MIKE PIAZZA: HIS BAT AND HIS BACK

By Murray Chass

March 4, 2009

Baseball writers spend a lot of time in press boxes together, and the close and frequent proximity does not always foster positive relationships. For example, Joel Sherman of the New York Post and I do not have any kind of relationship. We have not talked for years. There’s no need to bore you with the reasons why. But the other day his column caught my attention. Not many of his columns do. He writes them, after all, for the New York Post.

But this was a column about Mike Piazza and the suspicion that he used steroids. As I read it, I was thinking I have to send Sherman an e-mail commending and congratulating him for raising the issue with Piazza. It’s a subject that was long overdue.

Circumstantial evidence against Piazza is almost as strong as it is against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. A 62nd round draft pick in the 1988 draft and drafted only as a favor to his father, a close friend of Tommy Lasorda, Piazza wound up as the No. 1 home-run hitting catcher in major league history.

Piazza wasn’t a terrific catcher; he would have fared better as a designated hitter. But boy could he hit. He told Sherman the hitting came from hard work. That’s what they all said when they were suspected of having used steroids. We used to fall for that line. That’s one of the reasons we missed the advent and presence of steroids. We were gullible.

I suppose we could call the Mike Piazzas of the baseball world liars, but go prove it. Sherman, to his credit, doesn’t completely buy it. So I was a minute or two away from writing that e-mail. But then I reached the end of the column, and something was glaringly missing. I went back to make sure I hadn’t missed it, but it wasn’t there.

Early in the column Sherman writes about Piazza’s acne-covered back. This was a physical feature I had always noticed with Piazza. Not that reporters spend their time in clubhouses looking at guys’ bare backs, but when a reporter is talking to a player at his locker before he puts on his uniform shirt or after he takes it off and he turns around to put something in or take something out of his locker his back is what is visible. And Piazza’s acne was always visible. Teen-age kids never had such a problem.

Now as naïve as I might have been about steroids, the one thing I knew was that use of steroids supposedly causes the user to have acne on his back. As I said, Piazza had plenty of acne on his back.

When steroids became a daily subject in newspaper articles I wanted to write about Piazza’s acne-covered back. I was prepared to describe it in disgusting living color. But two or three times my editors at The New York Times would not allow it. Piazza, they said, had never been accused of using steroids so I couldn’t write about it.

But wait, I said, if I write about it, I will in effect be accusing Piazza of using steroids and then someone will have accused him of using steroids. No can do, I was told. I always took the veto to stem from the Times ultra conservative ways, but I also wondered if it maybe was the baseball editor, a big Mets’ fan, protecting the Mets.

Whatever the reason, I never got Piazza’s suspicious acne into the paper. Then all of a sudden the acne was gone. Piazza’s back was clear and clean. There was not a speck of acne on it. His back looked as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

What a remarkable development. It was a medical miracle. If teenagers could get hold of whatever Piazza used to clear up his back, they would be rid of the acne problem forever.

Coincidentally, while I was writing this column, I heard a radio commercial for a product called Proactiv (cq) Solution. I went to its Web site and found all sorts of celebrities who say they used it for their acne: Jessica Simpson, Alyssa Milano, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Vanessa Williams, Ryan Scheckler, Serena Williams, among others.

Piazza’s name was not on the list and his picture was missing from the group of pictures that adorned the site. So Proactiv Solution wasn’t the answer for his problem.

But the method Piazza used became apparent to me. It wasn’t medicine or any substance; it was abstinence. This was during the 2004 season, the first season baseball was testing for performance-enhancing substances with identification and penalties attached. If Piazza had been using steroids and didn’t want to get caught, he had to stop using. If he stopped using, his back would clear up.

His back cleared up. Completely.

I don’t know if Sherman noticed Piazza’s back after the 2003 season. But it was clear in 2004 and ‘05, his last two seasons with the Mets, and it was clear when I talked to him during the last week of the 2007 season when the Athletics, his team in his final season, was playing at Fenway Park in Boston.

The conversation was aimed at eliciting if Piazza planned to play another season or would be retiring, but I also asked him about steroids.

“I don’t really think about stuff like that,” he responded. “I think in a way these investigations there’s a positive in putting the whole thing to rest. This game is very resilient. There will be a time when people will say there was an issue and they dealt with it.”

Had he been asked to speak to George Mitchell, whose report on his investigation into use of performance-enhancing substances was only a couple of months from publication?

“No, I haven’t,” Piazza said. “I don’t know what the process would be. I’m sure the process will run its course.”

Piazza did not play another season. He played in three more games, the Athletics’ final three games of the season against the Angels, and retired. His back is presumably clear in retirement.

But it was Piazza’s back that undermined Sherman’s column. Sherman never asked Piazza about his acne, at least not that he made known in the column. He had raised the subject of steroids, but he didn’t ask about steroids-induced acne. What a letdown. What a disappointment. I didn’t send an e-mail.

 

(photo of Piazza and Lasorda courtesy of Dan Cichalski)

 

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