MIKE PIAZZA, the best hitting catcher of all time, left professional baseball the way he came in, without a fuss. Twenty years ago he was taken by the Dodgers as the 1,390th pick in the draft. His signing was a favor from Tommy Lasorda to Vince Piazza, Mike's father and a self-made multimillionaire. Tommy and Vince were both from Norristown, Pa., outside Philadelphia, and people turned the move into a paisano thing. Yes, Piazza caught a break, but he made the most of it. His numbers over 16 seasons—427 home runs (396 as a catcher, the most at the position), 1,335 RBIs, .308 average—trace to two things: relentless determination and an obsessively analytical mind, which he hid from public view. He retired last week by press release (no cameras, no crying) at age 39.
His defense was often criticized; he did have a weak arm, but his better qualities—calling pitches, blocking the plate—didn't make it into the box score. He played with little outward emotion. He could never be the Philly Italian Guy from central casting, and he despised it when fans or writers tried to goad him into that role.
He once called a weird press conference to announce that he was not gay, and he is now married to Alicia Rickter, a former Baywatch babe. He made $120 million in his career, and it's a good bet that he still has every dollar, plus, plus. Roger Clemens once beaned him with a fastball and on another memorable occasion threw a broken bat at him. Piazza did not forgive and forget. That part of the Sicilian thing he had down cold. Piazza had Clemens figured out long before the rest of us. His road to Cooperstown—unlike Rocket's—will be swift and easy.
JOHN IACONO (SI COVER)
LENNY IGNELZI/AP (PIAZZA)