NEW YORK (CBSMiami/AP) — You never know where a specific path will lead you.
If it weren’t for family ties, Mike Piazza’s final stop in baseball might have been Miami-Dade College.
That’s awfully far from Cooperstown — not only on a map.
Piazza was elected to the Hall of Fame on Wednesday, powering past steroids suspicions in his fourth year on the ballot to complete an improbable journey that propelled him from amateur afterthought to the greatest hitting catcher the game has ever seen.
“It’s just been an amazing run for me,” Piazza said on a conference call. “What an amazing life that I’ve had in baseball and the memories to me, I just almost can’t capture.”
Piazza was picked by 365 out of 440 voters (83 percent) from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, comfortably eclipsing the 75 percent needed for induction. The lone holdover selected, he’ll join Ken Griffey Jr. when the class of 2016 is enshrined on July 24.
“Tremendous honor,” Piazza said. “It’s just overwhelming.”
A prodigious slugger on both coasts, Piazza belted most of his 427 home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets during a prolific, 16-year career that nearly never took flight.
Famously drafted in the 62nd round as a favor to his father’s close friend, Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, Piazza took a mighty rip at those drastically long odds and knocked them over the fence.
He converted from first base to catcher as a pro and blossomed into one of the game’s most fearsome hitters, setting the big league record for home runs by a backstop (396) and compiling a .545 slugging percentage that ranks 28th all-time.
“Congratulations to Mike, an outstanding ballplayer and a great man,” Lasorda said in a statement released by the Dodgers. “I couldn’t be prouder of him.”
In an era when offense ruled, few batters (if any) hit the ball as hard as Piazza, the incredible hulk of the National League who clubbed opposing pitches with brute force to all fields.
And on a day when Griffey became the first No. 1 overall pick to make the Hall of Fame since the amateur draft began in 1965, Piazza established a polar-opposite mark that may never be approached.
Until now, the lowest draft pick in the Hall was pitcher John Smoltz, selected on the 22nd round in 1985 and enshrined just last year.
Piazza was the 1,390th player chosen in 1988, long before the draft was shortened to its current length of 40 rounds. Now, he’s one of 17 catchers in Cooperstown.
“It crystalizes how special this game is, in a sense,” Piazza said. “That you can have two guys go into the Hall such as Ken Griffey Jr. and myself, from opposite ends of the spectrum. You know, there’s so many opportunities in this game that you can sort of find a role and be an underdog.”
Piazza’s unexpected rise to stardom, however, proved at first a blessing and later a curse.
During a time when some of baseball’s biggest stars were linked to performance-enhancing drugs — power hitters in particular — doubters looked at Piazza’s brawny frame and questioned how a guy who initially languished so far off the radar for scouts could ascend to such heights against elite competition.
There were no direct allegations or federal investigations, unlike Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Just whispers about pimples on Piazza’s broad back.
Years after he retired following the 2007 season, Piazza wrote a memoir entitled “Long Shot” and in it said he never took illegal steroids. He did acknowledge using androstenedione, amphetamines, Creatine, ephedra and a type of asthma medicine that made him more alert and focused.
Some of those substances were allowed at the time but later banned by Major League Baseball.
In his first appearance on a crowded Hall of Fame ballot, Piazza received 57.8 percent of the vote in 2013. With his career numbers at the plate — simply astounding for a catcher, regardless of his weak arm — seemingly more than good enough for induction, many observers naturally figured those PED suspicions were keeping Piazza out.
“It was nail-biting at times,” Piazza said, pointing out that even Yogi Berra and Joe DiMaggio were not immediately elected. “All the emotions came into it every year, but again, knowing the history of the game and how many great players throughout this game had to wait a year, sometimes many years, it keeps it in perspective. So for me, that was something that I was able to sort of draw from to just keep patience and just keep optimistic.”
Piazza’s total increased to 62.2 percent in 2014 and 69.9 percent last year, when he fell only 28 votes short. And this time, it was Piazza’s turn — after writers elected seven players ahead of him over the past two years, and the Hall’s board of directors culled about 100 no-longer-active BBWAA members from the voting body.
“We are really thrilled that Mike Piazza has taken his rightful place among the other greats in Cooperstown,” Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon said in a statement.
A 12-time All-Star who also played for the Marlins, Padres and Athletics, Piazza became the first catcher elected by the BBWAA since Gary Carter, another ex-Met, in 2003.
“Congrats to Mike Piazza! I love to have another catcher on board!” Hall of Fame backstop Johnny Bench tweeted.
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