In the course of a few traumatic days in May 1998, Michael J. Piazza’s world was turned upside down.
After all, he was baptized to be a Dodger.
Tommy Lasorda and Vince Piazza, Mike’s father, both grew up in the Philadelphia working class suburb of Norristown. The two were best friends and Lasorda was godfather to Vince’s son Tommy, Mike’s younger brother. When Lasorda signed a contract to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became Vince’s idol.
At 13, when the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, Mike Piazza was their batboy. Years later, after two undistinguished years of college baseball, Lasorda pleaded with the Dodgers to draft his dear friend’s son.
They did…in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, after 1,389 players were selected before him. That’s impossible today with a twenty-round draft.
Fast forward to 1998 when, at age 29, Piazza was becoming the greatest offensive catcher the game had ever known, coming off a season batting .362 with 40 homers and 124 runs batted in. His burnished credentials included National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1993 and an All-Star designation in each of his six seasons in Los Angeles.
In May of ’98, Piazza was a year and a half away from free agency. The Dodgers had offered $80 million over six seasons which he turned down, seeking a seventh year.
But up in the corporate suite, things were changing that would affect his status.
The Fox Entertainment Group purchased the Dodgers from the O’Malley family in September 1997 for a reported $350 million. Fred Claire, the general manager at the time of the sale, told me there were concerns in baseball circles about a television network buying a team. The impact – for Claire, Piazza and the franchise – turned out to be enormous.
“I well recall the sale,” Claire said. “Soon thereafter, Fox, without my knowledge, which is unusual, unheard of and unprecedented in Dodgers’ history, made the trade of Mike Piazza to the Marlins.”
Dodgers President Bob Graziano was in the Dominican Republic when he called Claire, who was in his box at Dodger Stadium watching the team play.
“He said, ‘Fred, there has been a deal that you will need to announce tonight. We have traded Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for several players.’ He gave me the names of the players that included Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla.”
“I represent the Los Angeles Dodgers and I represent something more than this trade,” said Claire who, if he knew about the deal, would have, in his words, “gone through the roof.”
This set into motion another dramatic move.
Claire told me: “I said to Bob, there will be two announcements then if you’re telling me that this trade should be announced. After the trade is announced, I will announce my resignation because you don’t need me. This isn’t the way a baseball team is run. This isn’t anything like what the Dodgers have ever stood for or how they’ve operated and very frankly, it’s very damaging to the Dodger organization. I remember walking back to my office at Dodger Stadium realizing my world had changed.”
So had Piazza’s, who had no idea a deal was coming.
But, wait, wait, there’s more!
Fred Claire received a call from the Dodgers’ media director telling him he couldn’t announce the trade because Gary Sheffield had a no-trade clause in his contract.
“Of course, Gary Sheffield has a no-trade contract,” said Claire. “Every general manager in the game knew Gary Sheffield had a no-trade contract. When Bob gave me that information, it was my assumption that had been resolved. Well, it hadn’t been resolved.”
And because it hadn’t been resolved, the trade couldn’t be announced.
Nor could Fred Claire’s resignation.
After the game, Piazza and Zeile were told to come to the private area outside the trainers’ room where they were informed what was taking place. Ironically, Zeile, in the first year of a three-year contract, had made it clear to his agent that he wanted to play at home in his native Los Angeles.
Everyone in baseball knew the Marlins were a pit stop for Mike Piazza. The club had begun dismantling their roster within ten days of their World Series championship on orders from ownership.
After Sheffield’s contract was resolved, the deal was finalized. Piazza played five games for the Marlins before being traded to the New York Mets just eight days later.
That’s the hat that appears on his Hall of Fame plaque.
Fred Claire ultimately didn’t resign over the trade, but his 30-year tenure with the Dodgers ended a month later, in June 1998, when he and manager Bill Russell were unceremoniously fired. And to this day, Claire isn’t sure who in the Fox Entertainment Group traded Mike Piazza without his knowledge.
What he is sure of is no one talked to the general manager of the Dodgers.