All Mike Piazza wants is your love

Al Bello

Mike Piazza's got a new autobiography in the bookstores, and I spent a week sort of semi-obsessed with it. I can't figure out precisely why this particular ex-ballplayer's memoir got inside my head. But I have a couple of ideas.

One, the book is exceptionally well-written, which isn't all that surprising, considering Piazza's co-author was Lonnie Wheeler, who's written or co-written a number of fine books over the years (in fact, I once spent a year living in the shadow of Fenway Park because of this one).

And two, Mike Piazza -- and I should be very clear that when I write "Mike Piazza," I'm referring to the character we meet in the book -- comes across as something of a case study in narcissism. Now, I can't honestly say that I really enjoyed all 347 pages; that's a lot of pages about a narcissist. But Piazza's pathology does give the book a quality that books of this ilk usually don't have. I don't remember a single thing, for example, about John Smoltz's book, or Tom Glavine's.

Speaking of Glavine's, I do want to tie up a loose end. Last week, I pointed out a passage in Long Shot in which Piazza referenced something Glavine had written in his book after they'd been teammates. Which seemed odd, since Glavine's memoir was published long before they were teammates. Glavine's book isn't indexed, but I've now been alerted to the passage that Piazza found objectionable:

What bothers me a lot is the misconception that athletes are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. I suppose some were. But that's not true for a lot of guys and that's not true for me. I wasn't afraid to get dirty and work hard even in the middle of January with the temperature ten below zero...

There are players like Mike Piazza, whose father is a multimillionaire businessman (and Mike probably never had to work a day in his life), but he loved the game and through hard work has become one of the best hitters in baseball. Not bad for a sixty-second-round pick.

Okay, so that's a bit of a backhanded compliment. Glavine not only singles out Piazza as one of the silver-spooned kids, but also lauds Piazza for his hitting but doesn't mention his defense at all. Granted, as near as I can tell from his book, Piazza never did work a day in his life. Well, except for all that hard work he did to become a great baseball player. And he did a lot of work on that. Anyway, Glavine's book was published in 1996, seven years before he and Piazza joined up on the Mets.

Again, here's Piazza's response to what he imagined, or remembered, or was told was in Glavine's book:

At any rate, I certainly respected his professionalism, and for the most part we managed to get along well enough, I thought. He's Catholic, and we often went to church together on the road. Frankly, I was a little surprised when Glavine later took a backhanded swipe at me in his book Home of the Braves, implying that he'd grown up with a lot less privilege than I had. I thought I'd gotten past all that.

Glavine wasn't implying anything; he stated it quite directly, and he was absolutely correct. What's odd is that Piazza still gives a damn.

But then, that's the theme that runs throughout the book: Mike Piazza really, really, really gives a damn what everybody thinks about him.

He really wants you to think he was a great hitter. Piazza hit 427 home runs in his career, and he mentions something like a hundred of them. He's got the record for the most home runs by a catcher. And right after the section where he talks about breaking the old record, he launches into an extended discourse about what a great player he was. Like he's trying to convince us, yes ... but also as if maybe he's trying to convince himself.

He really wants us to think he's not gay, and that beautiful women -- Playboy models mostly, and Baywatch actresses -- find him incredibly appealing. I wish the otherwise-estimable index listed mentions of "Playmate", "Baywatch", and "actress". But there are a lot of them in there. And when relating how he met his future wife Alicia, he simply describes her as "a Baywatch actress, and a former playmate, to boot." Later, he writes about becoming more sensitive, and feeling vulnerable, and realizing that a world with Alicia would be "a way better world than the one I'd been struggling through." It's a touching passage, followed by:

There was also this: The week of the wedding, the Daily News conducted a poll on baseball's hottest wife. In a close vote over Anna Benson -- the former stripper whose husband, Kris, was a starting pitcher who had just signed with us as a free agent -- Alicia won.

In 1993, Piazza was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Inside the magazine, there was a photo of Tommy Lasorda -- Piazza's patron saint, baseball-wise -- pinching him on the cheek. Piazza now:

Honestly, I was bitter about that subject. Wherever we went, I kept hearing it over and over, in all forms -- the godson (which I wasn't), nepotism, the silver spoon, growing up as a dilettante, all of that. People assumed I spent my childhood taking violin lessons; that somehow my family bought my way to the major leagues. Nobody would give me credit for, one, being a pretty good ballplayer, and two, working like hell to get there. I know that credit shouldn't matter, really. But it did. In my experience, it would always be the hardest thing to get.

And there you have it. Piazza's smart enough to know that credit shouldn't matter, but he's not emotionally healthy enough to keep his desperate cries for credit and respect from showing up on nearly every page of his book. Which is, again, why I really can't recommend this book to readers. Again, it's well-written. But there just isn't enough material that isn't Mike Piazza begging for validation. There's actually not a great deal of baseball. All those great pitchers Mike Piazza caught? There's not much about them. The managers Piazza played for? There's not much about their managing, although Piazza does make it clear that Bobby Valentine wasn't his favorite. Piazza does refer a few times to a supposed conspiracy among the Hispanic players against him.

Really, the only reason to read Long Shot is to learn what makes (or made) Mike Piazza tick. And you can learn just about all you want to know about that in the 11-page epilogue, in which he essentially summarizes all his fears, all his desires for validation. I really do recommend all 11 pages, but here's the one paragraph that best encapsulates Piazza in all his pleading, narcissistic glory:

I'd be less than truthful if I didn't admit my legacy is something I ponder quite a bit. Mostly, it bewilders me. I honestly don't know why it is, exactly, that, from start to finish, I've been the object of so much controversy, resentment, skepticism, scrutiny, criticism, rumor, and doubt. I've thought about it quite a bit. Maybe it's because my dad was rich. Maybe it's because Tommy Lasorda looked after me. Maybe it's because, off the field, I didn't make much news on my own account and the press figured it had to latch on to something that resembled it. Maybe it's because I was a jerk from time to time. Whatever the reason, I suppose I might be a little oversensitive about it all, except that I feel I'm defending more than just my reputation. I'm standing up for what I consider to be -- deeply wish to be -- a fundamentally and triumphantly American story.

That's some speech. I doubt if those words came straight from Mike Piazza's lips. Which is one reason I'm reluctant to engage in psychoanalysis (the other is that I'm incredibly unqualified). But the "Mike Piazza" within the pages of this book is a sad, lonely man who seems little closer to adulthood than the brat who blew off Roy Campanella's funeral 20 years ago.

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