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The Blue-plate special

Piazza retires without a team, but it should have been as a Dodger

May 21, 2008|Bill Shaikin | ON BASEBALL

The great ones should not bid farewell via e-mail. Mike Piazza deserved to tip his cap and bask in the applause, secure in his place as one of the Dodgers' brightest stars.

His place would have been between Tom Lasorda and Sandy Koufax, on opening day, at the end of the Dodgers' stirring parade of players through the decades. Dodger Stadium went nuts when Koufax appeared, and the place would have gone only slightly less berserk with Piazza in the house.

But he was not retired then, just unemployed. He never did find a job, and he retired Tuesday, at 39. No standing ovation, no public appearance, just a statement sent to media e-mailboxes.

"I walk away with no regrets," Piazza said. "I knew this day was coming and, over the last two years, I started to make my peace with it."

It is difficult, even to this day, to make peace with the idea that Piazza did not play out his career with the Dodgers, that they traded perhaps the greatest hitting catcher in history -- and Lasorda's godson, no less.

The Dodger Way was no more. It is a decade later, and the Dodgers have yet to recover the tradition, the loyalty and the championships.

Piazza was a homegrown superstar, with a story made for Hollywood. The way Lasorda starts to tell the story, five clubs scouted Piazza.

"Every one of them said he couldn't play," Lasorda said.

So, as a favor to Lasorda, the Dodgers drafted Piazza in 1988, in the 62nd round. Of the 1,433 players selected, he was No. 1,390.

He made himself a decent catcher through hard work but, boy, could he hit. As a rookie, in 1993, he hit .318 with 35 home runs. In 1997, his last full season with the Dodgers, he hit .362 with 40 home runs.

"He brought the offensive level of what a catcher can do to a level that I don't think can be matched," said Mike Scioscia, his predecessor as the Dodgers' catcher.

Piazza loved L.A. -- the fans, the night life, the perennial promise of October -- and L.A. loved him back. But free agency loomed after the 1998 season, initial negotiations did not go well, and all of a sudden L.A. knew he wanted a record-setting contract.

Fred Claire, the general manager, figured he had all season to make a deal. The new Fox ownership wanted to rid itself of Piazza and buddy up to the Florida Marlins for television rights purposes, so the corporate suits traded Piazza to the Marlins in May, then told Claire what they had done.

"Mike couldn't have been any more shocked than I was," Claire said.

"He never wanted to leave," Lasorda said. "He cried."

Piazza did get his record contract. The Marlins flipped him to the New York Mets, and the Mets gave him $91 million.

This wasn't supposed to happen. Peter O'Malley had told us a family could no longer afford to run a major league team. So he sold to a corporation with deep pockets, and Fox promptly sold off Piazza.

But, a few months after portraying Piazza as greedy, Fox signed Kevin Brown for $105 million.

Claire and Bill Russell, the manager, were fired one month after the trade. So were three coaches. The Dodgers are on their sixth general manager and fifth manager since then, with no pennants.

"The trade changed the whole scope of the Dodgers in the way they had been operated," Claire said.

In the various organizational purges, the Dodgers dumped Scioscia, Mickey Hatcher and Ron Roenicke from their minor league staff, Gary Sutherland and Eddie Bane from their scouting staff. They all work -- and win -- in Anaheim now.

Piazza did not win a playoff game in L.A., but he got to the World Series with the Mets. He finished his career with the most home runs of any catcher in history, one of eight to hit .300 with 30 homers in a season. He did it six times. Roy Campanella did it three times. No one else did it more than once.

"Just to put yourself in the same ballpark as Roy Campanella is saying something," Scioscia said, "and Mike belongs up there."

In his statement, Piazza thanked all the teams, managers and fans for which he played, but he singled out the Mets' fans as "the greatest fans in the world."

Lasorda, the Dodgers' chief salesman, said he was not offended. He said Piazza was stung by boos at Dodger Stadium, before and after the trade. He would try, he said, to persuade Piazza to wear a Dodgers cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.

Persuasion should not have been necessary. The late, great Times columnist Jim Murray called it, two days after the trade:

"The Dodgers always have adhered to the Branch Rickey theory of roster cutting that it's better to deal a player a year early than a year late. But in Piazza's case, 10 years early?"

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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