From the 1,390th player chosen in the 1988 MLB Draft to a carving in Cooperstown, Mike Piazza is the truest definition of underdog. Lucky to have a father who was childhood buddies with Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, Piazza was taken in the 62nd round by the Dodgers simply as a favor to Lasorda.
On the flipside is 1987 No. 1 pick Ken Griffey Jr. who was elected to the Hall with the highest voting percentage ever. Known by most as “Junior” to separate himself from his father – Ken Griffey Sr., a three-time all-star outfielder who played with his son in Seattle during the first few years of the ’90s., Junior offered us the smoothest swing we’d ever seen. He would make 13 All Star appearances and trot the bases 630 times (his 630 home runs ranking sixth on the career list). It’s the swing, the majestic catches and the genuine human-ness that had everyone in love with Griffey Jr. Cincinnati.com’s C. Trent Rosecrans has a “different kind of Ken Griffey Jr. story.”
Simply put, Griff was perfect – he was baseball. But back to the underdog. The Pizza Man. Mike Piazza. Mr. Met. A guy who liked and supported my New York Mets before it was cool. A first baseman at Miami-Dade junior college, Piazza would make the move to catcher with the Dodgers and prepare himself to exceed literally every single expectation and shock the baseball world.
After a few unspectacular years in the minors, Piazza climbed to top prospect heights by hitting 52 home runs in the 1991 and 1992 seasons combined. The Dodgers pulled him up at the end of the 1992 season. In 1993, Piazza burst onto the pro scene with 35 home runs, 112 RBI and a .318 batting average, which earned him a well-deserved National League’s Rookie of the Year award. He would go on to set the big league record for home runs by a backstop (396) and compile a .545 slugging percentage that ranks 28th all-time. Per baseballhall.org..
“Piazza drove in 1,335 runs – fourth among catchers all-time behind Yogi Berra, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench – and posted a .308 career batting average. He was named to 12 All-Star Games (winning the 1996 All-Star Game MVP), captured 10 Silver Slugger Awards at catcher and finished in the top five of the NL MVP voting four times, including back-to-back second-place finishes in 1996 and 1997.”
But Mike Piazza was more than just a big bat (remember when he hit a homer in 18 different ballparks in 2000 or the post-9/11 homer in NYC’s first major sporting event after the attacks?); more than just a redwood standing at home plate.. a cool, calm and collected catcher who eyed down his prey like an assassin. He’s also a popular choice, despite ridiculous past steroid allegations. Spotted first by fivethirtyeight.com was an intriguing voting prediction (which he has obviously since surpassed)..
“According to Ryan Thibodaux’s BBWAA ballot tracker, Piazza has been named on 86.5 percent of public ballots this voting season, with an estimated 34.7 percent of precincts writers reporting. Last year Piazza was named on 75.1 percent of public ballots but only 62.1 percent of private ballots, so we should expect his combined total to come in well under that 86.5 percent figure. But even if that split persists, Piazza — perhaps aided by this year’s more selective voter pool — should clear the 75 percent threshold and join Ken Griffey Jr. in the Cooperstown class of 2016.”
And join Ken Griffey Jr. in the Cooperstown class of 2016 he did, finishing as the bees knees of true underdog stories. While he’s certainly set for life, if Piazza does ever need extra money, I would happily pay to see him fight Roger Clemens. And while questioned as a defender at catcher for most of his career, Mike Piazza may have actually been elite in certain areas. Fivethirtyeight.com has some interesting stats regarding Piazza’s plate duty..
“Cumulatively, Piazza is by far the least-valuable throwing catcher since 1950, trailing the second-worst, Todd Hundley, by more than 16 runs. (Coincidentally, Hundley is the catcher Piazza displaced when he was traded to the Mets.) Per opportunity, Piazza ranks in the fifth percentile as a thrower among regular catchers. But he also places in the 74th percentile as a pitch-framer, and the 89th percentile as a pitch-blocker. His arm was just as bad as the naysayers believed, but that weakness wasn’t crippling, and he more than made up for it by blocking balls in the dirt and eking out extra strikes. All of that context is lost to Wins Above Replacement models that aren’t built to account for Piazza’s receiving, and future frameworks that quantify game-calling might put an even more positive spin on his prowess behind the plate.”
According to USA TODAY Sports Major League Baseball columnist Bob Nightengale on Twitter, “Ken Griffey Jr will announce Thursday that he will wear a #Mariners cap into Hall of Fame; Mike Piazza will wear a #Mets cap.” And we’d expect nothing less.
I’m here to thank two legends for making the game special; a feeling of appreciation we may never feel again for the tradition-heavy and ever-changing sport of baseball. It doesn’t get much better than 1990s Major League Baseball. Deadspin has videos of both players learning they officially made it to the Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame.