Mike Piazza was a catcher for sixteen seasons, mostly with the Dodgers and the Mets. In that role his lifetime batting average was .308 and he leads all catchers including Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk in home runs with 427. Piazza became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and in some ways, this book reads as a campaign piece to justify his selection. And this seems in character with the Mike Piazza who emerges in this book.
Piazza grew up in a Philadelphia suburb with a father who placed all his baseball dreams on Mike’s shoulders. This was so much the case that dad built a batting cage and installed a pitching machine in Mike’s back yard. And he used his connections with Tommy LaSorda to get Mike designated a batboy for the Dodgers when they played in Philly. Along the way, Mike also gets batting pointers from Ted Williams, whose book on hitting Mike had devoured.
From an early age, it was clear that Mike could hit. The only problem was that he had no clearly defined position that he could play. Still, Mike made the minors on a draft courtesy pick in the 62nd round and was eventually slotted to be a catcher. So yes, it was still a long shot for him to make the majors. What Piazza does in this book is recount his hard work learning to catch, perfecting his swing, working on his body strength (he argues that this was without steroids, although he does admit to using andro, which was later banned).
The book is Piazza’s candid account of his years in the majors and for this reason, one often finds oneself asking “do I really like this guy?” He seems obsessed with his performance and carrying a hair-trigger temper that could be set off when he had a bad at bat or was hit by a pitch. We hear the ins and outs of contract negotiations with the Dodgers and Mets, and his feeling that he could never get the respect he deserved from the Dodger organization.
He also is candid about an off-the-field life complete with the girlfriend of the season (usually a Playboy Playmate), his partying and his growingly affluent lifestyle. It is a revealing glimpse into the world of celebrity athletes.
The best parts of the book for me was when he focused on the game itself–whether it was techniques, or particularly critical games in his career. Perhaps the high point was the home run he hit in the Mets first game in Shea Stadium after 9/11. In some ways, it seems 9/11 was a watershed moment for Mike and for the Mets. For the Mets, it was the beginning of a series of mediocre seasons. For Mike, it seems this began to call him out of his self-absorption as he got involved with the families of first responders, and began to think about deeper spiritual issues.
The book ends on that note, as Mike describes his last years in baseball, his decision to retire, his marriage, and his deepening spirituality, serving as a board member for Catholic Athletes for Christ. He writes, “I didn’t always stick close to my spirituality,–I strayed from it more than I should have–and yet it stuck with me unfailingly. I had a little talent and a lot of determination, but the fact was, I had no business doing what I did in baseball. My career, frankly, was a miracle. In retrospect, I can see that clearly.”
That both sums up the book, and in some ways gives me hope that Piazza might grow as a human being in his life after baseball. It was interesting to me that only later did he embrace his mother’s faith. For the first part of his life, it was all about dad and dad’s ambitions for him as a ballplayer. It makes me wonder how it might have been different if these ambitions had been coupled with a strong spiritual compass. And I wonder as well, what will happen if Mike is, or is not, inducted into the Hall of Fame. Either way, will he continue in the trajectory of growth that we see at the end of the book? One hopes this isn’t simply one more effort at self-promotion to gain the Hall of Fame.