Piazza's sophomore jump

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

July 08, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

Last July, when the All-Star train was pulling into Camden Station, Mike Piazza felt a little like the lunch-pail-toting commuter who got onto the wrong car and ended up with the champagne-and-brie passengers.

"I don't think it will be any different this year because I'll still be star-struck. It's such a tremendous honor, and I sort of wonder what I'm doing there," said Piazza, a 1993 National League reserve.

This year, however, Piazza, the Los Angeles Dodgers' 1993 Rookie of the Year catcher, has more than earned his pass into the front car of the All-Stars.

In less than two full seasons behind the plate at Chavez Ravine, Piazza, who will start in the All-Star Game on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, has moved to the front of the line among major-league receivers.

Piazza is on pace to have one of the best all-around seasons for a catcher, but he is working just as hard at remaining humble as he is at posting awe-inspiring numbers.

"I've heard the comparisons and things from the media, but I don't try to dwell on it," Piazza said this week. "Every player has their own comfortable mental approach to the game, and mine is to try to relax and not worry about stats."

Piazza, who last year became the ninth player in baseball history to receive every first-place vote in Rookie of the Year voting, set a major-league single-season record for homers by a rookie catcher, 35.

The homer total was the Dodgers' highest in any year since the franchise relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., for the 1958 season.

"That's pretty good because Dodger Stadium is not a great place to hit home runs. At night, the ball doesn't carry as well," Piazza said. "To have a record over Steve Garvey and Pedro Guerrero is something special. Until someone breaks that record, I'm going to be very proud of that."

If an expected player strike doesn't disrupt or end the 1994 season, Piazza is on the verge of having a lot more to be proud of.

He is ranked in the Top 10 in the NL in several offensive categories, including batting average, homers, RBIs and hits, and has the year's longest homer, a 483-foot missile into the upper deck at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami last month.

At his current pace, Piazza would finish this year with 37 homers, 139 RBIs, 191 hits and a .323 batting average, numbers that compare favorably with those of Johnny Bench's 1970 season -- perhaps the best by a catcher -- in which he had 45 homers, 148 RBIs, 177 hits and a .293 batting average for the Cincinnati Reds in his third full season.

All of this comes from a player who was taken in the 62nd round of the June 1988 amateur draft as a favor to Piazza's father by Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda and was converted to catcher while rising through the Dodgers' system.

"My attitude is that nobody thought I was going to be here [in the majors] anyway, so I'm not going to worry about expectations," Piazza said. "You have to have the physical tools, but this game is very tough mentally and I try to fit in and blend in and not put too much pressure on myself."

That approach extends to defense, where Piazza, who has nine errors, is improving, and in the clubhouse, where, because of his numbers, he has assumed some leadership duties, even in the presence of such proven veterans as Brett Butler, Orel Hershiser and Tim Wallach.

"The most important thing for me is to lead by example. I still have a few years to put in before I'm a leader," said Piazza. "I owe them [the veterans] a tremendous amount for not allowing me to get too down or too high and continually reminding me that I have a job to do."

Sounds like a guy who plans to ride in the front of the train for a long time.

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