THROWBACK: DODGERS TRADE MIKE PIAZZA

As the 1998 season approached, Mike Piazza was one of the biggest stars in the game and he was coming up on free agency. As the matinee-idol face of the Los Angeles Dodgers who put up unthinkable numbers from the catcher position, it was almost inconceivable that things wouldn’t be worked out in negotiations to keep him a Dodger for the next several lucrative years.

But this contract negotiation turned sour deep in the heart of winter prior to the 1998 season and Piazza imposed a February 15 deadline on the Dodgers. It did nothing to speed up the procedings and it all came apart a few months later.

Piazza was a storybook figure in Dodger history, a 62nd-round draft pick in 1988 who became the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year and settled in as the anchor of the LA offense while playing the hardest defensive position on the field. The story of his draft selection being a favor to family friend Tommy Lasorda was legend, and better yet, it was true.

So then, after the 1997 season, Piazza was a major league baseball superstar and he was coming off of a 40-homer season while his career-high batting average of .362 was excellent for any position player, let alone a catcher. In the world of salary negotiations, Mike Piazza had about as much leverage as any player could have from a numbers standpoint. Throw in the fact that he was a beloved figure in the mega media market of Los Angeles and the coolest guy in the most laid-back metropolis in America, and Piazza was going to break the bank in historical fashion.

While posting all those gaudy numbers in 1997, Mike Piazza made $7M, and as the 1998 season began he was slated to make $8M. As we now know, the Dodgers offered Piazza 6Yrs/$60M and he turned it down. Piazza wanted $105M over 7 years but he never got it from the Dodgers, who dealt him away to the Florida Marlins on May 14, 1998 in a blockbuster trade:

DODGERS GET: Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenriech and Manuel Barrios
MARLINS GET: Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile

Mike Piazza only stayed with the Marlins for about a week before he was shipped off to the only other market bigger than Los Angeles. On May 22 he packed his bags again when he was dealt to the Mets for a 3-player package that included Preston Wilson. The Marlins, fresh off of a World Series title in 1997, were offloading salary, not taking on mega-contracts like Piazza wanted. They were just a bit player in this bigger drama.

This is a really difficult trade to measure on its success or failure for the Dodgers. It was the news of the day when it happened and to everyone who heard about it, the ramifications were going to be huge. But the Dodgers weren’t a juggernaut while they had Piazza and not much changed after he left. Piazza himself did quite well in New York and ended up playing in the 2000 World Series that the Mets lost to the Yankees.

Yet for all of the star power that seemed to be landing in Los Angeles with five straight Rookies of the Year (Piazza, Eric Karros, Raul Modesi, Hideo Nomo, Todd Hollandsworth), the club didn’t enjoy postseason success. No World Series titles or even World Series appearances from Piazza’s rookie year of 1993 to the ugly fallout before the 1998 season. Just two division-series losses in 1995 and 1996 and a lot of disapointment in the Southland. The team was actually seen as underachievers to many, despite the fact that the Atlanta Braves were kingpins of the National League, and all the controversey that was built up in the spring of 1998 actually made Piazza much less popular than he should have been, given his other-worldly performance on the field and his easy-going persona off of it.

It was a perfect storm on May 14, 1998 when the Dodger organization, in ownership transition from the O’Malley family to the Fox corporation, shipped off one of their homegrown stars for a package of players. As one radio talk show host put it that day, “the wicked witch is dead.”

Fair or not, the move had been made. As big as it seemed at the time, none of the franchises involved were impacted in a major way, unless you want to credit Piazza with getting the Mets to the 2000 World Series (where they were swept by the Yankees). Piazza ultimately got his money, just not from the Dodgers. And, collectively, the Dodgers, Marlins and Mets have no World Series titles to show for their bold dealings.

MORE:

Mike Piazza at Baseball-Reference.com
DE-CONSTRUCTING THE PIAZZA TRADE by The Hardball Times
PIAZZA BOOK STORY by Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times