Did Vin Scully really "crush" Mike Piazza in 1998?

Stephen Dunn

Mike Piazza's got a new book out. You knew that.

Mike Piazza's new book has ruffled some feathers. You knew that, too.

What's really got some Los Angelenos' dander up are Piazza's references to sainted broadcaster Vin Scully, who-- Hey, here's good old :

Fifteen years after being traded away in a fit of ignorance by a long-departed Fox official, Piazza has used this anniversary to pick a fight with, of all people, good old Vin Scully. Here's Bill Plaschke in the L.A. Times yesterday:

In his new book, "Long Shot," Piazza blamed Scully for causing Dodgers fans to boo him in his final weeks with the team until he was traded to the Florida Marlins in May 1998. It is these boos, which later rained down upon Piazza when he played for the New York Mets, that have caused him to avoid Dodger Stadium since his retirement five years ago. Last season he even refused the Dodgers' offer of ultimate respect when he declined to return for what would have been his own bobblehead night.

Piazza blames Scully for stirring the fans' ire in a 1998 interview in which the legendary announcer challenges the slugger for giving the Dodgers an ultimatum on stalled contract talks. Piazza had criticized the Dodgers in an opening-day story in The Times, even implying that the contract impasse would affect his play. He is now accusing Scully of turning his words against him.

"The way the whole contract drama looked to them — many of whom were taking their view from Scully — was that, by setting a deadline and insisting on so much money, I was demonstrating a conspicuous lack of loyalty to the ballclub," Piazza wrote of the fans, later adding, "Vin Scully was crushing me."

Just a quick clarification here ... Piazza's critics have explicitly tied the "Vin Scully was crushing me" line to a preseason interview in which Scully asked Piazza about his contract situation. Initially, it was a hazy sort of thing, because that was 15 years ago and who keeps 15-year-old spring-training interviews laying around?

Well, somebody kept it because yesterday the L.A. Times posted the interview. Here's Plaschke's colleague, Steve Dilbeck:

It is true, that dastardly Scully had the temerity to ask Piazza about the contract situation, what with it being only about the biggest story of that 1998 Dodgers spring.

Yet the closest thing to criticism Scully said referred to Piazza’s self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline to get his desired contract extension resolved, saying "ultimatum is a heavy word, you know that’s the kind of thing, if you don’t do this, we bomb you."

Piazza actually gave a solid response to this incredible grilling, which Scully acknowledged with a "well said."

And so the City of Angels turned its back on its favorite catcher. Honest, that’s it. Have a look.

Kind of a few planets away from "Vin Scully was crushing me."

Well, yes. But I will note that a) Scully's characterization of Piazza's "ultimatum" -- Scully's word, not Piazza's -- was more loaded than it needed to be, and b) in Piazza's book, there is no specific connection between that interview and "Vin Scully was crushing me."

After the 1997 season, Piazza and his agent announced that if a new contract wasn't in place by February 15, there would be no more negotiations and he would become a free agent after the following season. Later, they agreed to relax the timeline. But negotiations during spring training didn't go well, and after an Opening Day loss to the Cardinals, Piazza expressed his frustrations to L.A. Times writer Jason Reid. Via Piazza's book, here's some of what he said:

I'm not going to lie and say I'm not concerned about this, that I'm not confused and disappointed by the whole thing, because I am. I'm mad that this has dragged into the season, and that it now has the potential to become a distraction.

How can I not think about this? If they say they have the intent to sign me, then sign me. But if they don't have the intent to sign me, then just let me know. Just let me know, so at least I'll be able to start to think about having a future somewhere else after the season. But what they're doing now, the way this is going, I just don't get it.

Now, you can interpret those words however you like. You can interpret them as the heart-felt feelings of a player who's simply frustrated by management that's not negotiating in good faith. Or you can interpret them as the whinings of a pretty boy who won't accept anything less than exactly what he wants.

At the time, Fred Claire was the Dodgers' general manager, and he's written extensively about Piazza's contract situation (and eventual departure) in his book. One thing that doesn't seem in dispute: the Dodgers' final offer to Piazza would have made him the best-paid player in the majors (probably not for long, but that's how it always works).

Anyway, that was the situation when Piazza made those comments in the Times. Next is where the Vin Scully was crushing me comes in ...

The fans of Los Angeles were beating me up on a daily basis. That wasn't characteristic of them, but my spiel in St. Louis hadn't gone over well with the nine-to-five shift. On top of that, Vin Scully was crushing me, we'd lost our first four games, and by the time we got to Dodger Stadium for the home opener I still hadn't driven in a run.

Was Vin Scully really crushing Piazza? That spring-training interview isn't dispositive. When Piazza says Scully was crushing him, Piazza seems to be referring to Scully's game broadcasts. Now, it's hard to know how Piazza would know that, since of course he was playing during the broadcasts. And on the road, no less, so it's not like he was going home after the games and reviewing everything on his Betamax machine. But if you want to prove that Scully wasn't crushing Piazza -- or maybe making the occasional unflattering comment -- you'll have to get tapes of all the broadcasts in that first week of the season, and parse Scully's every reference to Piazza and his contract situation.

Sounds like a fun project, actually. But it's easier to just say that Piazza's a terrible person for blaming poor Vin Scully for something that probably didn't happen. And yes, my guess is that Piazza's way off base here. Doesn't make him a terrible person. Terribly impolite, probably.

According to Claire, the Dodgers' final offer was for six years and $81 million, with an average annual value of $13.5 million. Piazza's agent countered with their final offer: seven years and $105 million, $15 million AAV. Not that far apart, really. But in mid-May, the Dodgers' new management team traded Piazza to the Marlins without consulting Claire (who was fired a month later). Shortly after trading for Piazza, the Marlins traded him to the Mets. After the season, Piazza signed a new contract with the Mets: seven years, $91 million, $13 million AAV.

When Piazza's agent called to tell him the Mets were offering $91 million, he said, "You think you can get ninety-three?"

His agent didn't get ninety-three, but he got a hotel suite for road trips and box seats at Shea Stadium. Done. But Piazza seems to have never really gotten over 1998. Here's how he closes that chapter:

Meanwhile, two days after the Mets announced my contract, they announced Al Leiter's. Then they signed Robin Ventura. They signed Rickey Henderson. In a three-way deal, they also picked up reliever Armando Benitez from the Orioles and traded away Todd Hundley. To the Dodgers, who had decided they needed a catcher who could hit.

Snap.

None of this is really so terrible. Memoirs are the place for airing old grievances, maybe even settling some old scores. Piazza could have been a lot more polite, especially to Vin Scully. But his book wouldn't have been nearly as interesting. Because in a literary sense, most of what Piazza has to offer is childish egotism (or insecurity; I usually have a hard time telling the difference). As is, the book is actually pretty entertaining. I might have one last entry, on how Piazza somehow became, against all odds, the greatest-hitting catcher in major-league history...

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