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'Long Shot' illustrates Piazza's desire to prove himself

'Long Shot' illustrates Piazza's desire to prove himself

'Long Shot' illustrates Piazza's desire to prove himself

Here's what outsiders saw: Mike Piazza hit more home runs than any catcher in baseball history. He batted .308 for a career during which he made the All-Star team 12 times, won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and finished in the top three of the NL Most Valuable Player Award balloting three times. In short, Piazza was one of the best catchers in history.

Here's what Piazza saw: a world that questioned whether he was good enough from the first time he picked up a bat until this very day. "I've been the object of so much controversy, resentment, skepticism, scrutiny, rumor and doubt," he writes.

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It's that conflict that provides the backbone for this unusually candid book. "Long Shot" by Piazza with Lonnie Wheeler, provides an unvarnished glimpse behind the cardboard-cutout image that most fans have of baseball stars.

Piazza makes a convincing case that he used a burning desire to prove the world wrong as his motivation to excel. In the process, he seems to chronicle every perceived insult he ever encountered. Being drafted in the 62nd round by the Dodgers. The fact that he wasn't immediately offered a contract because it was seen as a courtesy pick, a favor to family friend and then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Not being heavily recruited out of high school. Being asked to bunt with two strikes in the Minors. Missing out on the MVP when he thought he deserved it. Shots at the media, including verbatim citations from articles when he believed he wasn't given his due.

All that could have made for a grim read. Instead, it's a fascinating page-turner because Piazza turns the same critical eye on himself as he does on others.

Piazza talks about partying. He talks about dating. He talks about faith. Piazza talks about his privileged upbringing. He faults himself for briefly jumping the Minor League team out of frustration. Piazza admits that he was hurt when the Dodgers traded him, even though he was in a contentious contract negotiation at the time. He frankly says he was miffed more than once when he didn't win the MVP.

Piazza recognizes that his teammates sometimes saw him as selfish. He's the first to say he didn't have the most accurate arm, although he makes a strong argument that he was a better defensive catcher than he's generally given credit for. Piazza allows that for all Lasorda did for him, they aren't as close as they once were because of a comment his former manager said after the deal. In short, he reveals normal human vulnerabilities and insecurities that most players prefer to keep to themselves.

Throughout, Piazza makes it clear that this is just his perspective and that at times it might even be skewed.

"Some might say that the slights were imagined on my part, or at least exaggerated," he writes at one point. "Maybe so. Maybe I needed to feel disrespected because that was what fed the beast inside me."

And that candor ultimately lends authority to Piazza's denial of two rumors that dogged him throughout his career: That he is gay and that he used steroids.

The former Piazza attributes to the fact that he didn't take advantage of every sexual opportunity that presented itself. Girls followed him home. He felt pressure to be the off-the-field player that society seemed to expect, yet it conflicted with his Catholic upbringing. Now married with two children, that no longer seems to be an issue.

The latter leads into a gray area. Piazza states categorically that he never used illegal performance-enhancing substances. He also talks frankly about his use of supplements and how interested he became in muscle-building. Piazza was always on the lookout for the next big thing that would make him bigger and stronger. He looked into human growth hormone -- "Like a lot of players I was trying to sort all this stuff out" -- but backed off when he found out it was considered a controlled substance.

"At the time ... so little was known about supplements and such, and the scene was changing so fast, and baseball's policies were so ambiguous, that players often found themselves on unmarked trails, trying to navigate a hazardous -- but promising -- new frontier ... It could be disorienting," he writes.

Piazza swung hard at the plate and approached this book with the same mindset. And by the end, he's given those outsiders an intriguing inside glimpse at how he views himself.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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