He was the biggest baseball star in New York. She was the recently crowned Playboy Playmate of the Millennium. They were two performers at the pinnacles of their professions. This being New York, it was just a matter of time before their paths crossed.
One night last December, Playmate Darlene Bernaola and New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza met at Chaos in Manhattan. They talked. They liked. Mr. Piazza got Ms. Bernaola’s number from his agent. And suddenly the guy every Little Leaguer wants to be was with the woman every guy wants to date.
It’s not going to be easy. Baseball and women just don’t mix in New York. You could field an All-Star Team of failed baseball romances. Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, Mamie Van Doren and Bo Belinsky–all tried and failed to mix love and baseball. (And let’s not forget that in Bernard Malamud’s baseball novel The Natural , the mere presence of Memo Paris sends Roy Hobbs into a horrendous batting slump . But hey, that’s another story entirely.)
Maybe these two are different.
“We’re having a great time. It’s cool,” Mr. Piazza said, shortly before a recent game at Shea Stadium. “She’s a great person. We’re just having fun, taking it day by day.”
One recent afternoon, Ms. Bernaola recounted her journey from strife-torn Peru to the pages of Playboy , and from there to Mr. Piazza, while having lunch at Fox Hounds restaurant, across the street from her twin sister’s apartment in Battery Park City.
She wore blue-tinted sunglasses, a low-cut blue top, sandals and a diamond Playboy -icon necklace around her neck. Tattooed on the outside of her right ankle were the initials “M.P.”
“I love watching him play,” Ms. Bernaola said. “I wouldn’t watch anyone else and I wouldn’t watch another team and I probably wouldn’t watch his team play, but I like watching him play. He’s amazing. I can’t believe the strength that he has.”
Ms. Bernaola watches Mr. Piazza from his skybox overlooking right field at Shea Stadium. She never misses a home game. Sometimes she brings her family; many times she just goes alone.
“If I’m in the suite by myself, I really concentrate,” Ms. Bernaola said. “If he’s not playing, I’ll watch TV or something. If he’s playing, I have full concentration. I love the passion he has.”
Ms. Bernaola said that she and Mr. Piazza, off the field, are just like any other couple. “You’d be surprised,” she said. “We’re such a normal couple. We like staying at home. We like watching TV. We like spending time with our families. We like doing normal things.”
Ms. Bernaola was born in Los Angeles. Her parents separated when she and her twin sister Carol were a year old. She moved with her mother and sister to Chanchamayo, Villa Rica, Peru, where her mother’s family runs a coffee plantation. The town had only one phone; Ms. Bernaola was reared in a 13-bedroom mansion with a pool.
When Ms. Bernaola was 16, her family received a letter from the Peruvian terrorist group Sendero Luminoso , which only a year earlier had kidnapped two of Ms. Bernaola’s cousins. The letter stated that the Bernaola twins would be next.
Ms. Bernaola’s mother packed her two daughters off to Miami. They shared an apartment and got jobs at McDonald’s. “We came from a good family,” Ms. Bernaola said. “We never cleaned in our lives. We had maids who did all of that for us. And from there we went to poverty.”
Ms. Bernaola moved to New York and worked at Tijuana Tom’s in the West Village. After three years in New York, she returned to Peru. It was there that she met a U.S. Marine from Iowa who was stationed at the American Embassy in Lima.
They fell in love and the couple traveled to Iowa to get married. But 24 hours before the ceremony, as Ms. Bernaola and her fiancé were driving to a supermarket, a dump truck traveling in the opposite direction veered across the divide and hit their car. Ms. Bernaola’s fiancé died in the accident.
“He was the most wonderful person,” Ms. Bernaola said. “He was an angel. It was the kind of person you meet and you can’t believe they’re true.”
Ms. Bernaola’s pelvis was broken in two places, her hand in 20. While she recovered at a hospital in Miami, her sister got her big break.
During a search party for Playboy ‘s Playmate of the Millennium at Chaos in Miami, Carol Bernaola caught the eye of a Playboy editor. When the editor learned that Carol had an identical twin, the search was over.
Darlene and Carol Bernaola posed for a 12-page layout that featured the twins sunning themselves on a Miami beach, dancing in a nightclub and bathing in a bubble bath. (Turn-ons: intelligence, romance; turn-offs: ignorance, lack of class, lies.)
Ms. Bernaola said that the Playboy pictorial was blessed because of similarities between the dates of the photo shoots and significant dates in the life of her deceased fiancé.
“So many odd things happened,” Ms. Bernaola said. “Odd, magical stuff. All the times I went to do my shoots, it had something to do with my fiancé. Either it was his birthday or his anniversary. It was completely sent from God. All the dates had something to do with him.
“The funny part is that when we were in Peru, knowing that we were coming to the United States, he showed me a Playboy magazine. He said, ‘Look, honey.’ I was like, ‘You’re not going to have that stuff in my house if I’m going to marry you.’ He was like, ‘No, no, you should be in here. We’ll go all over town until they pick you. You should try it, Darlene, all my friends tell me that you should be in Playboy .’”
When Playboy ‘s “Playmates of the Millennium” edition arrived on newsstands, it made the Bernaola twins minor celebrities in the United States. Back in their homeland, though, they were goddesses.
A crowd of hundreds greeted the twins at the Lima airport when they returned to Peru after the magazine was published. Peruvian government officials sent flowers and notes. Two TV stations waged a bitter war to land an exclusive interview with the twins. A street in their former hometown was named in honor of the sisters. President Alberto Fujimori invited them to breakfast at the presidential palace.
“We have pictures in the palace,” Ms. Bernaola said. “We had full access to the palace and got to sit in his chair.”
The extent of her fame soon became clear. “In Peru on the day of a soccer game, you don’t see anyone on the streets; the town is dead,” she said. “And the day we were going to come out live on TV, everyone was in their houses trying to watch us.” Unfortunately, what should have been a day of celebration for the men of Peru turned into a day of mourning when the station that lost out on the interview sabotaged its rival’s transmission.
Then, back in New York, at a Playboy party at Chaos last December, Ms. Bernaola met Mr. Piazza.
“My sister is a big baseball fan and she was like, ‘This is Mike Piazza. He’s a big baseball man,’” Ms. Bernaola said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about baseball but it’s a pleasure to meet you.’”
A few months later, Mr. Piazza got Ms. Bernaola’s telephone number. They started talking over the phone and pretty soon they were a couple.
As the pennant race heated up in late August, Ms. Bernaola got a taste of life with Mr. Piazza while she accompanied him on a road trip to Cincinatti. “Some people recognized me and the next thing I know, some guy is shouting, ‘Mike, you suck!’” she said. “I turned around to see who it was. By the time I’m leaving, people know I’m his girlfriend, so they’re booing and clapping because I’m leaving. After the game I’m like, ‘Mike, they booed me.’ And he’s like, ‘Now you know how I feel.’”
(That’s the flip side to a famous story of the Monroe-DiMaggio relationship. Monroe once regaled the Yankee great with details of a particularly worshipful reception she received. Tens of thousands of people were applauding–you can’t imagine, she said. Yes, he could, DiMaggio replied.)
Ms. Bernaola can’t explain Mr. Piazza’s September slump at the plate. “That’s the last thing he wants to talk about,” she said. “I don’t know too much about baseball myself. We don’t talk about baseball at all.”
She said that, contrary to talk in the press and between security guards at Shea, the couple has no plans to get engaged.
“We’re really taking it day by day,” she said. “We have no rush. I’m going to be around, he’s going to be around. If that day comes, it’s going to be great. Unbelievable. We’ll take it from there. We have a beautiful, amazing relationship and that’s about it.”
Since the Playboy spread, Ms. Bernaola has been offered the lead in a Peruvian soap opera, and she’s nearly completed an autobiography. Ms. Bernaola hasn’t found a publisher yet but she’s ready for when she does.
“Whoever is going to put out my book is going to have to put it exactly how I want it to be put,” Ms. Bernaola said. “Even if I say the words wrongly I want it to be like that, because that’s me. This is a book about what I went through. You have to put it in my bad English. If you don’t want it, don’t take it. Because that’s me. This is me. If you like it, good. If you don’t, too bad.” When the autobiography is completed, Ms. Bernaola said she will start working on the screenplay.
Meanwhile, Playboy wants the Bernaola twins back for the December issue. It sounds as though Ms. Bernaola thinks a return trip to the magazine’s pages might be a letdown. She is, after all, a Playmate of the Millennium. “I hope they don’t pick me,” Ms. Bernaola said. “It’s like saying, ‘I’m Ms. United States and I want to be Ms. Florida.’ It’s like they’ll be taking the title away.”
Lunch was over. Ms. Bernaola had to run errands with her sister. As she crossed South End Avenue, she was greeted with a friendly blast from a passing fire truck. Ms. Bernaola turned around and waved to the grinning firefighters.
“I laugh at that sort of thing,” she said.
That night, Ms. Bernaola sat by herself in Mr. Piazza’s skybox and watched the catcher go 0 for 3. After the game, she waited outside the Mets locker room with the players’ wives. Then the couple drove to Mr. Piazza’s mansion in New Jersey.