MVP Piazza follows script to perfection

The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHILADELPHIA - Mike Piazza should not be considered as the second coming of Johnny Bench. He is the prototype of a whole new production line.

He is a catcher who hits for power and percentages, a guy who handles baseball's grittiest job without soiling his swing. As such, he has few peers, and no real predecessor. Perhaps you've noticed.

The National League's leading All-Star vote-getter justified his mandate Tuesday night, homering, doubling and being designated the Most Valuable Player of the annual exhibition. He also handled the National League pitchers through the first six innings of their 6-0 shutout of the American League.

Who could ask for anything more? Not Mike Piazza.

''You hear the cliches all the time, 'Dreams come true,' '' he said. ''I don't know if it was a storybook or a script. I just didn't want to look bad. To hit a home run and win the MVP, it's really emotional . . . I've run out of words to describe it.''

Tuesday's All-Star Game was a homecoming for the Dodgers' catcher, who was raised in nearby Phoenixville and watched his first big-league ballgame from the upper deck of Veterans Stadium. Mike Schmidt hit two home runs that night.

He had goosebumps

Tuesday, it fell to Piazza to field Schmidt's ceremonial first pitch, and he did so with a lump in his throat. His whole game was a personal nostalgia tour, as he recalled games he had seen at The Vet and all the long hours of practice and preparation that had enabled him to come home a conquering hero. It was one of those glorious nights when a grown man can get goosebumps.

He led off the second inning with a home run to left field against Cleveland's Charles Nagy, and doubled home Barry Larkin with the National League's fourth run after two were out in the third.

''Piazza's a tremendous hitter,'' said American League manager, Mike Hargrove. ''He did not miss the mistakes that we made.''

What he did was make a lot of baseball people wonder about their own mistakes. Piazza was the Dodgers' 62nd-round draft choice in the 1988 amateur draft, the 1,390th choice overall. Somebody sure missed something somewhere. Piazza was so long a longshot that he might have been ignored altogether if not for the intercession of his godfather, one Tom Lasorda.

Career continues upward

If this was nepotism, Piazza has made the most of it. He was the National League's Rookie of the Year in 1993, and last season ran second to Tony Gwynn with a .346 batting average.

Think of your typical catcher, burdened by all that equipment, bent in that uncomfortable crouch, and you can hardly imagine him summoning the strength to contend for a batting title. But look on Mike Piazza and you see a swing of compact beauty and extraordinary opposite-field power. He brought a league-leading .363 batting average into the All-Star break, with 24 home runs and 63 runs batted in.

''He's a guy who, when he's totally on, nothing gets by him,'' said John Smoltz, the National League starting pitcher. ''He's about as intimidating as it gets.''

Bench still prototype

On balance, maybe Bench was better. He defined his position defensively and at his peak was the most productive hitter in the game. Yet no Hall of Fame catcher has hit 115 home runs in his first 3ï years in the major leagues, as Piazza has. The last catcher to win a batting title was Ernie Lombardi, in 1942.

There are few footprints to follow here. If Mike Piazza continues to catch, he could challenge all the popular perceptions about his position. His bat is so valuable, however, that the Dodgers may ultimately move him to another position in order to reduce his risk of injury.

That's a story for another day. For now, Mike Piazza is a catcher of real consequence.

After Mike Schmidt threw Piazza his pitch, he autographed it appropriately.

''Wishing you the best,'' it read. ''I think you're the best.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 10, 1996.