Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.
Because the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are flailing, stymied, and otherwise a bummer, and because people need to talk about something, the last week has seen some loose talk about the Angels trading Mike Trout. It won't happen, and it shouldn't. Such a deal would be akin to trading Yellowstone National Park for the complete inventory of Dunkin' Donuts; trades are not won on volume, only quality. We got an object lesson in how this works, or doesn't, eighteen years ago this week. In 1998, the Florida Marlins acquired and then quickly traded catcher Mike Piazza to the New York Mets, executing their own version of a Trout trade. They got back just as much of a return as the Angels would be likely to get in dealing Trout—not enough.
Piazza's backstory has been told so often, roughly once for every plate appearance he had, that even now it's a strain to recapitulate it. But, yes: Piazza was a lifelong baseball rat whom the scouts failed to see as a professional. The Los Angeles Dodgers plucked him in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft as a favor to their manager, Tommy Lasorda, a friend of Piazza's father. He was the 1,390th player selected. Five years later, he was voted the National League Rookie of the Year. This year, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Those scouts who dismissed him? No one knows their names.
By 1998, Piazza, in his seventh major league season, had hit .331/.394/.572, made the All-Star team six times, and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting five times. His contract with the Dodgers was up, Lasorda was in retirement, the O'Malley family was selling the team to News Corp—i.e., Rupert Murdoch; i.e., Fox. The franchise was headed for a dark time, but Piazza would not be there for it. On May 14, he was headed across the continent to Miami in one of the strangest deals in the history of baseball.
The Marlins were doing what they always do, regardless of the owner or the year or the stadium or whether their city will be subsumed by the rising oceans in 10 years or 100—they were selling all the way out. The team had won the 1997 World Series on the backs of a cadre of veteran imports, an accomplishment that, had it been left to breathe, might have bound the community to the five-year-old expansion team. Sadly, the Marlins suffer from a kind of corporate psychological affliction—they desire love but cannot give it, nor can they feel its return. Less than a season later, having not drawn seven million fans or been gifted by acclamation a diamond-encrusted, publicly financed ballpark or whatever the hell it was their avarice desired, the team was torched like the leveraged lounge in Goodfellas.
In exchange for Piazza and veteran third baseman Todd Zeile, the Marlins sent Los Angeles outfielders Jim Eisenreich and Gary Sheffield, catcher Charles Johnson, right-hander Manuel Barrios, and not-choosing-a-position-is-a-still-a-choice Bobby Bonilla. Berrios proved to be a nonentity; Bonilla and Eisenreich were at the end and represented cost without upside. Johnson, a 26-year-old Gold Glove catcher, stayed with the Dodgers for the remainder of the season because, with Piazza gone, they needed a way to avoid passed balls.
Only Sheffield was with the Dodgers for more than 15 minutes, and he was terrific, hitting .312/.424/.573 in 526 games. As per park- and league-adjusted OPS, that's about the most productive hitter the Dodgers ever had over any significant length of time, be it in Brooklyn or Los Angeles.
The Dodgers had a future Hall of Famer in Piazza, and they turned him into debt (over $80 million) and a Hall of Fame-level talent in Sheffield. That seems like a victory. It isn't. The net change was a loss for the Dodgers, and not just because they took on a bunch of dead contracts in the deal. The reason is positional scarcity. There are outfielders who hit like Sheffield hit, albeit not many, but catchers just don't hit like Mike Piazza.
Piazza is one of six backstops who had a career of at least 5,000 plate appearances and hit .300. Three of them played in the 1930s, when batting average was cheap. The remaining two, Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez, may ultimately play more games at other positions, have yet to complete the decline phases that could put their .300-hitter badges at risk, and lack Piazza's power. In baseball history, a catcher hitting .360 over a full season largely doesn't happen; Piazza and Mauer are the only ones to do it. Only four catchers other than Piazza have hit 40 home runs in a season. Piazza remains the only one to do both.
It is difficult to replace a Gary Sheffield's bat on a one-for-one basis, but you can find an outfielder who will get you a good part of the way there. It is nearly impossible to do the same for Mike Piazza. Thus, even though Piazza's 1997 and Sheffield's 2000 were basically equivalent offensive seasons, for example, the catcher was worth 8.7 wins above replacement to his team, the outfielder only 6.1.
According to then Dodgers general manager Fred Claire, the Piazza swap was negotiated by Fox television executives without his knowledge. Their intention was not to improve the Dodgers but to incentivize Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga to sell Fox a Florida regional sports network he owned. As Claire later pointed out, there was nothing typical about the trade. It happened in May, not at the trading deadline. Piazza didn't go to a contender but to a team bent on losing 100 games. It wasn't about baseball.
Now it was Marlins GM Dave Dombrowski's turn to play pass the Piazza, and to make a deal that would spark the Marlins' rebuild. Mets owner Fred Wilpon had publicly denied interest in Piazza, and GM Steve Phillips had cracked, "I'd have the best platoon catching tandem in the history of baseball,'' with both Piazza and Hundley, "but I don't see a fit for us."
Nevertheless, on May 22, Piazza was headed to Shea Stadium.
"This town is ready and waiting for Mike,'' Wilpon said, as if the whole thing was his idea. Piazza just sounded tired: "I have gone from a player who thought he would spend his whole career with one organization to a player who's been with three organizations in a week," he said. "I'll be with three teams in a week. Isn't that bizarre? It's like rotisserie baseball."
It was speculated that intense pressure from WFAN talking heads might have caused the change of plans. If so, good for WFAN for once: Piazza cost the Mets only three players, none of them close to Piazza in talent or impact. Geoff Goetz, the team's 1997 first-round pick, was an undersized lefty considered to have been an overdraft at sixth overall; he never made the majors. Ed Yarnall, another left-hander, had a fastball that sat at only 89-91 mph, but was a good-looking prospect for all that. He never established himself in the majors and ended up a literal journeyman, pitching everywhere from Japan to Mexico to that most mysterious of foreign lands, Long Island.
The last piece in the trade, Mookie Wilson's stepson Preston, did have a 1,100-game career in the majors, but his severe limitations made him a player of minimal value. He had power but struggled to get on base or make contact, and though his speed suggested a posting in center field, he played, as Baseball Prospectus wrote in 2005, "visible but ineffective defense." He was worth about six wins above replacement in nearly 600 games as a Marlin. Piazza was worth nearly that much in the remainder of 1998 alone. Had it existed at the time, the Belle & Sebastian song about Piazza would have given the Marlins more value in a trade than any player they actually received.
In writing about the Hall of Fame, Bill James spoke of the Babe Ruth– or Ted Williams–level players as an "inner-circle" of pluperfect immortals. Baseball writers liked to carp about Piazza's defense and his back acne, but as the best-hitting catcher of all time he was headed for the pantheon. The break-even point in trading such a player is so high that a team could lose the trade even if the return is a 29-year-old MVP-level hitter in his prime like Sheffield.
This is the paradox of trading Mike Piazza, Mike Trout, or any other Hall of Fame-quality player, named Mike or not: if you trade a demigod, you want to get equivalent value in return, but since by definition almost no one is as good, you can't. Real teams, serious teams, acquire players like Piazza and hold. The Mets got a World Series out of their deal. That's this story's only moral.