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Tuesday, February 07, 2006 | Maybe, to you, Mike Piazza in San Diego sounds out of place. He’s a former Los Angeles Dodgers catcher, after all, who routinely came up with dramatic hits to break the Padres’ hearts.
He grew up near Philadelphia. Tommy Lasorda – the Dodgers manager that Padres fans and players alike loved to hate – is his godfather. He was an East Coast guy the last eight years playing for the New York Mets.
Those are a lot of strikes against him here, but Piazza shared a story that connects him to San Diego in the surest way a baseball player can adopt our town.
Shortly after the 37-year-old future Hall-of-Famer put on a Padres jersey and cap and met with the media Monday afternoon at the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum in Balboa Park, the office of my day job, he spoke of a video he treasures of him as a 15-year-old kid learning batting instruction from San Diego baseball icon Ted Williams.
He told the story to Bob Breitbard, the 86-year-old President Emeritus of the Hall of Champions who grew up with Williams in San Diego’s North Park community. Piazza could feel the Splended Splinter’s presence in Breitbard’s office as he held the bat that Williams used to hit .406 in 1941, the last time a Major Leaguer hit .400.
“This is the bat,” Piazza said in wonder, sounding more like a 17-year-old, as he caressed the wood in his hands. “Look at the grain on it.”
But here’s another reason Piazza fits in San Diego: His signing with the Padres as a free agent reminds me of when the Padres inked another big-market Dodgers star, Steve Garvey.
Sure, the Dodgers foolishly traded away Piazza in 1998, but he was always remembered as a Dodger first in San Diego.
When the Padres signed Garvey in 1983, he gave the franchise credibility. A year later Garvey hit his magical home run against the Chicago Cubs en route to their first World Series in 1984.
In 1983, Padres general manager Kevin Towers’ arm hadn’t yet given out on him. He was a pitcher for the Padres’ Beaumont Double A minor league affiliate.
“I remember what (Garvey) did for the organization, having that type of player, and what he meant to the city,” Towers said. “People say (Piazza) is declining, but this guy is a productive Major League player who has tremendous presence. He’s going to make a huge difference in our club.”
Unlike 1983, the Padres have some legitimate history now as the defending National League West champions and champions of the NL West in 1996 and 1998 in addition to the National League pennant in 1998. But the Padres’ lineup lacked pizzazz last year.
Piazza’s stature adds a heaping of pizzazz and intimidation as a right-handed slugger slotted between a pair of left-handed hitters, right fielder Brian Giles and first baseman Ryan Klesko.
Something else that makes Piazza a good fit in San Diego is all those years he was killing the Padres he was admiring the franchise’s makeup. That’s a major reason he decided to sign with the Padres while hoping to finish his career with a title contender.
“The one thing I loved about the winning teams in San Diego – a team that doesn’t have the resources of a bigger city – is they won as a team,” Piazza said. “That’s the way I came up. I like that old-school attitude. I like teams that come together with great chemistry and everybody pulling together. You have to win as a unit.”
Last year Piazza hit .251 with 19 home runs and 62 RBI while limited to 113 games because of a broken hand. It was a down year for Piazza, but his numbers would have led the Padres in home runs. Klesko hit 18 last year to lead San Diego.
Piazza has his 397 career home runs and his 376 as a catcher are the most in Major League history. The Padres are banking on Piazza’s presence and power to make up for his defensive liabilities at throwing out runners.
“The No. 1 thing for me is to stay healthy,” Piazza said. “I was swinging the bat well before I broke my hand last year and I feel I came back swinging the bat well. (Manager) Bruce Bochy will have to monitor what I can do as the season gets into June, July and August. I’ll do whatever I can do, and that’s where Doug Mirabelli or whoever else is catching comes in.”
Piazza said moving from New York to San Diego’s climate should help his health, too.
“He’s played in two larger markets,” Towers said. “But one of our selling points to him is once you get to San Diego, you never want to leave San Diego.”
Tom Shanahan is Voice‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). You can e-mail him at