Baseball Books Reviewed: Long Shot

Long Shot by Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler. (Simon & Schuster, 374 pg., $27). HB, 2013.

Every Hall of Fame player or Hall of Fame-worthy player deserves not only an autobiography and a definitive biography but an apologia as well, assuming he wants and needs one. Future Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza probably needed the latter, and a good one at that, and he gets it here in Long Shot with the help of collaborator Lonnie Wheeler. What does Piazza, the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history with 427 home runs and a .308 lifetime batting average, have to feel defensive about? Well, plenty as it turns out.For starters, there was the Roger Clemens bat throwing incident in the 2000 World Series. Piazza had owned Clemens prior to a game in July of that year when Clemens beaned him, giving Piazza a minor concussion. When asked about it, Piazza opined that the beanball had been intentional. In Game Two of the World Series, with the world anxious as to how the renewed confrontation would turn out, Clemens picked up the barrel of Pizza’s broken bat and flung it towards the disoriented catcher who had started running haltingly towards first. According to Piazza, Clemens told the umpire he thought the bat barrel was the baseball, which puzzled and sort of paralyzed Piazza, but his failure to rush Clemens in anger caused other pitchers for years afterwards to question his toughness (if not his manhood).

Then there were the rumors, based on nothing more than Piazza’s habit of changing girlfriends on an annual basis, that Piazza is homosexual; and, finally, the whispers that he was a performance-enhancing-drug (PED) abuser. Of the three controversies, the last is the most serious, as it directly impinges on Piazza’s chances of being elected to the Hall of Fame, and it duly receives the most extensive treatment. In general, Long Shot is highly effective in dealing with all these issues, thanks no doubt to Mr. Wheeler, who knew how to help his subject mount a persuasive defense by avoiding whininess in favor of a more matter-of-fact tone.

On the other hand, the book could be viewed not completely unfairly as a sustained complaint by Piazza that he has been, not unappreciated, but perhaps under-appreciated. One of the myths that the book takes great pains to dispel is the widespread notion that Tommy Lasorda was Piazza’s godfather. The truth is that Lasorda is the godfather to one of Piazza’s brothers. This is significant because Piazza has always had to fight the impression that he received preferential treatment because of this special relationship to the man who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers. Piazza did have a great relationship with Lasorda because of Lasorda’s lifelong close friendship with Piazza’s father Vince, but the relationship hardly guaranteed Piazza anything. Reality was much more mundane.

Despite being a fearsome hitter for his small town Pennsylvania high school, Piazza went undrafted after graduation. After he met with mixed success during two years of college ball as a first baseman, the Dodgers drafted him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, strictly as a “courtesy pick,” with no intention of actually signing him. It was only after Piazza displayed major league power in a tryout, agreed to learn how to catch, and, yes, got a recommendation from Lasorda, that the Dodgers tendered him a pro contract.

Far from giving Piazza any special treatment, the Dodgers showed little interest or confidence in him as he struggled to survive in the low minors. Because Piazza was neither a natural or experienced at the position, his progress as a receiver was painfully slow; yet the Dodgers could not ignore him once he began to demonstrate his rare ability to hit professional pitching for average and power. Piazza says that he used his frustration and anger over this lack of confidence in his abilities to motivate him, and he played the rest of his career with a chip on his shoulder.

Piazza put up unprecedented hitting stats during his five full seasons in Los Angeles, and he claims that the proof of the Dodgers’ disregard lay in their decision not to meet his salary demands; a claim that merits respect, given the fact that after they traded him to the Florida Marlins, they paid lesser players more money than he’d been seeking. Piazza wound up spending more years in a New York Mets uniform than a Dodgers suit, and he says that it was in New York that he found the respect he’d yearned for in L. A. He also says bluntly (and with unconcealed expectation) that when the time comes he will ask that his Hall of Fame plaque portray him in a Mets, not a Dodgers, cap.

Piazza also defends his much-maligned catching abilities (especially his below-average percentage of throwing out base runners successfully); and, while admitting to bad relationships with some teammates, he refutes the notion that he was a selfish player. The authors save for the “Epilogue” the most explicit and probably most revealing personal revelation of the book: Piazza’s regret, like that of his boyhood hero Mike Schmidt, that he didn’t simply have more fun playing the greatest game in the world. Because they are dealt with so deftly, the unpleasant facets of Piazza’s career seem to this reviewer to be less than the sum of their parts. Other readers may come away with a different impression.

By choosing the title they chose, Piazza and his “co-author” try to make the case that, while he was gifted to some degree, it was mainly hard work and determination, not privilege, that got him to where he ended up when he hung up his spikes: on the doorstep of Cooperstown. By definition, “underappreciated” is not an epithet that would normally fit a Hall of Fame player, but in Piazza’s case it may be warranted.

Reviewed by: Mike Shannon (March 18, 2013)