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Mike Piazza was terrifying and the Dodgers should have kept him

The Dodgers don't have a legacy of letting their franchise players get away. Mike Piazza's Hall of Fame plaque will remind us of the most famous example.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

In 1993, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games and missed the postseason. Unless the wild card system is eliminated in the future, that will be the last time in baseball history something like that happens. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Here’s how their season ended:

Mike Piazza was a rookie, and Giants fans immediately knew he was going to be a villain for a long, long time. Maybe it was the look — the undercover-detective-trying-to-fit-in-at-West-Beverly chic — that tipped us off. Maybe it was the personal ties to Tommy Lasorda, just as the jade runestones foretold.

For me? It was that opposite-field swing. Look at those two home runs again.

Piazza stood off the plate, daring pitchers to throw him pitches on the outer half. Because for 100 years or so, if a hitter even made contact with a pitch that far away from where he sets up, it will just be a harmless fly ball. It took a season for him to rewrite a scouting report that was encoded in the double helix of baseball.

He was a rookie who let the ball get deep like no rookie I’ve ever seen before or since, a hitter confident he could go the other way and put it out of any ballpark. And he happened to play the position where teams were supposed to have the hardest time finding a legitimate hitter. He was 24, and he was just about the best head start to any roster in baseball.

Four-and-a-half years later, the Los Angeles Dodgers traded him to the Florida Marlins. I’m not going to say it was the happiest day of my life, but I will point out that I timed my wedding to be on the same date, just so I would never forget my anniversary.

He wasn’t traded for magic beans. He was traded for another 29-year-old superstar, Gary Sheffield, who also kept me up at night. The Dodgers were finishing in second and third place with Piazza, and they’d continue to finish in second and third place with Sheffield. It didn’t matter to me. All I could think, over and over again, was that Piazza was gone. Piazza was off the Dodgers. There wouldn’t be that sinking feeling when watching a Giants pitcher go to a three-ball count to a batter with Piazza on deck. He was gone.

That was the irrational thought process of a fan, though. I want to explore the trade from a rational perspective almost two decades later. Let’s look at this dispassionately and see what the Dodgers were thinking.

Piazza was going to be a free agent after the season, and the negotiations were public and ugly. He was looking for Jeff Samardzija money, for crying out loud, why wouldn’t they be ugly? He had finished second for the MVP the year before after hitting .362 with 40 homers. Again, that’s a catcher doing that, and in retrospect, it turns out that all of the concern-trolling about his defense was misplaced. He was an excellent player with a unique, unfathomable skill set, and he wanted to be paid as such.

The Dodgers were bought by Fox a few months before, and their plan had to involve keeping the franchise icon around. A media conglomerate doesn’t buy a chunk of entertainment just to make it less appealing to the people already consuming it. Still, they didn’t want to set any records with Piazza’s extension, and the court of public opinion always turns against the millionaires wanting more millions, if only because billionaires wanting to save millions will always be more palatable, for some reason.

Hey Mike, Zip It!

An actual headline. There was an honest chance that the Dodgers were going to watch their star player walk away. The new owners couldn’t abide by that. They bought a team that was furnished with a popular superstar to show on TV. They needed to keep one of those around, but there was a chance it wasn’t going to happen.

So instead of paying a 29-year-old catcher $100 million to play until he was 36, they exchanged him for a 29-year-old superstar who was under contract for four more seasons, and the Marlins threw in a Gold Glove All-Star catcher, a 35-year-old slugger coming off a solid year and a pinch-hitting specialist just to get rid of the contracts.

It ... it was a brilliant deal, at least from a tactical standpoint. Sheffield was a surly fellow who actually played the outfield like people thought Piazza played catcher, but he was one of the best hitters in baseball, and he would be around for about the same contract the Dodgers were willing to give Piazza. Charles Johnson was a dreadful hitter for the rest of the season, but he sure made sense at the time.

After the season, they traded Johnson for Todd Hundley, who was the Badfinger to Piazza’s Paul McCartney. You could hardly tell the difference for a while!

It was a shrewd, bold shuffling of assets, a diversification of investments that limited the risk. You can see why the new corporate owners loved it.

Flash forward 18 years, and Tommy Lasorda’s godson, the face of the Dodgers, the scariest hitter I’ve ever watched is going into the Hall of Fame as a New York Met. That’s the team with which he won the pennant, where he hit the iconic post-9/11 home run, where he stuck around for eight years to the Dodgers’ six.

The Dodgers traded a popular generational talent, and all they got was this bold new portfolio.

Is the lesson to never make the cold, calculated deals, to always follow your heart and do what the fans want? Nope. Can’t be that. If Piazza aged like catchers usually age, this deal would have looked brilliant almost immediately. Again, it was a smart move. And it’s not like Sheffield didn’t keep hitting — he most certainly did. He helped the Dodgers win roughly as much.

Is the lesson to keep fan favorites at all costs, regardless of how it will affect the roster? Nope. Can’t be that. Ryan Howard isn’t the perfect example, but there isn’t a lot of "Thank goodness he’s a lifelong Phillie. I can’t imagine him in another uniform" goodwill in Philadelphia right now. Maybe there will be in 20 years, but not now.

The lesson is that the Dodgers should have kept this player, this Hall of Famer. This is a lesson that can be learned only with the powers of hindsight. This isn’t an opinion that’s meant to needle Dodgers fans. If I wanted to do that, I’d make a gratuitous Pedro Martinez reference somewhere in the article, and I’m more professional than that. It’s just a note from a Giants fan about the player who terrified me more than any other, the monster in my anxiety closet for years.

Right when I started becoming baseball-obsessed, there was this guy on the Dodgers who could do things I’d never seen before, whose bat control and raw power were historically rare for any hitter, much less a catcher. He was going to be a Dodger forever and ever, because the greatest Dodgers usually were. Instead, he became the problem of Braves and Phillies fans. It was a smart trade by the Dodgers, yet it still turned out to be one of my favorite trades of all-time. That’s a weird sentence to re-read.

Mike Piazza, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, the best hitting catcher in baseball history, is going into the Hall of Fame. His legacy is clear on the baseball field. To me, though, he’s a living argument that it’s not always bad to have a little emotion behind your transactions. And the alternate timeline where the Fox-led Dodgers realized that still scares the absolute bejeepers out of me.