By Chris Rodell
Glimpsing Mike Piazza's silhouette in the hallway of his posh Philadelphia-area club, the New York Met slugger looks more like a Louisville Slugger: Broad shoulders and a barrel chest taper to thoroughbred legs that fold easily into a catcher's crouch. Given the simple physics of these awesome dimensions, it's only natural that the man would possess a generous sweetspot.
Unlike many of today's professional athletes he's eager to be your kid's role model.
"I kind of like the days when athletes were revered," he says. "I would love to see some of the romance return to sports where people can just enjoy the game purely for the sake of the game and the players. Athletes are special. They should be celebrated."
The Philadelphia native aspires to emulate his local heroes, baseball Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt, Stanley Cup champion Flyers Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent, no-nonsense men who carried themselves like the world champions they were.
Still not sweet enough? He hasn't forgotten about you. He's graciously inviting you to join exclusive Bellewood Golf Club, the 6,825 yard, par 71, course he owns with his father and and family friend Charles Tornetta.
The role model bit is free. Bellewood memberships start at $25,000.The Bellewood property is something Piazza, 35, had admired long before he dreamed he'd own it and would one day be making informed design suggestions to architect Tom Drauschak. "There are a lot of armchair architects around, but Mike's different. He spent a lot of time in the field with us and had some incredibly helpful suggestions."
Drauscak says Piazza suggested elevating the first tee to give big hitters a better view of the hoola hoop-sized landing area, and that the slugger was particularly attentive to preserving more than 3,000 luscious dogwoods dotting the grounds. Piazza vividly recalls childhood memories of his mother, Vernonica, driving him and his four brothers from their nearby Norristown home to Bellewood around Easter to admire the flowering bursts of pink loveliness erupting among the sylvan splendor.
Extravagant amounts of green were the dominant colors in 1998 when the adult Piazza returned to conduct business. He'd just signed for $91 million with the Mets (the contact expires in 2005). It was the same year the property had come up for auction.
"We thought it would be perfect for golf," he says from inside the elegant Georgian clubhouse where he's preparing to shoot a commercial touting the membership advantages of joining Bellewood. He describes his involvement as being like a "hood ornament" on a fancy car. Sure, no one's going shell out $25,000 grand just to meet Mike Piazza but there are sound promotional reasons why Mike, not Vince, Piazza is the face on the Bellewood commercials.
"From the very start, it's been a real interesting experience and very fulfilling," he says. "Owning a golf course hasn't been as easy as people think, but our passion for the game keeps us going. Really, this place sells itself."
The course is a beguiling mix of wetlands, fairway-strangling forrest and a windswept front nine of links-style holes bordered by fescue rough thicker than a circus strongman's beard. A confessed mulligan-binging 12-handicapper, Piazza's only broken 80 here once. Bellewood is the Piazzas' second area golf property, joining Westover Golf Club in nearby Norristown, a playable, forgiving George Fazio public course that also serves headquarters for Piazza Management Co., a long-established business empire that has nothing to do with managing the empire that is Mike Piazza.
The <TK-year-old> company is the corporate parent of Vince's vast real estate and car dealership holdings. Vince Piazza grew up on the same Norristown street as former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, and if not for their close friendship, Piazza, a sure Hall of Famer, might have taken a swing at pro golf. Piazza's coach at Phoenixville High School , Tom Katancik Sr., compares his former player to Davis Love III. "Mike had a big, beautiful swing and could just pound the crap out of the ball," Katancik says. "If he'd devoted the time to golf that he did to baseball, he could have been a great one. His problem was, even then, he was always waving off the bunt sign. He'd go for every green in two even when the reward was small and the risk was great. It usually caught up with him."
Told of his old coach's assessment of his golfing potential, Piazza laughs. "I think I made the right choice," he says. "I loved both sports, but even though I hit the golf ball well I didn't have the right temperament for the game-I was too fiery."
His wasn't a club tossing type of temper. Rather, it was the kind where you could see lava seeping out his ears after a lipped 3-footer. Unlike golf, baseball allows opportunities to unleash volcanic sorts of rages in professionally productive ways, ways Piazza became adept at exploiting.
His career choice seems obvious now, but it took time for Piazza's baseball skills to develop and impress big league scouts. Undrafted out of high school, he was slaving away behind the plate at Florida's unheralded Miami-Dade North Community College when Lasorda, as a favor to his old friend, convinced the Dodgers to select Piazza in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft- the 1,390th player chosen. The skipper looked like a savant five years later when baseball writers voted Piazza National League Rookie of the Year.
He was now young, rich and famous, but there were people Piazza envied-pitchers, who, unlike everyday players, traveled with their golf clubs. "I kept seeing this bag come off the plane. It was [pitcher] Orel Hershiser's. We'd go to Philly and he'd play Pine Valley. We'd go to Pittsburgh and he'd play Oakmont. The man had connections."
Piazza plays precious little golf during the baseball season. No wonder a man who has casually stroked World Series home runs in Yankee Stadium before 60,000 braying hecklers felt Godzilla-sized butterflies before 20 yawning fans at his first celebrity pro-am in the early 1990s at Rancho Park Golf Course in Los Angeles. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing here?' " he says of his first-tee jitters. "I was terrified I'd hit a worm-burner." He did not. He found the fairway and the first faltering steps toward confidence in an intimidating arena. He even out-drove Tiger Woods in another event, "but I chili-dipped the wedge," he adds.
Still, when it comes to dealing with celebrity, unlike Tiger, Piazza needs no mulligans."I feel sorry for Tiger-he's so under the microscope," he says. "When you're successful and thrown into all this hoopla, you have to try and enjoy it. For me, New York's such a big stage I needed to embrace it."
Just who Piazza was embracing became titillating fodder for talk shows in 2002 when a brush fire of rumors began swirling that he was gay. While Woods endures intense media scrutiny, he's never been singed the way Piazza gracefully has. It was Piazza who called a press conference to out himself as a throwback heterosexual who loves babes and Ruths. Bobby Valentine, then Mets manager, told Details magazine that baseball was "probably ready for an openly gay player." The remark led many to speculate that Valentine was referring to his star slugger. A New York City tabloid soon reported that a gay Met "has started to think about declaring his sexual orientation."Indeed, Piazza declared his sexual orientation soon after. "I'm not gay," he told reporters in one of the shortest press conferences ever. "I'm heterosexual. That's pretty much it."
His restrained, almost mirthful affirmation of his heterosexuality have done little to squash the rumors. Tonight Show host Jay Leno opted for a Piazza punchline in a January joke about Cleveland Indian pitcher Kazuhito Tadano's "excuse" for getting caught "acting" in a gay porn video: "He said he was just hoping to meet Mike Piazza!" Leno said.
Guess what? It makes Piazza laugh, too. "I just think it's funny. To me, it's all like one big joke that just got out of control."
For his part, he never took offense at the suggestion, and hints that if he ever does fall for a fella it'll be President George W. Bush, whom he much admires. "I'm very, very proud of this president. He's a man of character and he's done a great job. I'm a huge fan of his. I support him whole-heartedly. Tony Blair, too."
He exhibits a friendly confidence that has helped makes this 10-time all-star catcher an excellent pitcher. Piazza has earned millions endorsing MCI, Hasbro and Callaway Clubs (with friend Charles Howell III).
The gay rumor issue, Piazza complains, underscores a troubling trend: The fixation on personalities and personal lives over on-field exploits. "Athletes are special, and we should be celebrated," he says. "We should be role models."
So, please, keep the focus on the field. Piazza will be remembered as the greatest power hitting catcher of all time. Celebrate him for those achievements and not for the fact that he's dated both Debbie Dunning of "Home Improvement" and Playboy Playmate of the Millennium Darlene Bernola. To put that in baseball-friendly perspective, a typical Playmate of the Year is .0001 percent of the woman Bernola is. And Piazza's dated her.
Talk about your role models.