Baseball's most wanted

National | Mike Piazza's expensive self-esteem

Issue: "DeLay: Cracking the whip," July 18, 1998

in Boston - Long shadows blanketed the Fenway Park lawn late on a recent Saturday afternoon, as deep in the bowels of the venerable old ballyard the New York Mets were celebrating the day's victory over the Boston Red Sox. Inside the cramped and sweaty visitors' clubhouse WORLD caught up with Mike Piazza, the all-star catcher recently acquired by the Mets in a trade after Mr. Piazza turned down a reported six-year, $84 million offer to stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers. "I wouldn't have been happy with myself if I'd accepted the Dodgers' offer," Mr. Piazza told WORLD. "As an athlete, you want to feel wanted. I don't care how successful you might be, you always want that reassurance." On the face of it, such a comment seems strange: How many people would feel unwanted by an employer who offered $84 million? Mr. Piazza wanted to become baseball's first $100 million player. But while the numbers bandied about may boggle the minds of WORLD readers, the desire for "reassurance" is evident throughout American society. With so many people leaving families, jobs, churches, and other commitments, often on very short notice, it should not be a shock to see professional athletes doing the same thing. Mike Piazza should have been a Dodger for life. His father grew up in Pennsylvania with former L.A. manager Tom Lasorda, and young Mike worked as a batboy for the Dodgers whenever they were in Philadelphia to play the Phillies. He was never considered that much of a major-league prospect in high school, but the Dodgers drafted him-more as a personal favor to his dad than anything else-with the 61st selection in the 62nd round of the June 1988 Free Agent Draft. But Mr. Piazza blossomed in the bigs. Last year was the best of his career, as he hit .362 with 40 home runs and 124 runs batted in. He finished second in National League Most Valuable Player voting behind Colorado's Larry Walker, and established himself as the premier catcher in the game today. Since he was playing in the shadow of Hollywood, he also popped up on TV shows including Baywatch, Celebrity Jeopardy, and The Bold and the Beautiful. The catcher and L.A. seemed to be a perfect match. As in other seemingly happy marriages, however, money soon became a source of contention. Mr. Piazza is in the last year of a long-term contract, and the Dodgers, now owned by Rupert Murdoch of Fox television fame, found Mr. Piazza's demand for $100 million even grislier than anything his network broadcast on World's Wildest Police Videos. The Fox suits decided that Homer Simpson was a more valuable corporate asset than Mike Piazza's homers, so they shipped the catcher to the Florida Marlins, who traded him seven days later to the Mets. Such transience has become an all-too-frequent part of sports today. With the rare, current exception of a Cal Ripken, the days of an Al Kaline or a Brooks Robinson or a Johnny Bench spending his entire career with one club are over. The rise of players' unions and the advent of free agency have made today's player much more of a mercenary. "Rent-a-player" is now very much in vogue across the sports landscape. "You know, if people could really put themselves in my shoes, then maybe they'd understand where I'm coming from," Mr. Piazza continued in his conversation with WORLD. He felt unwanted. He needed reassurance, and asking that of the Dodgers was "like banging my head against a concrete wall." As the visitors' clubhouse rapidly emptied out after the game, he said, "The Dodgers are part of my past now. I'm a Met now, and I'm happy here. My focus now is on playing for the Mets, not the Dodgers or Marlins.... You want to feel wanted." Mr. Piazza's words are sweet music to the ears of Mets fans, but he almost seems to be treating his tenure in Los Angeles the same way Soviet history books treat former leaders who have fallen into public disfavor: as matters that have been erased from memory, no matter how important they were in the past. And what will happen when his honeymoon with the Mets ends, as it surely will one day? Will a lifestyle and career marked by transience, impermanence, short roots, and the rejection of an $84 million contract offer provide reassurance? And if the figure were $84 thousand or $84 billion, would it make any difference?

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