy the San Francisco Giants—Piazza had the tools for success. He used them to become a premier prep player in Pennsylvania and a recruit of the Miami Hurricanes. This was in spite of the only scouting report ever published about Piazza, which was filed on April 15, 1986. The report indicated Piazza had above-average power, but was average or below average in every other category. It did, however, mention Piazza was worthy of a selection in the draft because of his powerful bat, even though he has "a long way to come with overall ability."
After warming the bench his entire freshman season with the Hurricanes—he only had one hit in nine at-bats—Piazza transferred to Miami-Dade Community College. Despite a strong season there—he hit .364, drove in 23 runs and scored another 22—there was still was limited interest in him professionally.
"I asked five different friends of mine to go see him play, hoping they would sign him," Lasorda said to MLB Network. "All five came back and told me he can't do it."
Lasorda believed, however, and that's how Piazza became a 62nd-round pick (1,340th overall selection) in the 1988 Major League Baseball draft.
"Our scouts did not like him. Our scouting director did not like him," Lasorda said. "I told them at the draft time, 'Draft this guy.' They didn't want to draft him. I said, 'I want him drafted. I don't care where you draft him, but draft him.'"
After not hearing from the Dodgers on a contract, Piazza was flown out by Lasorda to hit for the scouting director, who was impressed by his hitting ability. Lasorda asked if Piazza would be signed immediately if he was a catcher, and when he was told yes, Lasorda began the conversion of Piazza, which might be Lasorda's best success story of all.
As a senior, Piazza was built like a ballplayer—standing at 6-foot-3 and weighing 196 pounds. Then a first baseman for Phoenixville High School, Piazza posted prolific numbers that put him among the best players in all of Southeastern Pennsylvania, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. John D. Harris, Jr., who picked the All-Southeastern Pennsylvania baseball players for the newspaper, called him the "premier slugger" among his selections. Piazza hammered 11 home runs and drove in 42 runs for the Phantoms, while also scoring 28 times and hitting .442.
Oddly enough, one of the more highly touted players offensively from the area in 1986 was catcher Jesse Levis, who was drafted by the Phillies after high school but elected to attend the University of North Carolina. As a senior for Northeast High School, Levis hit .630 with 11 extra-base hits in 15 games, while also demonstrating a professional-ready throw to second base. His path to college paid off, as he later was drafted in the fourth round of the 1989 draft by the Cleveland Indians, but Levis never panned out professionally, hitting just .255 over nine seasons, while Piazza went on to become a Hall of Famer.
While Piazza became the most well-known players from the late 1980s to come out of the Philadelphia area, during his junior season in 1985, all the attention was placed upon the 96 mile-per-hour fastball of Conestoga High School pitcher Rick Balabon, who was the first-round pick of the New York Yankees in that year's draft. Balabon had 170 strikeouts his senior year of high school, but couldn't translate his success to professional baseball. He toiled in the minor leagues for seven years before retiring in 1991, just one year before Piazza made a late-season debut that prepared him to become the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year.
Piazza, meanwhile, also had a season to remember as a junior. He hit .514 and smashed 12 home runs, including five that flew over the center-field fence at his home park—which sat 385 feet from home plate. The "most-feared long-ball hitter" in the area, according to The Inquirer's Ray Parrillo, Piazza added six doubles, three triples and 28 runs batted in.
"I've never had most respect for a hitter," said rival coach Dick Ludy of Boyerstown High School. "He's hit two homers against us that would have gone out of any park in the big leagues, one at our place that went close to 400 feet."
As a sophomore, Piazza started the season on the varsity team, but was moved to junior varsity by legendary coach John "Doc" Kennedy, who noted Piazza was young for his grade level.
"I wasn't doing too well, and as it turned out, coach Kennedy did me a favor by putting me on junior varsity," Piazza said to the Inquirer. "At first, I was disappointed, but I never let it affect me."
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© 2019 Andrew Harner