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Coming Into His Own : Mike Piazza Isn't Really Lasorda's Godson, but He Has Become a Real Big Leaguer

May 23, 1993|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there ever was a reason for the media to stop reporting that Dodger rookie catcher Mike Piazza is the godson of Manager Tom Lasorda, this is it:

He's not.

Piazza's official godfather is his uncle.

Lasorda is the godfather of Piazza's younger brother, Tommy, who is also Lasorda's namesake.

"You take one brother, you take them all," Lasorda said.

Lasorda, who is a distant cousin of Piazza's father, Vince, was referred to within their families as Piazza's godfather long before Piazza made it to the majors. Yet Lasorda has said all along that although he is Piazza's godfather, Mike is not his godson.

No one seemed to get it.

Call it a cultural thing, as Lasorda does.

"Our families are so close, that's what we call it in Italian, godfather," he said.

"If something happened to Mike's parents, we (he and wife Jo) would take him over. "

It wasn't until Mark Langill of the Pasadena Star News asked, "Are you really . . . " that Piazza responded to a label carried even on his baseball cards and in the Dodger media guide.

"I don't really know when it got started, but it's just always been that way," Piazza said. "Tommy and my father have been friends forever, and he has always been in my corner. But now that I'm in the spotlight, our relationship is exploited because I'm doing well."

He's doing so well, in fact, that the label is beginning to peel off. Every city Piazza plays in, there are rookie-of-the-year signs displayed in the crowd. He leads the team in batting in every major category and is quickly taking the lead in fan popularity.

He has silenced many of his critics with his bat and hopes to someday quiet the rest with his defense. But his road to the majors hasn't been easy, even with Lasorda helping him. There were roadblocks at every turn, some that even Lasorda couldn't ram.

So Piazza did it on his own.

"He's a hard worker," said Eric Karros, who won last season's rookie award.

"One thing that is different (about their rookie seasons) is that he has had to deal with his relationship with Tommy and prove that that is not the reason he is here. And he's done that."

In batting practice recently, Piazza hit three consecutive pitches into the upper section of the left-field pavilion. When someone mentioned it to Lasorda, he looked unimpressed.

"He was doing that before he was even signed by the Dodgers," Lasorda deadpanned.

*

What Lasorda saw in Piazza was power. Ted Williams saw it, too.

"I was at a baseball card show with a scout that knew Mr. Williams, and he told him about Mike's hitting," said Vince Piazza. "So when Mr. Williams asked if he could come over and see Mike's swing, I said, 'Are you kidding?' "

Vince, who had built a batting cage for his son in the back yard of their house in Norristown, Pa., picked up Williams at a nearby hotel and brought him to their house.

"He watched Mike's swing and he said, 'If this kid is swinging this well now and he's only 16, I guarantee you that he will hit in the major leagues,' " Vince recalled.

Before Williams left, he told the young Piazza to read a book he had written on batting. Piazza told him he had read it already, and Williams asked him to go get it.

Inside the book, Williams wrote: "To my friend Mike, from Ted Williams. Don't forget me. Someday I'll be looking for you to get tickets to a game. Your friend, Ted Williams." Most of the baseball world, though, remained skeptical about Piazza. That included the Dodgers. Even with Lasorda's clout, no team drafted Piazza as a high school graduate.

"They said this guy couldn't hit; couldn't throw," Lasorda said, shaking his head.

Lasorda's longtime friend, Ron Fraser, former

University of Miami baseball coach, liked Piazza's bat, and took him as a walk-on. But Piazza, then a first baseman, said the experience was a little overwhelming. He was on a team of veterans who had recently won the College World Series, and here he was, fresh out of a small-town school that played half as many games as the high schools in warmer climates.

"I sat on the bench and didn't even make the travel squad, so I started studying and lifting weights," Piazza said. "Actually, that is when I started taking weights seriously, and that had a lot to do with my success."

With his career seemingly at a standstill, Piazza transferred to Miami-Dade North Community College. He played well there before splitting two knuckles and sitting out most of the season. The day his cast came off, he was in the batting cage, but it was too late to make the scouting reports. No team was interested.

Lasorda, trying to help Piazza get a scholarship to a four-year college, thought that if Piazza was at least drafted by a major league team, maybe that would impress some college baseball coach. The Dodgers obliged and made Piazza a throw-away pick--their 62nd-round choice in the June draft in 1988.

"I got a Mail-gram from the Dodgers," Piazza said, smiling. "They didn't even call me. It was more or less their way of saying good luck."

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