In 1968, I was the manager of the Ogden Dodgers in the Pioneer League. I remember receiving the great news that my good friend, Vince Piazza, and his wife, had just had another baby boy, Michael. Vince is like a brother to me, so when his family celebrated, so did mine.
As Godfather to Michael’s brother, I treated him like he was another one of my godsons.
I used to bounce him on my knee when he was a baby.
From the time he was 10 years old to the time he went away to play baseball at the University of Miami, he would be my bat boy when we would play the Phillies.
I got him into Miami, but as a freshman he didn’t play much and wanted to go somewhere that he would play every day. I called my good friend and fellow coach Demi Mainieri, who at the time was the head coach at Mimi Dade College. I asked Demi if I sent Michael to his college, would he play every day. Demi agreed that he would, so Michael transferred. I was happy to help him go somewhere that he could develop his skills.
In June of 1988, as we were making our playoff push, I got the Dodgers to draft Michael. We drafted him in the 62nd round, which meant there were 1,026 players taken ahead of him.
After being drafted, Michael didn’t hear anything from the Dodgers, and Vince called me to see what was going on. I had him fly Michael out to LA to work out for our scouts.
After putting on a hitting display, they wanted to get his schedule and go see him play.
“You want to go see a kid play who you drafted in the 62nd round?”
“Would you sign him if he was a short stop?” I asked.
“Well would you sign him if he was a catcher?”
“Sure, but he’s a first baseman.”
“Sign him,” I told them. “He is now a catcher.”
They signed Michael, and we immediately sent him to Campo Las Palmas, our baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. Ralph Avila, who founded and ran Campo, took him under his wing. Michael was the first American player to go to the DR and live and workout there.
He didn’t know a word of Spanish, and the players he lived and worked with didn’t know a word of English. But they had the common goal of making it to Dodger Stadium.
He would work out all day at the academy, and at night he would go warm up pitchers for the Licey club.
He would take hours and hours and hours of batting practice.
Through endless hours of hard work and determination, Michael made it off the island, all the way to Los Angeles. And when he did he made an immediate impact.
He never stopped believing in himself, and never lost sight of his goal.
Now he is calling it a career and hanging them up. There’s a locker in Cooperstown waiting for him. He has more career home runs than any catcher in the history of baseball.
I was proud of him when he was my bat boy. I was proud of him when he played college baseball. I was proud of him when he was drafted. I was proud of him when he went to the Dominican. I was proud of him when he became a Dodger. I was proud of him when he won the Rookie of the Year. I was proud to see him play in the World Series. I was proud when he became the all-time leading catcher in home runs and that he finished with a batting average over .300. I was proud to see him get married and have a daughter. I am proud that he was a 12-time All-Star, and I am proud to say that one day he will be in the Hall of Fame.
But what I am most proud of is his heart, and his determination. What he has accomplished is the perfect example of what someone can attain if they believe in themselves.
I love you, Michael.