Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chip on Piazza's shoulder hasn't been knocked off yet

I generally shy away from memoirs and "tell-all" books about current and recent players. They seem often to be either formulaic or biased or both. There are, of course, exceptions. Last year's Jim Abbott bio, Imperfect, was a nice, honest portrayal of a guy I came to admire the more I read. But I won't typically go anywhere near the salacious titles that seem to roll off the presses right around the time pitchers and catchers report.

So why did I pick up Long Shot, the new Mike Piazza memoir? It showed up in the mail just as I finished another book, I respect co-author Lonnie Wheeler's work as a biographer and storyteller, and my editor at Baseball America asked me to. (My official, more formal, review will appear on BaseballAmerica.com as well as in our Books issue this spring.)

The dust jacket, in typical fashion, promises thrills and spills: "With resolute honesty Piazza addresses the issues that swirled about him during his career: the rumor that he was gay, the infamous bat-throwing incident with Roger Clemens during the 2000 World Series, and the accusations of steroid use that plagued nearly every power hitter of his era."

Anyone who expected Piazza to come out of the closet or confess to taking steroids will be sorely disappointed, though he does cop to using androstenedione, the same product that ensconced Mark McGwire in so much controversy. Piazza spares no opportunity to work in the hot models and actresses he palled around with, though he's quick to point out he was never serious about most of them because he didn't want to distract himself during the baseball season. So gay, no. Overly proud of dating and marrying eye candy, guilty as charged.

"The week of the wedding, the Daily News conducted a poll on baseball's hottest wife. In a close vote over Anna Benson-the former stripper whose husband, Kris, was a starting pitcher who had just signed with us as a free agent-Alicia won."

That's Alicia Rickter, of Baywatch and Playboy fame for those who didn't know. And I'll count myself in that group, as I'd never heard of her before now. The rumors of Piazza's sexual persuasion were stoked in part on the speculation that all the hot women he hung around with were simply a cover. They were, but not for homosexuality. They were there to paper over the insecurities that ran through every square inch of his body.

What comes through loud and clear in Long Shot is that Piazza cared about what everyone thought, despite his claims to not give a damn. He internalized every slight, large or small, and used it as motivation.

"I played with a chip on my shoulder, and admittedly-unapologetically-I'm writing with one, too," he says in the book's epilogue. "More than five years since my final single started a ninth-inning, game-winning rally, more than seven since my twelfth All-Star Game, more than eight since I broke the home run record for catchers, I still feel the need for validation."

That is why a man who posted numbers unrivaled by any catcher in the history of the game feels the need to toot his own horn repeatedly throughout a book that came out coincidentally within months of his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot.

"I'd be less than truthful if I didn't admit that my legacy is something I ponder quite a bit," he writes. "Mostly, it bewilders me. I honestly don't know why it is, exactly, that, from start to finish, I've been the object of so much controversy, resentment, skepticism, scrutiny, criticism, rumor, and doubt. … Whatever the reason, I suppose I might be a little oversensitive about it all, except that I feel I'm defending more than just my reputation. I'm standing up for what I consider to be-deeply wish to be-a fundamentally and triumphantly American story."

There's no doubt he's oversensitive and has been so most of his life. Though he spent half a dozen summers hanging out near the beach in Southern California, any sign of a relaxed surfer dude within was a complete facade. He was wired in such a way that he strove for excellence with little regard for how he was perceived. It wasn't enough to get three hits in a game, and he expressed his frustration at making an out so openly that he was classified as selfish by teammates who interpreted his helmet throwing and wall punching as signs he cared more about his batting average than the team's won-loss record.

He makes no effort to hide his disappointment at being passed over by MVP voters, particularly in 1996 when a roided  up Ken Caminiti won what Piazza refers to as a "popularity contest." Four top four finishes, including back-to-back runner-up slots in 1996-97, were little consolation.

Piazza came off to me as a fairly unlikable fellow. He was a hothead who once walked out on his team in the minors and multiple times stormed into opposing clubhouses looking to fight pitchers who had drilled him on the field. I was neutral on him when I began and emerged with a somewhat negative impression. That's probably not what he was looking for. Your mileage will likely vary depending on how closely you followed his career.

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