2017-07-27
Mike Piazza
After starting his career as the 1,390th player chosen in baseball's 1988 amateur draft, Mike Piazza has gone on to defy expectations and become one of the top major-league catchers of all time. Piazza won the 1993 Rookie of the Year Award, has been chosen for a dozen All-Star games, and holds the record for most home runs by a catcher. Piazza is also a devoted Catholic and appears in the documentary "Champions of Faith," which profiles Christian baseball players. Currently playing for the Oakland A's, Piazza spoke with Beliefnet about forgiving his opponents, praying (or not) for home-runs, and passing judgment on baseball's steroids scandal.

Listen to Mike Piazza:
» The Steroid Scandal
» 'Barry Bonds Is the Greatest Player'
» Why He Doesn't Pray for Victory
» Baseball As a Spiritual Sport
» Reciting the Hail Mary

What role does faith play in your career--and your life?

I truly believe my whole professional career has been a blessing from God. And it's been a great gift. I know I worked hard, and you have to apply yourself, but I still feel that you have to have a lot of blessings from above. And anybody who plays this game, you have to be very spiritual, because it's very frustrating at times.

I grew up Roman Catholic. And my mom was very instrumental in guiding me and forming a spiritual foundation for myself. And so it's just something I've always enjoyed practicing. It's something I've always enjoyed being a part of, and something I'm proud of. I'm very proud of my faith.

Why do you say that you have to be spiritual to play the game?

Baseball Is a Spiritual Sport
Because it's a game based on failure. It is a slice of life, so to speak, that life is adversity, and how you deal with adversity. And baseball, if you fail seven out of 10 times, you're a success. It's probably not the same numbers in life. But I still feel that in life it's not so much [about] the good times. It's what you find out about yourself during the bad times. Because when the times are going well, or things are going well, everyone's on their best behavior. And it's easy to be good. But when you go through adversity, when a couple goes through frustrations, or they go through a bankruptcy, or they have bills--all these things, you see a person's true colors. And you see a person's true grace under fire, so to speak.

As a player, you have to believe. I have to believe every day that when I get in that batter's box, good things are going to happen. I can't go up there thinking, "Oh, I'm going to strike out. Or, I'm going to hit into a double play." Or even if I'm 0 for 20, I believe that 21st time I'm going to get that hit. And that's the way I think we have to be in life, to realize that we are going to go through a tremendous amount of test and adversity and frustration.

We want to try to get closer to God. We want to try to be like Jesus. We always want to try to get on that horse and do the right thing, and be positive. And be positive not just for yourself but for other people.

I was a last round draft pick. Nobody wanted me. I could count the amount of scouts that told me to go school, to forget baseball. Coaches [said], "You know what, you're never going to make it." And I appreciated their honesty, because I think when someone tells you something you don't want to hear, you may not like it at the time, but you have to appreciate their honesty and use that as fuel for motivation. And that's what I did.

As a person of faith, what is your perspective on the steroid scandal in baseball?

Talking About the Steroid Scandal
There is a lot of swirling and a lot of innuendo, a lot of rumor, a lot of hearsay. And, I think, to get back to balance on a larger issue, Major League Baseball has sort of admitted and sort of acknowledged that there could have been abuse by some players in the past.

It's kind of like going back and reinvestigating the Kennedy assassination. It's impossible to really put a finger on where it derailed and where it went wrong. And I think that everybody, in a sense, was realizing that someone--the people and the higher ups--were looking the other way. And some of the players didn't really acknowledge that it was so much of a bad stigma. And so, I think that just the fact of not dealing with it at the time was probably the biggest issue that I see at fault. But I think now people--and especially in Major League Baseball--they've acknowledged it and we have very strict testing now. They were just testing the other day.

Is it a perfect system? No. But I do believe that they did acknowledge that it was an issue, and that we had to set a positive example for kids to realize that this is not the right way to try to become a better athlete.

And I think baseball's always been under a higher standard than football or other sports, as well. You're never going to make everybody happy on the issue. I think some people want to go back and dig up old bones, and try to form what they feel like is the truth. There's so much subjective information and innuendo and hearsay that I just think that the better thing to do [is] to realize that.

Is it conceivable there was some abuse by players? Sure. But, at the end of the day, now they've made a statement to try to right the wrong, and move on. And I think that the new system is working very well.

And what do you think about the debate over Barry Bond breaking the home run record, whether to list it in the records with an asterisk?

Barry Bonds Is the Greatest Player
I think Barry Bonds is the greatest player I've ever seen. And probably even without the controversy around him, [one of] the top three players in the history of the game. He's got seven MVPs. He had the highest, I think, on-base percentage last year in the National League.

And so, it's tough. People get very wrapped up into the record and what it would stand for and whatnot. There's just so much hype about it, and so much controversy and debate about it. I think it's kind of like with President Bush. He's very controversial now. But the true test, or the judge, of his legacy will be 15, 20 years down the line. It's almost impossible now to really form a true evaluation of the situation, because it's so incendiary. Other things have to settle down until we can really put history in perspective. It's very muddied now. Things have to settle, and then we'll be able to see clear.

Do you find it hard to practice your faith during the season, especially on the road?

It's easy for me not to go to Mass on the road. But I've made a fundamental decision. I'm going to be dedicated. I'm going to make the time. I'm going to get up, if that means getting up at 7:00 on a Sunday morning before a day game and do it, I'm going to do it. And we're fortunate now. The Archdiocese of Oakland has sanctioned Mass at the stadium. So it makes it convenient for us.

There's ongoing debate on our site about whether it's appropriate to pray for little things in life, like finding a parking space. Do you pray for victory in games, or for home runs?

Why He Doesn't Pray for Victory
No, I really don't. I learned a lesson. I read a great book on General George S. Patton Jr., which I thought was really interesting. Here was a vile, blood-and-guts type general who would stop at nothing to get victory on the battlefield. But he was very religious and very devout and prayed every day, and then would swear like nobody's business. And I think that's the ultimate dichotomy, the ultimate paradox. The reason why I bring this up is, someone asked him one time, "Do you pray for victory?" And he says, "No, I don't pray for victory. I pray for the Lord to help me do my best."
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My personal opinion is to keep it broader, to get up in the morning and pray for the Lord's blessings. Pray for the Lord to help me do my best at my job. To pray for health. Pray for guidance. Pray for all these things. And then all the little things kind of slide in.

But I've always found, too, that you have to take a step back in life and reconnect with the simpler things in life. For me, grabbing my wife and my baby, walking down the street and having coffee on the street in San Francisco, and just watching the beautiful things about the city. And just slowing it down a little bit, because we're so high-paced in this country. We don't take the time to just exhale, and breathe a little bit, and reconnect, and say a little prayer at times. I think about God and Jesus Christ and eternity--there isn't an hour that goes by that I don't think about it. And I think that that's something that people can connect with.

Do you have a favorite prayer?

Reciting the Hail Mary
I love the rosary, and I say the Hail Mary a lot. The devotion, especially my devotion to the Holy Mother, is something that's helped me a lot. And I love praying the rosary, so I say my Hail Marys all the time.

Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of death. Amen.

Could you say a little more about what Mary means to you?

The fact that she was just so devoted and so special, that God chose her to bear his son. It's, like, wow. It's really a special thing. I love reading about her, and reading about some of the apparitions, or reported apparitions, throughout history. I wish I had so much grace that I would be privileged to see it. Because I think of the people in the past that have been chosen [to see visions of Mary] have certainly had to be very special to witness that.

Do you have a favorite Bible passage?

One of my favorite passages is the story about the people going to the wedding, and they sat in a high place of honor. And they were told to go down to a lower place. And then the people that sat in a lower place, then they were told to go to a higher place. And it says he who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.

I've always tried to live life that way. It's just, try to be as humble as possible. And to be humble means to live in the truth, as well. I believe St. Augustine said that. So humility is--especially in this day and age in the media--a very forgotten quality. It's almost non-existent. The media doesn't want humble people now. They want dysfunctional, loud, boisterous very obnoxious people. And you're seeing a lot of that.

Speaking of the media, how do you deal with the fact that you're in this position where pretty much every move, professionally and personally, is something that's reported on and dissected and discussed?

It's frustrating at times. There's been times in my career--I don't want to say my star has faded a little bit, but I think I'm obviously on the last third of my career--when it was a little bit more intense for me, [especially] living in New York my first few years there.

Whether you're a movie star or an athlete, you have to understand that you are a role model. You just are, by default. And when you seek out this career, whether that is on the screen or in sports, it's almost impossible for me to comprehend when someone's like, "Well, I just wanted to play ball. I didn't want everything else that comes along with it." Because all these other things do come along with it.

You've had to deal with instances where all sorts of rumors about your personal life were circulated in the media.

It was weird. I looked at it like a test of my faith, so to speak. Obviously it wasn't self-inflicted. But I just dealt with it as best I could and tried to be sort of kind and not lash out. I always say your first reaction is the wrong one. You're going to go through the spectrum. You're going to get mad and frustrated. And the media want to capture that reaction, not the one of logic and reason and calmness. So you have to go through that spectrum of emotions and then come to balance in the middle. And that's what I did.

But on a larger lesson, too, you have to worry about things in your control, and not worry about things out of your control. So, I think, so many people in this day and age worry about what people think, worry about what people are saying about them, worry about things that they just can't control. You have to take care of your own garden, take care of your own self, manage yourself. And that will allow you to be better to other people.

In a profession like yours, which is based on intense competition, do you ever feel a need to forgive the other team?

I always say, when I get between the lines [on the field], this switch goes on in my head and I turn into this very intense soldier, warrior, whatever you want to call it. And that's what allowed me to thrive on the field and do my job.

And as far as forgiveness, it does get intense. And there are people sometimes that try to hurt you or physically try to do things to you which aren't really sportsmanlike. Forgiving someone is very difficult at times because you take things very personally, and you realize that it's your career. And if someone tries to go out of their way to harm you, or make you look bad in a job, it's very difficult to forgive them.

But it's what The Book says. You pray for your enemies and you forgive your enemies--it ticks them off that much more. They want to drag you down into the hole. They want to get you into a catfight. And, for me, you do them that much more frustration when you just stay above it.

Is there any pressure among major leaguers not to express one's faith?

Not so much in athletics. But, in society today, I think that there is an assault on faith. I think that there is an assault on people who are proud of their faith. And secular progressive people are a little bit more empowered as well. It's easy to pick on Christians, so to speak, in this day and age.

At least growing up for me, I'm realizing that we are imperfect. But, the thing is, that that doesn't mean that we shouldn't suffer from guilt and suffer from shame. The assault is that that these people don't want to feel guilty about things, and they don't like institutions to tell them that they should feel guilty about something.

When I was a kid, when I did something wrong, my mom would say, "You should be ashamed of yourself." And now, people are like, "No, you should never tell kids they should be ashamed."

It's frustrating to me when I hear these people who just don't want to feel guilt. I think that that's a really dangerous thing. And I think it's why now we as people of faith have to keep getting out there, saying no, that this isn't right. We have a fundamental belief of what is right and what is wrong. You are personally responsible for your actions.

You acknowledged earlier that you're in the "last third of your career." What's next for you, after being an active player?

That's a good question. It's something we all have to face one day, especially in baseball. You can't play forever. And I don't know. I’m praying about it right now, actually. That's where prayer comes in. I pray a path that I'll able to help people. I'd love to help people and do some motivational speaking. I've dabbled in broadcasting. I don't know if that's in my future. I'd love to get back to the game and help kids with hitting. I'm just going to enjoy my family for a couple years, enjoy raising my daughter and getting her into a good Catholic school. [Laughs.] Just kidding.

What inspires you to keep going?

It just comes from within. I was blessed with a tremendous amount of focus and discipline. I read a great quote that said if you seek freedom, you will become captive of your desires. And if you seek discipline, you will find your liberty. We are better when we have a goal, when we have something to work for. Sigmund Freud said that man has two desires, to work and to love. And that's in its simplest form.

That's what I try to tell people. I'm like, "You can do it. You can pick yourself up. You can find a skill. You can go to school. There are people that want to help you. There is resources out there. But, you have to seek it out. And you only get out of something what you put into it."

And that's a key that I've learned in my career. I realized I had to put much more effort than the guy who was the first round draft pick. And obviously, it came back for me, so I'm a lesson that people can learn from, realizing that you can do anything if you put your mind to it, and focus and dedicate yourself.
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