Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Review: Long Shot (2013)

By Mike Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler

Sports fans might remember the induction speech that Michael Jordan gave in 2009 when he went into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It was noteworthy mostly because of the fact that Jordan went out of his way to point out the real and imagined slights that he had "endured" in his great career.

Mr. Jordan, say hello to Mike Piazza. You two ought to have plenty to talk about.

Jordan and Piazza both are obviously competitive, and both used slights as motivation. Piazza's feelings come across in "Long Shot," his autobiography. It's not a pleasant sight in the case of the baseball catcher.

Piazza's baseball career is a great story. He was a very good hitter in high school, but wasn't the radar of scouts. Piazza spent some time in college, and was essentially drafted by the Dodgers in the 62nd round as a favor to Tom Lasorda. The Los Angeles manager/executive had a family connection to the Piazzas.

Piazza wasn't considered much of a prospect, but he worked hard at it. He took batting practice whenever he could, even at midnight on New Year's Eve, and almost willed himself to be an acceptable catcher. Once Piazza reached the majors, he became an offensive force. There's little doubt that he is the greatest offensive player ever to squat behind the plate. Once we get rid of the cloud over absolutely everyone who played in Piazza's era that is caused by steroid issues, Piazza will take his rightful spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame. He made millions along the way, and has a beautiful family. You'd think life has been, and is, good.

But Piazza certainly doesn't come across that way in the book. It's almost as if he has written down every slight, perceived or real, and wants to air them out here. Piazza still is angry about being at the end of the line when the Dodgers' prospects, angry about contract negotiations, angry about voting for the Most Valuable Player award. He even mentions a couple of times about being forced to play more than a few innings in the first game of a spring training contest. That's just not done to veterans, but still. Some of the slights are real, such as the time a magazine writer implied Piazza was gay in a story without any sort of evidence. Some, such as having pitchers throw at your head, are bound to happen in a long baseball career.

Remember, this is someone who retired after the 2007 season, and he's still angry. You'd think he would have calmed down a little bit.

Oddly, some of the publicity of the book surrounds Piazza's remarks about Dodgers' broadcaster Vin Scully.  There are only a few references to Scully here, and they are mostly in reference to Piazza's contract talks with Los Angeles. Scully apparently had the nerve to ask about Piazza's announcement that he had set a deadline for negotiations about a new contract, which seems like a reasonable question under most circumstances. Later there's a quote in the book that reads, "The fans of Los Angeles were beating me up on a daily basis. That wasn't characteristic of them. ... On top of that, Vin Scully was crushing me." It would be interesting to know where that perception came from, since Piazza probably didn't have time to listen to the broadcasts during games. Piazza has backed down a bit on his remarks since the book was released.

After 350 pages of this, Piazza's attitude certainly can wear down a reader. We tend to read autobiographies to read one side of a personal story, and to find out on some level, "What's he/she like?" Here, no matter how amazing and impressive the basic storyline is, Piazza comes across as so miserable much of the time that reading the book becomes unpleasant.

Piazza provides his own summary on the next-to-last page of "Long Ball." Here's the quote: "Looking back, I wish I'd been able to loosen up a bit. I wish I'd had more fun playing the game. Al Leiter used to ask me, 'When are you going to enjoy this (stuff)?' I never really did." This is a very honest look back at the life of an all-time baseball great, and thus his biggest fans will no doubt like it, but it's not likely to generate much sympathy from the rest of us.

Two stars

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