He was only a 62nd round draft pick, yet he hit home runs like no catcher before or after him did. Ever. A long career fueled by dedication and faith had a brief stop in Oakland, the last team he played for.
Now, three years later, a relaxed and happy Mike Piazza is a hitting coach for the Italian national team, a proud father of two young daughters and the best guy you could imagine to sit down with and chit-chat baseball, food and movies. I did just that as our ways crossed during European Baseball Cup and if this interview somehow fails to reflect it, then just take my word for it – Mike is as nice as they get.
But, even better – read for yourselves and find out what Mike thinks of his last year in Oakland, Bengie Molina’s cycle, Moneyball cast and pasta al dente.
First, thanks a lot for taking your time, Mike. Should I say “how are you doing” or come stai, how is your Italian coming along?
<laughs> Italian’s getting better actually, just from being with the guys and working on it a little bit. Everybody is very patient with me and I’ve learned a lot of baseball terms in Italian. It’s fun for me, especially growing up in the US and being of the Italian descent, it’s nice to reconnect with your ancestral roots. My father is always very proud of his Italian heritage and he’d always make an effort to speak Italian and he’d have Italian tapes in the car when I was a kid.
OK, so how are you doing, how has the life been treating you in the last three years?
I’m excited about this part of my life and I think that I am in a perfect situation for me. I see some guys go directly to broadcasting or coaching or minor league coaching and I just never really wanted to do that, at least not right away. I was a new parent, I had my first daughter and again I see how many of the guys miss that time in life of their children. I like being at home, although my wife doesn’t always like it. <laughs>. And then doing this, being connected to the game and having Italian Baseball Federation being appreciative of me not only trying to instruct and give my knowledge, but generally promote the game and bring some publicity. The attention I receive is very flattering and I’m glad I can help in this way. It is a great experience for me, too, I never thought I would see a game between Croatia and Sweden, for example.
Most people in the States don’t realize that baseball is being played in Europe, too.
No and it’s very exciting to see it being played here. Even though I know it’s been going for some time now, I think now is the great time to accelerate the process a little bit and pick up not only the quality of play, but also the publicity and get more people involved, because you know, the world is getting smaller. It’s always been almost like a club sport and now is the good chance to open it up a little bit, create more awareness and with it more investment and more money for the development of the sport here.
How did the guys on the Italian team react when you joined? Do you get in the batting cage yourself anymore, you know, to show the young guns how it’s done?
Sometimes. I jumped in the cage last year during the World Cup. Larry Walker was the coach of the Canadian team, so we started going at it while the teams were stretching. Actually I hit in Florence, which was the first time I took a swing in two years, and I missed the first pitch <laughs>.
I guess the guys were all over you for that.
Yeah, of course. But it was a timing thing, and after I started hitting it started slowly coming back and you realize you still have that skill and that it only went into hibernation for a while. And the guys on the team are great. At first they were a little tentative, because they didn’t know how to approach me. But, soon they realized that I am very approachable and my whole style of teaching is not very intense. I prefer a guy seek me out and ask, because then I know he is really interested in learning, rather than forcing my way. I learn more from stories and talking about hitting than just pure mechanics.
Apart form European baseball, I imagine you still closely follow the Majors.
Not as much as you would think. I still watch, don’t get me wrong, I’ll catch the highlight reels, I still have relationship with the Mets, the Dodgers, the teams I played for. I just got invited to the All-Star game in Anaheim and had a chance to play a little softball game with guys like Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Rollie Fingers and Paul Molitor – that was great fun.
You’ve been in professional baseball since 1989, how strange is it to look up at the MLB standings and realize that you are not in a pennant race anymore, that you are suddenly just a fan?
It’s mixed for me. I’ve always been very understanding that I can not play forever. Towards the end of my career I was dealing with some injuries, waking up with a lot of pain so I was perhaps being able to detach more easily than some other guys. So, as much as I enjoyed my career it was nice to know that the pressure is gone and that I can rest a little.
Do you think that a retirement is harder for professional athletes than for “normal” people?
Yes, but it also depends on the individual, too. You have to realize you will not play forever and appreciate the time while you do play. So, it’s the matter of sort of being rounded psychologically, more so than being so self-absorbed about your career. I still do miss the camaraderie, though – that’s the big thing.
You said you watch some highlight reels. Now – and be honest – did you ever think that Bengie Molina would hit for a cycle?
No, it’s funny and in a healthy way I envy him. I had two times when I was close. Once I was missing a home run and on my last AB the outfielder made a great catch against the wall, whereas when I was missing a double I hit a sinking line drive that the centerfielder grabbed. And that was it, I always said that the outfielder pretty much has to fall down and have a heart attack for me to have a triple.
Take us back through your last year in Oakland. It was obviously injury riddled…
Yeah, I blew my AC joint at the end of May. It was frustrating. Because the numbers that I had, I felt if they were spread over a full season, they would be pretty respectable. And then I came back and the team had gone in a different direction, so I was definitely frustrated. But, then again, maybe it was a small sign tapping me on the shoulder telling me it’s time to leave. I appreciated the opportunity and for me it was the situation where I felt if I didn’t at least make an attempt to be a designated hitter then maybe I would have thought later that I should have tried it. Overall, it was a good opportunity for me and Oakland had been very generous to me. I feel that both of the last two years that I played were very important for me. I had a good bounce back season in San Diego and I played for Bruce Bochy and it was a great experience, he was a great manager to play for.
You’ve heard that Kurt Suzuki just signed an extension with the A’s?
The kid, the catcher. Yeah, I’ve read that. He is a solid player, great arm and really plays hard, when he was catching there I was really impressed with him.
People often say that Oakland has a laid back clubhouse. Did you find it to be that way?
I think it is an interesting mix because they don’t have many true veteran players because he’s always changing over looking for sort of hidden talent. That’s his philosophy, Billy Beane has always had interesting philosophy and, you know, he has had some success with it. But that’s another thing for me, being such a veteran player on a young team, sometimes I just felt as the old guy at the bar. <laughs> But again, he has had some success with it, and I think when you are in a smaller market team and don’t have the resources that some teams do, you have to get creative and seek some talent that is maybe overlooked by other teams.
What was your personal impression of Billy Beane?
Well, yeah, you know, personally I had the feeling I was being treated very fairly. The problem I have with him is when I started coming back healthy and I felt I was ready to play, he had already gone in a different direction. We had a little disagreement about that and I said “Well, if I’m not in your plans then I at least need to try to go out and finish. Maybe there’s an opportunity for me to play somewhere next year, but I can not find that opportunity if I’m not playing.” They traded for Jack Cust and then he was their designated hitter. It was one of those situations that is definitely a little frustrating. I got in towards the end, I had some hits and a few opportunities to go on. But, I didn’t want to be one of those guys who play until they’re 50 and limp into retirement. I was fairly healthy, I was lucky to play for some very lucrative contracts, so money wise I was doing well, and I just realized – it’s time to go.
Did you read “Moneyball”?
Not the whole book, I did read some passages.
Do you know they are making a movie out of it now?
I read that, too.
Do you know who is playing Billy Beane?
Brad Pitt? <laughs>
Do you think it is a perfect fit?
You know, I’ll reserve from comment on that. I don’t know if that’s quite…<laughs> I don’t know, man. I’m sure Billy Beane is quite flattered to have Brad Pitt playing him. Well, I guess anybody would be. I know I would.
Who should play Mike Piazza, if there were such a movie?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I like the guy who was just in Avatar, he was also in the Clash of the Titans, too. What’s his name? But he’s not really Italian looking, doesn’t look like me. You know the guy I’m talking about?*
* I didn’t. We later agreed it was Sam Worthington he was talking about.
You played in Oakland and San Diego, which are obviously two pitchers friendly parks. Do you think playing home games in such parks can be mentally draining for hitters, you know, getting to the park every day and thinking “Man, I’ll never hit it out of here.”?
Yeah, but you have to deal with the reality, you can’t really be worrying where you’re playing. There were situations where I went to Wrigley Field or Coors Field, good hitters parks, and I was pressing too much. Dodgers Stadium didn’t carry all that well at night, either, but I always felt it was one of those things that you have to deal with. But, you’re right, there is a mental toughness you need to have. It does get frustrating to hit the ball well and it gets caught at the warning track, such things can wear you down.
Do you think that home park characteristics, it being hitters or pitchers friendly weigh in when free agents choose teams? Do you think it might be a hurdle for Oakland when trying to attract players?
Sure, a home park makes a difference. It’s a factor, but you also obviously want to be in a place where you will hopefully be competitive and it comes to a balance between being competitive and making a good contract, too. As an athlete you have a small window to make your revenue, so when you get your bite of the apple, you want to make sure you get a decent chunk <laughs>. And it’s only natural, although it’s sometimes hard for the fans to understand.
There are many things I like about Mike Piazza. Being taller than me is not one of them.
The stats people would surely point out that 83% of your name is pizza.
I know. <laughs>.
Which brings us to two important questions – what’s your take on stats and what’s your take on Italian food. Were you a big stats guy, did you always know where you were at during the season?
Good question. No, it’s funny that you say that because I never knew how to get the slugging percentage till like three years into my career. <laughs> I always tried to break the game into its most simplistic forms and that’s for me every at bat try to hit the ball as hard as I can. And it sounds pretty basic, but that’s pretty much what worked for me. I guess different things and stats are important for different situations. If you are a lead-off guy you want that high on-base percentage and so on.
OK, how about Italian food. Got a favorite dish?
Oh, Italian food, I mean – where do you go wrong? For me, there is Italian food from Italy and then there’s Italian food in the States. Some people think that spaghetti and meat balls is Italian food. <laughs> The good thing about the world getting smaller is that it’s getting more cosmopolitan by it. I live in Miami and there are lot of Italian nationals there, as well as people from other parts of the world, so we can go out and dine different great food. Every now and then, someone from Midwest will come along and complain that pasta is not cooked, though. They want their noodles like chicken soup, they just don’t get it. <laughs>
The same is with beer, some of the mainstream beer in the States tastes like skunk, while I find German beer to be more fresh. I was lucky though as I grew up close to the oldest brewery in the States, called Yuengling, which makes great beer. I learned that after I turned 21, of course. <laughs>
Did you take your daughters overseas yet?
Not the younger one, she is still too small. The older one is three and we took her over when she was one. It’s a lot of work <laughs>. We took a baby-sitter, so I was carrying my bags, my wife’s bags, babysitter’s bags and the baby’s bags, so I said – “You know what? I’m gonna wait till they’re a little bit older”. But maybe next year we will rent a place and stay for a little longer.
OK, Mike, one last question. I know you are a religious person and I remember how you once said that you, like general Patton, do not pray for victories but you pray to do your best. Looking back on your incredible career that took you from basically a last draft pick to arguably best hitting catcher in the game – do you think that your prayers were answered?
Absolutely. And I look at my career as a small miracle and a testament to faith and a testament to dedication. For me – and I don’t claim to be more pious than anybody else – for me, my faith helps me keep grounded. It worked for me, and it helps you get through those tough times.
So, no regrets, nothing that you look back upon and say – “I wish I had done that differently”?
Good question. I was fortunate enough to play in one World Series and I had a lot of experiences there <laughs>. Of course that there are lot of “what-ifs”, but they are so hypothetical and I believe that some things are meant to be and that we all have interesting paths. There are always regrets, of course, but mine are mostly smaller ones. I sometimes regret that I was so focused and forgot to have a little bit more fun along the way. But then, maybe I wouldn’t have been as good if I had more fun. <laughs>.
Thanks Mike, I hope you will have lots of fun for the remainder of the tournament.