HEADLINE FANTASY: “Dodger Great Mike Piazza Voted into Hall of Fame”

“No. 1 Slugger Catcher Leads L.A. to World Series Win”

(Sorry, but none of this ever happened.) This is how the Dodgers screwed up big time. Mike Piazza was wearing a New York Mets jersey instead of a Dodgers shirt when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame the other day.

Barney Brantingham

In what’s considered the worst trade in Dodger history by far, a young power-hitting Piazza was dealt to the Miami Marlins in 1998 by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group. (Yep, Fox bought the team.) A week later he was traded to the Mets, where he became a career superstar and powered them to the 2000 World Series. Upon retirement in 2007, Piazza had racked up 427 home runs, been voted into 12 All-Star games, and finished with a .308 batting average. He also collected 10 Silver Slugging awards for his power hitting.

Piazza is hailed as the greatest slugging catcher, though he was never a great defensive player.

But to Fox, Piazza was just a prima donna kid who wanted too much money. The Dodgers flipped Piazza for some young, cheap players.

Wrote Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray: “… they traded away part of their soul.” The trade was “devastating to the Dodgers on a couple of counts,” said general manager Fred Claire, who wasn’t even consulted on the deal. Not only was a great player lost, Claire said, but the whole team structure was turned around, which led to “other events.” Claire was soon fired, along with shortstop manager Billy Russell, catcher Mike Scioscia, and most of the coaches.

Piazza, an Italian-Slovak from Pennsylvania, was a good high school and junior college hitter, but so were countless players around the country in 1988.

In the draft that year, 1,389 players were picked ahead of him, even with father Vince Piazza pushing hard and yelling loud, and pull from manager Tommy Lasorda, Vince’s boyhood pal and quasi-“goombah” (godfather) for the boy. “I kept telling our guys, ‘I want him drafted,’ ” Lasorda wailed.

They finally did, but for two months, Piazza heard nothing from the Dodgers. Seems as though the team only drafted Piazza as a favor to Lasorda. A “courtesy” pick. Favors like that are common. A kid may not be able to hit a beach ball, but someone with team connections wants his kid to at least get drafted. Lasorda finally got the Dodgers to give Piazza a tryout. They reluctantly signed him for $15,000 and sent him to a Dominican baseball school to learn how to catch. He’d been a first baseman but didn’t have major league chops and was too slow. One day he caught a pitch thrown by a skinny 17-year-old Dominican kid named Pedro Martínez. It came in so hard that Piazza gasped, “I thought I’d broken my hand.” More about Martinez later.

Piazza was named rookie of the year in 1993 and after hard bargaining signed a two-year contract for $15 million. But in 1998 Dodger ownership switched from Peter O’Malley, whose father, Walter, had brought the Dodgers from Brooklyn to the West Coast, to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Group.

Piazza was looking for a seven-year contract for over $100 million, according to his book Long Shot (Simon & Schuster, 2013). What he got was a ticket to Florida. One day he went into the shower a Marlin and came out a Met.

ANOTHER MISTAKE: The aforementioned Pedro Martínez and his brother Ramón were raised in a dirt-floor Dominican house. His father did odd jobs; his mother washed clothes for rich folks. Both boys went on to become pitchers in the Dodger organization.

But Lasorda thought that at 135 pounds, skinny Pedro was unlikely to withstand the rigors of the major leagues. After a 1993 season as a setup man in the Dodger bullpen, with a good 10-5 record and 2.61 earned-run average, Lasorda traded Pedro to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields, a name still grumbled about as one of the worst trades ever.

DeShields hit .214 over three years with the Dodgers, then bounced around the majors. Pedro Martínez, on the other hand, became an eight-time all-star, with the fourth best earned-run average in modern baseball and recorded over 3,000 strikeouts. He’s in the Hall of Fame, too, but not as a Dodger.


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