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In praise of Mike Piazza, who was gross, awful, and outstanding

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The Hall of Famer was a player Giants fans loved to hate, which means we have a special bond.

Hey, nice pitch you called there, dummy.
Hey, nice pitch you called there, dummy.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Mike Piazza is in the Hall of Fame before Barry Bonds. I'm not sure when that sentence turned from absurd to realistic. Was it the second BALCO broke? Was it before? After? At some point, though, we could all see that Piazza was going to get in and Bonds wasn't, and everyone just accepted it. We're all so defeated and feckless.

Imagine thinking that in 1992, when Bonds was about to be the MVP again, and Piazza hit his first career home run, against the Giants. We'll let a young Duane Kuiper share his surprise.

Piazza's first two minor-league seasons were very 62nd-roundy. I would imagine a .281 OBP for a 21-year-old in Class-A, with creaky gigantor-man defense behind the plate, made the Dodgers eye him pretty suspiciously, family ties be damned*. He hit much better while repeating the level the next year, then spent his age-23 season demolishing Double-A and Triple-A before getting the call-up that led to the above video. And while I wasn't quite a baseball nerd yet, I know what baseball-nerd me would have thought back then.

Fluke season. High BABIP. Pacific Coast League-inflated stats. Old for his league. Can't even throw or run. Probably will have to move to first, and he won't hit enough there. Mike Marshall without the minor-league track record. Smells funny.

And then that home run would have played on my awesome 1992 TV, and I would have cocked my head like a rottweiler. You can hear it in Kuiper's voice. That swing wasn't supposed to ... I mean, how did he ... that shouldn't happen, right?

It was the perfect introduction to Mike Piazza, who shouldn't have happened, but did. Who shouldn't have been able to hit a ball that hard to the opposite field, but did, over and over again. When he showed up, the Dodgers were a 99-loss team. Then he helped ruin a 103-win Giants season. Then he kept hitting and hitting, and he became a perfect arch-villain for Giants fans.

And I mean perfect. He was a boss level for every pitcher, a consistently terrifying at-bat. He was always a threat to club a ball a million feet at exactly the wrong time. The only reason Brian Johnson is a player we remember is because Roberto Hernandez couldn't sneak 100 mph past Piazza back when 100 mph was even more impressive. His two-run, two-out single was why the Giants had to play 12 innings in the first place.

All that doesn't make him the perfect arch-nemesis, though. He was perfect for his talent, but also because ...

  • The Dodgers didn't win a single postseason game with him on the roster

  • The Dodgers traded him away for Gary Sheffield, who was excellent for them for three-and-a-half years, but never a beloved Dodger

  • Piazza is still mad the Dodgers and is going into the Hall of Fame as a Met

Because what is an arch-nemesis in your story? It's not someone who wins and breaks your heart. It's Ivan Drago, who looks unbeatable, then falls, and holds up the actual hero's hand to say, "Okay, okay, you got me. And also, I agree with you, these people around me are probably the bad guys, lol."

Imagine a post-Rocky IV world, in which boxing pundits were asked to recall Drago. One of the best ever. Just a marvel. Never won the big one, but goodness, was he scary to watch. He got to be the villain, but one whose raw talent was easier to appreciate in retrospect because he never triumphed completely.

I guess this makes the Salomon Torres/Dave Burba game analogous to Apollo Creed. I'll allow it.

Years after Piazza left the Dodgers, everyone assumed he was retroactively dirty and on performance-enhancing drugs. Most of the reasons were unfair (he was a low-round draft pick, he came out of nowhere, he had acne) and one of them was justified (he was a baseball player in the late-'90s and early-'00s). And while his answer on Wednesday about PEDs was kind of cryptic and fascinating, I don't understand how this is supposed to open up the door for Barry Bonds, considering one guy had Game of Shadows written about him and the other guy had The Murray Chass Compendium of Back-Zit Anecdotes written about him. There's still a big difference.

Just focus on Piazza, the baseball player, the enemy, not as someone who relates to Bonds in any fashion. Don't overthink it just yet. Piazza's Hall of Fame induction means he was a baseball player good enough to get into the Hall of Fame.

And he was a baseball player who could do this.

That video makes me laugh. Over and over again, it makes me laugh. That's as hard as a right-handed human being can hit a baseball to right field, except I'm sure he had a dozen he hit harder. Now that he's retired and gone and hates the Dodgers, I can appreciate it so much more.

He was a good villain. Maybe the best villain. He helped the Dodgers succeed, but not nearly enough, and then he made them sad. That is a good career arc for a villain. And even though he was gross and awful, Mike Piazza was certainly one heckuva baseball player, and I'm glad he's in the Hall of Fame.

Now put Barry Bonds in there, you dummies.

* Which they are.