Mike Piazza is one of the best hitters in the game. But at times his father Vince Piazza just can’t watch.
“I’ll just have to get away for an inning or two. I’ll take a walk. There are a lot of ramps out there,” said Mr. Piazza, the father of the New York Mets’ $91 million cleanup hitter, gesturing from a luxury box at Shea Stadium.
Things are no better at home.
“My wife, she just can’t tolerate it any longer,” he said. “She’ll go back into the bedroom with her TV and I’ll be in the living room with mine. A good friend of mine said I need a punching bag, something I can hit . I get violent. I just can’t handle it. I try to keep my composure but sometimes I just lose it … In this game you know you’re going to fail seven out of 10 times and I know he’s going to fail seven out of 10 times, but those seven times are very hard to watch. When I feel there’s something I feel he should be doing, I get all upset over it, but I’ll never mention it to him. How the hell do you tell a .330 career hitter how to hit?”
If Mike Piazza can overcome his sprained left thumb and sore shoulder and lead the Mets to the World Series, it will partly reflect the efforts of his father, a self-made millionaire and three-time loser in his attempts to purchase a baseball team. Vince Piazza, who said he showed some talent in baseball before he had to quit school and go to work at age 16, provided Mike with the kind of obsessive athletic training perhaps known only to teenage tennis players and Romanian gymnasts.
In a rowdy Shea Stadium after the big playoff win against the Arizona Diamondbacks-a win made possible by the surprise home run off the bat of Mike Piazza’s understudy, Todd Pratt-Vince Piazza and his assembled family and friends drank a glass of cheap champagne in the luxury box, which was included in his son’s seven-year contract. He said he was happy, even though his son’s injury kept him out of two games in the series. Then Mr. Piazza and his wife, Veronica, rode an elevator to the bottom of Shea Stadium and waited outside the clubhouse while their son celebrated with the guys and talked to reporters about his thumb, which had swelled up after a cortisone injection.
Between gulps of champagne, the slugger also talked about his father: “He believed in me more sometimes than I believed in myself. I was a kid, I think, like most kids with some sort of talent, who needed to be pushed somewhat.”
Mike Piazza said he has become more independent of his father over the years. “I don’t listen to him as much anymore, because I’m 31 years old,” he said. “So when he has something to say, I kind of listen to him, but most of the time he’s just being a dad. We’re like buddies and that’s the best thing about it now. He understands that I’m an adult and I have to live my own life and he doesn’t interfere with that.”
Mr. Piazza changed out of his clean baseball uniform and dressed himself in dark blue jeans, a collarless sweater, black Nike sneakers, and a black baseball cap with the name of a rock band, the Black Label Society, stenciled on it. He adjusted his sunglasses and walked outside the clubhouse.
His parents were out there waiting for him. The three of them walked out to the players’ parking lot behind right field, toward Mike’s huge white Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle.
The day before, Vince Piazza sat alone in the luxury box. The only decoration was an enlarged photograph on the wall of Mike Piazza in midswing. Mr. Piazza sat in a beige love seat with his arms folded across his chest. He wore gray slacks, black shoes, a black polo shirt, a diamond-studded gold-faced watch and an undented black Mets cap.
“As soon as Michael could walk,” he said, “I put a whiffleball bat in his hand, just to give him the feel of it and nurture him along.”
When Mike was 5, Mr. Piazza gave him a pair of hand grippers. “I tried to get him to work on his forearms so he’d be used to it as he went along,” he said. “As he grew older, we stepped it up a little bit with the hand gripper and the weights. And as he was working out, he always had a sledgehammer there. First it was a 10-pound sledgehammer and then when he graduated it was a 12-pound. He would swing it like a bat a couple hundred times a day. Of course, most every dad today has their boys trying to play Little League, but I was more of a fanatic about it. I think that as I saw the ability in him and I noticed that there was never enough baseball that I could give him, I felt that maybe through him I could see myself.”
Vince Piazza grew up in Norristown, Pa., a small working-class town outside of Philadelphia. He loved baseball more than anything. He played shortstop in junior high and by his own account he had a good arm and swung a solid bat. But any dreams of baseball glory ended when he turned 16 and quit school to help support his family.
Working two jobs, he saved up enough money to buy a garage, which he eventually parlayed into a vast used car empire. Later, he ventured into real estate. His estimated worth now exceeds $100 million.
As Mr. Piazza built his businesses, he watched as his friend and Norristown neighbor, Tommy Lasorda, rose in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, first as a minor league player who briefly made the major league club, then as a scout and, finally, as a coach and manager. Mr. Piazza fathered five boys and, by God, one of them was going to play professional baseball. When it appeared that Mike, his second son, had talent, Mr. Piazza pounced.
Mr. Piazza took his son to Veterans Stadium to watch the Philadelphia Phillies and their tough third baseman, Mike Schmidt. Then, when the Dodgers won the 1981 National League pennant, young Mike was carried around the clubhouse on Dusty Baker’s shoulders. Ted Williams paid a visit to the Piazza home for an impromptu batting lesson. Mr. Piazza recorded the conversation.
‘I Was a Loudmouth’
Mr. Piazza put up a batting cage in their backyard and later he attached lights to it. Some nights he would hurl 200 to 300 balls to his son. In the winter, they would warm baseballs on the stove and wrap the bat handles in tape to take away the winter sting.
“If I tried to do what I did with Mike to my youngest son, who’s a good player, they would probably cite me for child abuse,” he said.
According to the father, Mike Piazza ate up his training: “All he wanted to do was play ball. He was an unusual kid at that age. He wouldn’t socialize too much or go to dances or date too much. He’d come home from a baseball game and go in the cage. He’d occasionally go the movies with his brothers. I see it today with him. He wakes up, goes to the park and after the game he comes home and then he wakes up and goes out to the park again.”
After watching every game of this 1999 season, Mr. Piazza concluded, “They’re just two players away from being an outstanding ball club. They need an outfielder with some speed and some pop in his bat and an ace pitcher. They’ll be available. The trouble is that they don’t have that much to give away.”
He thinks the much rumored deal that has Chuck Dolan’s Cablevision Inc. buying the Mets from Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon makes a lot of sense. “Dolan could buy this ball club with the money he’s been paying for the TV rights,” he said. “If he amortized the $40 million he’s giving this club a year for cable rights, over 15 years that’s, what, 600, 700 million dollars. Why wouldn’t you do it? It’s a no-brainer. These cable companies are finding out that if they’re spending this money, why not own it?”
Of manager Bobby Valentine, who recently added to his season of bloopers by telling a reporter that five players on his team were “losers,” Mr. Piazza said: “Bobby is a very good manager. He’s a very intelligent individual. Unfortunately, he’s such an emotional person he doesn’t put his mind in motion before he opens his mouth. I think he said those things when he thought he was going to get fired, but he has to understand that sometimes it’s better not to say it.” He paused for a second. “Maybe he’s doing it deliberately. There’s something about his kind of madness. Maybe it’s a way to keep them loose.”
Vince Piazza believes his own strong emotions won’t get in the way of his son’s performance for the Mets, although he may have ridden Mike hard in the past.
“I was a loudmouth,” Vince Piazza said. “Over the years, I guess I realized what the hell I was doing. I had to go back and apologize for all the stupidity. I was a real pain in the butt, but he didn’t mind it. He never said anything. He never concerned himself with me, he was so focused. He was never concerned with that. I tried to understand it later, to understand what I put that kid through. I’m not going to put the other ones through that.”