Friday, February 5, 2016

This was surprising.

No, not because I’m a sore Dodger fan. In fact, I would expect him to be inducted as a Met. Most Dodger fans (and rational people) would. Since he was traded in 1998 until he retired in 2007, most of us cheered for him whenever he came back to Dodger Stadium and pulled for the Mets during the 2000 World Series.

What’s surprising is the fact that he would rather have his cap blank than have “LA” on it when, if it wasn’t for the Dodgers, there’s a good chance Piazza would never have made the major leagues in the first place.

Yeah, I went there. Let me explain:

Coming out of community college, Mike Piazza was a relatively obscure prospect. He was the 1,390th pick in the 1988 MLB Draft (the lowest draft pick to be elected to the Hall of Fame). The reason why Piazza was picked by the Dodgers was not because the organization saw him as the steal of the draft, a surefire first rounder who had inexplicably fallen to the 62nd round. It was because Dodgers Manager Tommy Lasorda did it as a favor to Mike’s dad Vince. Vince and Tommy were tight since they were kids – so tight Tommy is godfather to Vince’s youngest son and Mike served as a batboy for the Dodgers whenever the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, where the Piazzas lived.

The Dodgers didn’t just draft Mike and forget about him. They nurtured him into a major leaguer in a way most other teams at the time most likely couldn’t do:

Before being drafted, Mike was a first baseman. Lasorda told him to switch to catcher in order to improve his chances of making the majors. While in the minors, Piazza got into a special training camp for catchers in the Dominican Republic with Lasorda’s help. It was then people first noted the nepotism Lasorda and the Dodgers showed to Piazza.

Piazza was drafted during an era where the Dodgers consistently promoted their minor leaguers to the majors. While the organization did make some big-name free agent signings, a significant number of their players were called up from their minor league system. This is none more evident than when five straight Dodgers won the Rookie of the Year Award from 1992 to 1996 (of which Piazza won in 1993). Piazza made he major league debut at the tail end of the 1992 season, the same year veteran catcher Mike Scioscia (another homegrown talent) retired after 12 seasons. The starting catcher role was prime for Piazza’s taking.

It’s hard to imagine the above scenarios taking place with any other team. Would Piazza have even been drafted in the first place? If so, would he have been given the same opportunities as an unproven minor leaguer so early in his career? Would other teams seriously consider starting him as a rookie catcher when they could make a big free agent signing or trade for a proven name?

The Dodgers were the perfect place for Mike Piazza to start his baseball career. Possibly the only place. It was the best environment for him to have the opportunity to succeed. That’s what surprised me about his comment about wanting his cap blank if he couldn’t go in as a Met. Things didn’t end well when he left the Dodgers – the team traded him, and he was hurt by Dodgers announcer Vin Scully criticizing him for the way he handled contract negotiations in the lead up to the trade – but even then you could argue his acrimonious departure sent him on his way to his beloved Mets.

Piazza seems to have always had the hard work, talent, and discipline. But the Dodgers were the only team to give him the opportunity to succeed. He seems to have forgotten that, let alone appreciate it.

A blank cap in the Baseball Hall of Fame is supposed to represent a player’s entire career in which he achieved greatly for more than one team. But to me, a blank space on Piazza’s cap would not represent his 16-year career with the Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Padres, and Athletics. Instead, it would represent a career might never have been if it weren’t for the Dodgers.

*Writing this whole thing felt kind of pointless, other than the fact that it was an exercise in writing. After all, it’s just sports. But sports aside, it does show that a lot of things that happen in life are much more complicated than what the surface (or career statistics) can tell you. There is much more to people’s stories and how they got to where they are, whether beneficial or detrimental. People, circumstances, and randomness are all at play. It’s fascinating and intimidating at the same time to delve deeper into these kinds of stories and wonder, “what if…”

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