Dodger for life – or not

During a few traumatic days in May 1998, Michael J. Piazza’s the world turned upside down.

After all, he was christened a Dodger.

Tommy Lasorda and Vince PiazzaMike’s father, they both grew up in the working-class Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. The two were best friends and Lasorda was godfather to Vince’s son Tommy, Mike’s younger brother. When Lasorda signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became Vince’s idol.

At 13, when the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, Mike Piazza was their batboy. Years later, after two uneventful years of college baseball, Lasorda begged the Dodgers to call up his best friend’s son.

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They did… in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, after 1,389 players were selected before that. This is impossible today with a twenty lap design.

Fast forward to 1998, when, at age 29, Piazza was becoming the greatest offensive catcher the game had ever known, coming off a .362 season with 40 homers and 124 runs. in 1993 and an All-Star designation in each of his six seasons in Los Angeles.

In May of ’98, Piazza was a year and a half away from free agency. The Dodgers had offered him $80 million over six seasons, which he turned down, seeking a seventh year.

But up in the corporate suite, things were changing that would affect his status.

Fox Entertainment Group purchased the Dodgers from the O’Malley family in September 1997 for $350 million. Fred Clare, the general manager at the time of the sale, told me there were concerns in baseball circles about a television network buying a team. The impact – for Claire, Piazza and the franchise – turned out to be huge.

“I remember the sale well,” said Claire. “Soon after that, Fox, unbeknownst to me, which is unusual, unprecedented and unheard of in Dodgers history, traded Mike Piazza to the Marlins.”

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President Dodgers Bob Graziano he was in the Dominican Republic when he called Claire, who was in his box at Dodger Stadium watching the team’s game.

“He said, ‘Fred, there’s been a deal you’re going to have to announce tonight. We have traded Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the Florida Marlins for several players.” He gave me the names of the players they included Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla.”

“I represent the Los Angeles Dodgers and I represent more than this trade,” said Claire, who, had she known about the deal, would have, in his words, “goed through the roof.”

This started another dramatic move.

Claire told me: “I said to Bob, then there will be two announcements if you tell me this trade needs to be announced. After the trade is announced, I will announce my resignation because you don’t need me. That’s not how a baseball team is run. This is unlike what the Dodgers ever stood for or how they operated and frankly, it is very damaging to the Dodger organization. I remember coming back to my office at Dodger Stadium realizing that my world had changed.”

So did Piazza’s, who had no idea a deal was coming.

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But, wait, wait, there’s more!

Fred Clair got a call from the Dodgers media director telling him he couldn’t announce the trade because Gary Sheffield had a no-trade clause in his contract.

“Of course, Gary Sheffield is on a no-trade contract,” Claire said. “Every general manager in the game knew Gary Sheffield had a no-trade contract. When Bob gave me this information, my case was solved. Well, it wasn’t solved.”

And because it wasn’t resolved, the trade couldn’t be announced.

Neither did Fred Clare’s resignation.

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After the game, Piazza and Zeile were asked to come to the private area outside the coaches’ room, where they were briefed on what was going on. Ironically, Zeile, in the first year of a three-year contract, had made it clear to his agent that he wanted to play at home in Los Angeles.

Everyone in baseball knew the Marlins were a pit stop for Mike Piazza. The club had begun dismantling its roster within ten days of its World Series championship at the behest of ownership.

After Sheffield’s contract was resolved, the deal was finalized. Piazza played five games for the Marlins before being traded to the New York Mets just eight days later.

This is the hat featured on the Hall of Fame plaque.

Fred Clair ultimately did not quit because of the trade, but his 30-year tenure with the Dodgers ended a month later, in June 1998, when he and manager Bill Russell were fired without notice. And to this day, Claire isn’t sure who at Fox Entertainment Group traded Mike Piazza without his knowledge.

What he’s sure of is that no one talked to the Dodgers’ general manager.

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