NOT since Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bench was Rookie of the Year with the Cincinnati Reds in 1968 has major-league baseball seen a catcher with as much raw power as that of Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Piazza, a 6-ft., 3-in., 200-lb. right-handed batter, is capable of hitting home runs in any park - including Jurassic. He has already exceeded Bench's rookie home-run total of 15 by three, and the season is only half over.
In fact, the chief reason Piazza will represent the National League against the American League in tonight's 64th All-Star Game in Baltimore is his offensive statistics with Los Angeles.
Almost since Opening Day, Piazza has led all Dodger regulars in batting average, home runs, total bases, runs batted in, and slugging percentage.
If the balloting for National League Rookie of the Year were held tomorrow, Piazza would have more popular backing than a Kennedy running for office in Massachusetts.
Originally a first baseman, Piazza was moved behind the plate, because the Dodgers already had too many first basemen in their organization.
"Give Piazza some time to settle in and get his mechanics in order, and he should be among the best catchers in the league, defensively," says former Dodger receiver Steve Yeager, who shared Most Valuable Player honors in the 1981 World Series. "Remember, Mike has only been catching regularly for a couple of years. Naturally, he still has things to learn that he can only grasp by doing."
"When a catcher first starts calling pitches at the big-league level, most opposing hitters are still a mystery to him," Yeager continues. "Sure, Mike can go over the strengths and weaknesses of rival hitters with the Dodgers' pitching coach before every new series, but it doesn't really `take' until he has had a chance to apply this knowledge under game conditions."
Offensively, Piazza makes the pitchers come to him.
Despite leading the Los Angeles Dodgers in home runs, he doesn't seem to have a home-run mentality. That is, he hits to all fields. And with two strikes against him, he often chokes up on the bat and tries to drive the ball through the middle rather than swing for the fences.
"The opportunity to play every day has probably helped me the most," Piazza says. "So far, I've felt comfortable at the plate. And by being patient, I've gotten some pitches I could drive. But I don't want to be known only for my offense. I also want to be a guy who can do the job defensively."
When Vince Piazza, Mike's father, asked Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams to evaluate his 16-year-old son's swing eight years ago, Williams took one look and told the elder Piazza not to let anyone change him.
(This is the same Vince Piazza who grew up with Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and was part of a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based group of investors who tried to buy the San Francisco Giants last winter.)
The impression that Mike Piazza was Lasorda's godson grew so rapidly late last season (when Mike was up from the minors briefly), that this information was mistakenly printed in the team's 1993 Media Guide. Actually that distinction belongs to Tom, Mike's younger brother.
For years, major-league baseball has referred to the bulky protective gear that catchers wear (mask, chest protector, shin guards) as the "tools of ignorance." The implication is that nobody in his right mind straps on 22 pounds of equipment on a hot day and then further punishes himself by constantly getting in and out of a squatting position.
"If you're a catcher, you learn to live with the physical side of the game and its risks, and Piazza has already accepted that," says Dodger coach Joe Ferguson, who also caught 12 years in the majors.
"Catching, if a young player can do the job defensively and hits even reasonably well, is still the quickest way for a kid to reach the big leagues," Ferguson says. "Mike's talent and attitude are going to take him well past the point where he is just recognized for his hitting."
Manager Lasorda, who has opinions on everything Italian and often overpraises his young players to build their confidence, has been out of character where Piazza is concerned.
"I'm in a tough situation with Mike," Lasorda said in a Monitor interview, "because I'm so close to his family. So if I say too much about him, it's like I'm bragging."
When Piazza was in high school, whenever the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, Lasorda would invite Mike over to the park to serve as batboy.
"I'd also have him come in early," Lasorda says, "so that I could pitch to him in the batting cage before the game.
"Man, at age 15 Mike was driving balls out of the park that a lot of kids 17 and 18 couldn't even hit to the edge of the outfield warning track. Yeah, I had a pretty good idea even then that Mike was pro material."