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Everybody Wants a Piece of Piazza : But Dodgers' All-Star Catcher Prefers the Batting Cage to Hollywood's Zoo

April 16, 1995|BOB NIGHTENGALE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VERO BEACH, Fla. — It's New Year's Eve. The phone has been ringing all day. Party invitations are stacked on the kitchen counter.

High school friends are pleading for him to go to their party. Women are begging for dates. Nightclubs are willing to pay for his attendance.

It's 10 p.m., Dec. 31, 1994.

Do you know where Mike Piazza, the Dodgers' All-Star catcher in his first two seasons and one of America's most eligible bachelors, can be found?

He's in the basement batting cage at the family estate near Philadelphia, swinging at pitch after pitch, perspiring profusely, and couldn't be caring less about Dick Clark and Times Square.

He finishes, takes a quick shower, sits back and watches television, then falls asleep without a sip of champagne.

"I went to New York a few years ago for New Year's Eve," Piazza says, "and it was the most miserable time I ever had. You stand out there, freeze your butt off, just to see a ball drop for 10 seconds.

"When it's done, you're standing there thinking, 'Now what do I do?'

"Besides, two years ago, I was in the cage on New Year's Eve, things turned out all right that year, so now it's like a tradition.

"Hey, it's no big deal. I was in the cage on Christmas too."

Piazza shrugs his massive shoulders and laughs softly. People don't understand. Most never will.

They see him playing cameo roles on "Married with Children," "Baywatch" or "The Bold and Beautiful." They see him as a guest host on MTV. They see him playing golf with Charles Barkley. They see him being mobbed for autographs in the Forum Club at Laker games. They see him hanging out with Rocket Ismail. They see him sliding home on ESPN commercials.

He's considered a celebrity now. Even in Hollywood, where you're taught to act cool around stars, the guidelines are forgotten when it comes to Piazza. Men want to be seen next to him. Women want to go out with him. Kids idolize him.

There have been at least a dozen letters sent to the offices of the Beverly Hills Sports Council from women informing Piazza that they've named their babies after him. One woman has his name on her license plate. One woman in Bakersfield even named her horse after him.

The adulation, the goofy way people act when they see him, Piazza says, is flattering. It's nice to be recognized as an honest-to-goodness celebrity at 26.

"But what people forget," Piazza says, "is that I'm only known because of my success on the ballfield. Nobody knew who I was three years ago. I used to walk across this (spring-training) complex when I was in the minors, and nobody would ever stop me for my autograph.

"I'll never take this game for granted. Never. I've worked too hard to get here. It's something I've always been taught, and lived by.

"I know this can be gone as easily as it came."

It's this work ethic--the old-fashioned kind--that transformed Piazza from a 62nd-round draft choice into the finest-hitting catcher in the game.

And there was no finer example of this ethic than his father, the only father of a major league player who's richer than Barry Bonds.

Vince Piazza, a high school dropout, parlayed a used-car lot into a $100-million empire. The son of an impoverished welder, he quit school at 16 to help provide for the family. He worked nights at the B.F. Goodrich tire plant. During the day, he fixed up cars and sold them.

"I remember one time Tommy (Lasorda) came by and wanted to go to lunch," Vince Piazza says of the Dodger manager. "I told him, 'Hold on, I can't go to lunch until I sell a hubcap or something first.' "

"True story," Lasorda says, laughing, "it's the honest-to-God's truth."

Vince Piazza amassed 50 car dealerships across the country by 1992, expanded into real estate and now has a computer service company that generates in excess of $200 million annually.

You look at father and son today, and the father is the one with the extravagant taste. The son is the old-fashioned one.

Vince Piazza wears custom suits and a gold Rolex on his wrist; the son wears T-shirts and jeans, and occasionally a Timex.

The father drives a Mercedes, with a Ferrari sitting in the garage; the son drives a leased Cadillac.

The father lives in a 12,000-square-foot mansion that includes a magnificent view of the Valley Forge National Historical Park; the son lives in a modest three-bedroom townhouse in Manhattan Beach, and can't even see the beach.

The father is worth in excess of $100 million; the son will earn $900,000 this season, and still watches what he spends on gas.

"I don't need much to make me happy," Mike Piazza says. "I mean, what good is having 450 horsepower in L.A. when you're going to be sitting in traffic and burning out your clutch?

"Maybe it's old-fashioned, but I like Cadillacs. You put one pinky on the wheel and cruise."

Yet, there's no question that father and son share the same passion: baseball.

Vince Piazza wanted nothing more than to have one of his sons become a major leaguer.

Mike Piazza wanted to be that player.

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