Lost beyond the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens narrative in the Hall of Fame voting this year is the fact that arguably the greatest hitting catcher of all time, Mike Piazza, didn't make the hall in his first year of eligibility. He didn't come particularly close either. It's a massive case of guilt by association, a late developing player who happened to be a power hitter in an era where all power hitters are under scrutiny. The sad fact is that any connection to PED's for Piazza is largely due to a whole bunch of rumors and speculation. It's a shame because he belongs in Cooperstown. Mike Piazza is my favorite LA Dodger of all time. Lost in the cloud of the "steroid era" is just how absolutely dominating Piazza was. He was a beast.
I first saw Piazza play in Tucson, Arizona in the fall of 1992 as a freshman at the University of Arizona. He was the catcher for the Albuquerque Dukes (then the Dodgers AAA franchise) who were in town to play the Tucson Toros. As a Dodger fan I was familiar with the Dodgers top prospects, a list Piazza wasn't typically included in. Piazza had a cup of coffee with the big league club in 1992, hitting a pedestrian .232 with a .319 slugging. The following year he tore it up, really out of nowhere, winning the Rookie of the Year and Silver Slugger. From 1993 to 1998 Piazza went on an epic run that tops any five-year period in baseball history at the catcher position. This run included five top-ten MVP finishes and two second place finishes behind Larry Walker and Ken Caminiti. The loss to Larry Walker irked many a Dodger fan since Piazza's numbers were equal and he played the more difficult catcher position, not to mention the fact Larry Walker had the luxury of playing in Colorado.
How obsessed was I? I went out and purchased satellite dish service, pre- Direct TV days, all to see Mike Piazza smash the baseball. Sure there were other guys like Eric Karros, Hideo Nomo, Raul Mondesi, Ramon Martinez etc, but it was all about Piazza. It's hard to describe how dominant he was for those who weren't there to witness it. He was Bonds or Pujols-like in that you couldn't really pitch to him. In 1996 the Dodgers won 90 games with a lineup that included Mike Blowers, Todd Hollandsworth, Wayne Kirby and Greg Gagne. Mike Piazza carried that team.
Since the Arizona Diamondbacks didn't exist at the time the Dodgers were Southern Arizona's baseball team. Every Vin Scully broadcast was available in Southern Arizona. Many a night while studying I'd tune into the games, catching as many as I could, listening to Scully on the radio broadcast while the game played on the television. There were many fond memories of that moment, arms extended, as Piazza watched the ball sail towards the fence as he calmly flipped his bat. As my brother used to say, "Light Tower Power".
Of course like many players in that era the threat of a massive free agent contract precipitated a move to the Florida Marlins and eventually the New York Mets and others. Even though he spent more than half of his career away from the Dodgers Piazza will always be identified as a Dodger. For me he was the player of the 90's-my all-time favorite Dodger. Piazza moved to the Marlins and then Mets and I had graduated and moved to the Midwest. With Piazza gone there was a period I didn't follow the club as closely as before. It's funny how as sports fans we define the decades we follow clubs with players. For me, in the 90's, it was the Dodgers and Mike Piazza.
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