Seattle Mariners

Despite inauspicious start, Piazza’s baseball career culminates in Hall of Fame

Mike Piazza takes a look, in March, at where his Hall of Fame plaque will hang. “I didn’t have a lot of leeway to fail. It made me better,” Piazza says of his low draft status.
Mike Piazza takes a look, in March, at where his Hall of Fame plaque will hang. “I didn’t have a lot of leeway to fail. It made me better,” Piazza says of his low draft status. The Associated Press

Mike Piazza already had established himself as one of the most productive catchers in baseball history when his wife, Alicia, sensed something.

“I take it this Hall of Fame is a big deal,” she said to him.

Responded Piazza: “It’s the only one people care about.”

Piazza assured reporters that he was only joking when he recalled the conversation Saturday afternoon, about 24 hours before he was to be enshrined into the only Hall of Fame that could put a first overall draft choice and a 62nd-round choice on the same stage at the same time.

Ken Griffey Jr. was identified as a potential All-Star center fielder before he graduated from high school, and the Mariners acted accordingly. Piazza was a courtesy pick, based on his dad’s close friendship with former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Griffey advanced to the majors in what amounted to an eye blink — 58 games in Single-A, 17 in Double-A, none in Triple-A — prior to his debut for the 1989 Mariners at age 19.

Piazza, a first baseman through high school and community college, didn’t even make it to Single-A before he was told he would have to learn a new position, and would have to learn it at an instructional camp for catchers in the Dominican Republic.

“You have two people who followed the same path but in different ways,” Piazza said of the early career contrasts with his Hall of Fame classmate. “He had unique challenges, being a first-round pick. I had my own challenges, being a last-round pick.

“It was a challenge for my professional life, because I didn’t have a lot of leeway to fail. It made me better, and told me you can never be afraid to reinvent yourself, to learn a new pitch, to lay down a bunt to help your team win a ballgame. People who care will see that.”

Despite Piazza’s unfamiliarity with the sport’s most demanding position, he was all in. Besides, the conversion was Lasorda’s idea. A 62nd-round draft choice was not going to answer “no” to a request from Tommy Lasorda.

“It was tough for an American, having all the blessings and benefits of being from the States and then going down to a country that in some parts is extremely poor,” said Piazza. “It was a culture shock, but it helped me appreciate this country and what we have here.”

As Piazza sat aside Griffey in an interview room Saturday, their similarities were as obvious as their dissimilarities used to be. Both wore a white polo shirt with the Hall of Fame logo. Both tried to answer questions without giving away a speech-worthy anecdote to be used Sunday.

Both were in festive moods, and not just because they were anticipating the day of a lifetime. Their lives appear to be in a good place, thankful for baseball but no longer tethered to it.

Griffey and his wife, Melissa, will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary next year. A dedicated father of three children — two of whom are athletes at the University of Arizona — he’s a certified private pilot whose interests include photography and golf.

Piazza and his wife are the parents of 9-year-old twins. He’s got business interests in the Philadelphia area, where he was raised, and last month purchased a majority share of Italian soccer team A.C. Reggiana 1919.

Soccer has been a passion of Piazza’s since 2006, when he competed for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.

“I just fell in love with soccer,” he said. “I looked at a couple of business opportunities and decided to jump in the water as a club owner. Reggiana (Reggio Emilia) — it’s the same town Kobe Bryant’s father played for — is about an hour south of Milan and it’s beautiful.

“It’s a challenge and it’s a business. You have to work the teams over there, be smart and have discipline. I don’t know where it will lead — I don’t know if I’m going to buy Manchester United next week, or next year — but it’s a lot of fun and I’m excited. We’ll see where it goes.”