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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Piazza Letter Was Juicy, but Turns Out to Be Thin

May 12, 1996|BILL PLASCHKE

The letter arrived in the sports editor's box in the middle of last week, filled with the words that strangle reputations.

Where once there would have been shock, now there were only shrugs.

It had been written about a major league baseball player.

It only made sense.

"My age is 12 and April 28 was my first time to have a front-row seat at Dodger Stadium," Josh Nelson of Northridge wrote in a missive published on these pages.

"I was really excited because I thought I was going to get some autographs."

He continued, "No offense to the other players, but I was mainly trying to get Mike Piazza's autograph. But when I asked him to sign my baseball, he said, 'You got 50 dollars on you, kid?' "

Competent sports journalists and knowledgeable fans love to ask, "Why?"

But this was about a major league baseball player.

So we said, "Why not?"

And we got lazy.

The letter was published with a cursory screening involving a phone call to the boy's mother.

The letter was joined several days later by 10 new letters, letters full of rage toward the once-beloved Dodger catcher who apparently had become just like the rest of them. Another lost soul. Another jerk.

Then it was Mike Piazza's turn. He said the boy was lying. A player asking for money to sign an autograph on a baseball field? How could anybody believe that?

"I wouldn't even joke about something like that," Piazza said on these pages. "C'mon, why would I say something like that? I never said anything like that in my life."

Again, we shrugged.

This was about a major league baseball player.

How could anybody not believe that?

The letters ripped, the radio talk shows buzzed, and the dirt was piled higher upon the lifeless form that was once our national pastime.

Which is why everyone should pause today and listen, again, to Josh Nelson.

Who is admitting that part of the letter was fabricated.

"Piazza never exactly asked me for $50," he said when questioned last week.

He said the figure was invented to "juice up the letter a little bit."

He claimed that Piazza had indeed asked him for money, after Josh fought through a crowd to approach him, one on one, by the Dodger dugout during infield practice before a game against the Chicago Cubs.

Exactly what did Piazza say? Nelson wasn't sure, giving three different versions at three different times during the interview.

Which makes you wonder about everything else in the letter.

"We wondered too," said his father, Dr. Michael Nelson, a Northridge internist. "But we've talked to him a lot in the last couple of days, and we believe in the gist of what he said, that Piazza asked him for money."

There is not a parent in the world who would blame the Nelsons. Talk with Josh for 10 minutes and you wonder how little minds can fill up so fast. He is bright, well-spoken, makes good grades at a private academy, takes piano and guitar lessons, plays three sports, built a backyard tree house.

He also needs to watch where he walks with that imagination. The lessons here are serious ones. Next time, they could be expensive ones.

But this story is not just about Josh Nelson. It is about all of us.

What sort of atmosphere have we created, from the arrogance of the ballplayers to the cynicism of reporters, that would cause a 12-year-old to fantasize about baseball players not as successful professionals, but as arrogant opportunists?

Has our relationship with our former sweetheart become so distant that when a kid writing about baseball pauses to dream, that dream is of extortion?

It's a healthy development that athletes, like Mike Piazza, are no longer automatic heroes. But must they be subhumans?

Why didn't Josh Nelson write a letter fantasizing that Piazza vowed to hit a home run for him?

Twenty years ago, somebody might have.

Twenty years ago, Josh's kind of letter would have been checked 10 times before landing in a newspaper.

"This is an offshoot of everything that has happened in baseball," Piazza said after being told of the youngster's admission. "After all we have put the fans through, this is what has happened. This is how they think. This is how everyone thinks."

Piazza said he would not have responded if Josh had written simply that he had turned down an autograph request.

Piazza has refused people who have followed him home after games at Dodger Stadium. Followed him into restaurants. Followed him into the men's room.

"The whole autograph thing has gotten totally out of hand," Piazza said. "So if the letter had said that I didn't sign because I was trying to work, that's fine. But to outright lie about my reputation? At some point, this has to stop."

Sure. When the players discover their consciences, and fans lose their bitter memories, and the media regain perspective.

Which isn't happening any time soon, no matter how you juice it up.

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