Not long after receiving a call from the Baseball Hall of Fame letting him know that he would be joining Ken Griffey Jr. in Cooperstown's class of 2016, Mike Piazza returned to his parents' home and rooted through a bunch of boxes on a combination scavenger hunt and nostalgia tour.
Two mementos stand out as springboards to Piazza's career: A day after the Los Angeles Dodgers chose him in the 62nd round of Major League Baseball's 1988 amateur draft, Piazza received a Mailgram making the news official. And shortly after signing his first professional contract, he made a photocopy of the $15,000 bonus check that paved the way for 12 All-Star Game appearances, 10 Silver Slugger Awards and roughly $120 million in career earnings.
Piazza is confident the copy of the check is somewhere in his possession. A search for the Mailgram would require the kind of time investment that's been a luxury since the January phone call from the Hall that changed his life.
"It's just been so hectic, you know?'' Piazza said on a recent conference call. "I can't seem to locate [the Mailgram]. It's probably in a shelf somewhere, or some drawer. Eventually, I'll go through it and maybe it will turn up.''
Piazza enters the Hall of Fame with 427 home runs and a record 396 as a catcher, but his arrival in Cooperstown was replete with intrigue. He lingered on the ballot for four years, in part because of suspicions among some baseball writers regarding performance-enhancing drugs, before going over the top with 83 percent of the vote. Amid a flurry of speculation, the Hall of Fame, with significant input from Piazza, announced that he would enter the shrine with a New York Mets cap rather than as a Dodger.
Sunday's two inductees come from opposite corners of Pennsylvania and disparate ends of the expectations spectrum.
Griffey, who was born 20 miles south of Pittsburgh in the old steel town of Donora, was ticketed for greatness as a sweet-swinging, defensively gifted center fielder at Moeller High School in Cincinnati. Since the MLB draft began in 1965, he's the only No. 1 overall pick to reach the Hall of Fame.
Piazza, the bookend in this mismatched pairing, embodies the hazards that befall scouts who discount young players because of knee-jerk assessments and the readings on a stopwatch. He titled his autobiography "Long Shot'' for a reason.
"I think it's very unique and very exciting that you have the two of us,'' Piazza said. "It's like the top of expectations and maybe the bottom of expectations.''
The pride of Norristown
Look back at that 1988 draft and it seems almost inconceivable: Piazza sits unobtrusively in the 1,390th spot, right behind San Jose State pitcher Al Bacosa, who spent a year in the Pioneer League with the Atlanta Braves organization before moving on to the family photography business. Three rounds before the Dodgers called Piazza's name, the Philadelphia Phillies chose a California high school pitcher named Bubba Smith and the Pittsburgh Pirates selected the mellifluously named Troy Trollope, a junior college outfielder from Washington state.
The Dodgers' 1988 draft crop was a mixed bag. Pitcher Bill Bene, the franchise's top pick, walked 489 batters in 445 minor league innings before retiring at age 29. "We don't know whether his pitches are going to hit the catcher's mitt or someone in general admission,'' a minor league PR man once said of Bene. Third-round choice Billy Ashley was renowned for his light-tower power, but the holes in his swing outweighed his batting practice exploits, and he was stuck in independent ball by age 28.
Nevertheless, the Dodgers hit pay dirt in the sixth round with UCLA first baseman Eric Karros, who won a rookie of the year award and hit 270 home runs in a Los Angeles uniform, and they got lucky with Piazza, whose myriad achievements far surpassed his modest roots.
Piazza was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He played high school ball in Phoenixville, about 30 miles from Philadelphia, where coach John "Doc'' Kennedy sent eight players to professional ball in 20 years with the program. The list includes catcher Creighton Gubanich, a former Oakland Athletics sixth-round pick who had a big league cameo with the Boston Red Sox, and pitcher Steve Shoemaker, who went to the New York Yankees in the fourth round in 1994 and peaked in Triple-A ball with the Colorado Rockies.
Piazza could always swing a bat, and he would hack away for hours on end at the cage that his father, Vince, built in the family's backyard in Norristown. Ted Williams, who was in the area doing a card show, came to the house to watch a teenage Piazza and raved about the kid's swing in a conversation that was captured on videotape. Williams even signed a copy of his book, "The Science of Hitting.''
But Piazza seemed out of his element as a high school first baseman, and for much of his amateur career he was a hitter in search of a position. After the 1986 draft came and went without a call, he spent a year in anonymity at the University of Miami before giving junior college ball a whirl at Miami Dade-North.
Piazza was fortunate to have a tireless advocate in Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who was a close friend of Vince Piazza and pestered the Dodgers to give the kid a look. But even after the Dodgers selected Piazza at No. 1,390, they viewed him as a courtesy pick and appeared to have no sense of urgency to sign him. It wasn't until Piazza flew to Los Angeles for a batting practice session and drove balls to the nether regions of Dodger Stadium that the team finally sprang into action. The Dodgers offered $15,000, and Piazza reported to Salem in the Northwest League the following summer and was on his way.
Multiple setbacks and bouts of self-doubt ensued. Piazza was so discouraged by his lack of progress that he walked away from the Class A Vero Beach Dodgers in 1990, and the team had to dispatch former big league outfielder Reggie Smith to talk him into returning. In an effort to learn the art of catching, Piazza played winter ball in Mexico and traveled to the Dodgers' academy in the Dominican Republic.
All the while, the folks who supported him in his formative years never stopped believing in him. Doc Kennedy enjoyed one of the most gratifying moments of his coaching career on June 12, 1999, when he flipped on a nationally televised Red Sox-Mets game and saw Gubanich catching for Boston and Piazza behind the plate for New York. While Gubanich's big league career lasted all of 18 games, Piazza went on to make history.
"For Mike to achieve what he did for 16 years, it was like trying to win that lottery,'' Kennedy said. "It was one-in-I-don't-know-how-many-million. When you see all the hurdles he had to cross, right from the high school disappointment of not being drafted, he never gave up on his determination and attitude of what he wanted to accomplish.''
When Piazza gives his speech on Sunday, a travel party from his hometown will be on hand to cheer him. A contingent of 50 players from Phoenixville Area High School and their parents are making the trip, and Kennedy will be there with six members of his family. "I'm just worried that when I get there, I'll be close enough to see him,'' Kennedy said, laughing.
It's all about the work
Even players at opposite ends of the expectations food chain can derive lessons from Piazza's story. As a baseball prodigy, Griffey grew up listening to cautionary tales from his father, a former 29th-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds who amassed 2,143 hits over 19 MLB seasons.
"My father has always told me there are more second, third, fourth and [lower] draft picks in the big leagues than first-round picks,'' Griffey said. "So if you work hard and do the things that you're supposed to do, you get rewarded.
"With Mike, people talk about, 'Oh, he was just a favor to Tommy Lasorda.' Well, he took an opportunity and showed everybody it was not just a favor. He went out there and showed that he can play this game and played at the highest level. And look at what his reward is right now: We're going to be on the same stage together.''
Judging from his autobiography and other public comments, Piazza kept meticulous track of the slights and critical scouting reports that preceded his rise to prominence. Now that he has reached the pinnacle of his profession, it's easier to take a step back and philosophize.
"The greatest thing about baseball is there are so many positions and so many opportunities,'' Piazza said. "You don't have to be the tallest or the fastest or throw the hardest or have the best hands. You just have to have one or two above-average major league tools and try to refine those. When I was able to turn from a slow-footed first baseman into a slow-footed catcher who can hit, my opportunities increased.
"It's just a testament to hard work and perseverance and trying to find your niche. It's very important. I want to implore people that just because you run up against a wall or a door that closes, you may not see the one that opens if you don't have a great attitude.''
As Piazza mingles with Griffey and 51 returning Hall of Famers this weekend, the search for Mailgrams and canceled signing bonus checks can wait. The door to Cooperstown has swung open, and he'll find his destiny inside.