Piazza was gem of '88 Draft
Catcher was proof that talent can be found in late rounds
Mike Piazza's retirement announcement last week was a reminder that a diamond in the rough can be found in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft. No one selected as deep in the Draft as Piazza was in 1988 went on to have such a glorious career.
That was an Olympic year, and many of the players were familiar names. Not Piazza, however. His selection by the Dodgers was done primarily as a favor to manager Tommy Lasorda, a native of Norristown, Pa., where he became friends with Piazza's father, Vince.
"There were only five clubs that scouted Mike," Lasorda recalled, "and they all said he couldn't play."
The Dodgers hardly wasted a pick on Piazza, who was still available as late as the 62nd round. Then a first baseman out of Miami-Dade Community College, Piazza was the 1,390th pick of that year's Draft. Only 43 players were taken after him.
Realizing how long the road to the Majors would be, Piazza made the decision to switch to catching and began working behind the plate that year in the Winter Leagues. Four years later, he arrived in Los Angeles and got into 21 games. Succeeding Mike Scioscia, now manager of the Angels, as the Dodgers' regular catcher in 1993, Piazza was the National League Rookie of the Year, beginning a glittering career that could very well earn him a place in the Hall of Fame five years from now.
The player nobody wanted batted .308 over 16 seasons with 427 home runs, including a record 396 as a catcher, and 1,335 RBIs. Piazza twice was runner-up for the Most Valuable Player Award with the Dodgers and finished third in the MVP voting in 2000 when he helped the Mets reach the World Series.
One of the issues of the 1988 Draft was when University of Michigan pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand, would be drafted. Scouts had high praise for the left-hander and even commended his hitting ability, but there was still a risk involved with taking a player with such a physical condition. The Angels gambled and took him in the first round with the eighth overall pick.
Abbott pitched for the U.S. Olympics team later that summer at Seoul and joined the Angels in 1989. His best year for them was 1991 when he was 18-11. Abbott went on to win 87 games in his 10 seasons, including a no-hitter for the Yankees in 1993 against the Indians.
Another pitcher, right-hander Andy Benes from the University of Evansville, had been expected to be the top pick of that year's Draft, and he was, by the Padres. He went on to a 155-139 career over 14 seasons.
The Indians had the second pick and chose shortstop Mark Lewis, a high school shortstop from Hamilton, Ohio, who played 11 years in the Majors. Picking third, the Braves selected lefthander Steve Avery from Taylor, Mich., who twice won 18 games for Atlanta. The Orioles used the fourth pick to take right-hander Gregg Olson, who would win the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1989.
Oklahoma State third baseman Robin Ventura, who set an NCAA record with a 58-game hitting streak and was the winner of the Golden Spikes Award, was the 10th overall selection, by the White Sox. The Mariners made University of Tampa first baseman Tino Martinez the 14th pick in the first round.
Other future prominent Major Leaguers drafted in the opening round were pitchers Charles Nagy (Indians) and Alex Fernandez (Brewers), shortstops Royce Clayton (Giants) and Ricky Gutierrez (Orioles), first baseman Rico Brogna (Tigers), third baseman-catcher Ed Sprague (Rangers) and outfielder Brian Jordan (Cardinals).
Jordan, who was also a defensive back with the NFL Atlanta Falcons, was one of several football players taken in the 1988 draft. University of Southern California quarterback Rodney Peete was Oakland's 14th-round selection, but he decided on a career in pro football. The Yankees picked Florida State defensive back Deion Sanders in the 30th round. Sanders played both sports professionally and is the only player to have appeared in both the World Series and the Super Bowl.
First baseman Bob Hamelin, who was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1994 with the Royals, was Kansas City's pick in the second round. Also drafted in that round was pitcher Arthur Rhodes, by the Orioles. Third-round selections included pitchers Darren Oliver (Rangers) and David Weathers (Blue Jays) and outfielder Marquis Grissom (Expos).
Another future Rookie of the Year, shortstop Pat Listach, the AL winner in 1992, was chosen in the fifth round by the Brewers. Others taken that round were pitchers Bryce Florie (Padres) and Turk Wendell (Braves) and shortstops Mickey Morandini (Phillies) and John Valentin (Red Sox).
First baseman Eric Karros, who would precede Piazza as a Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers, was drafted by Los Angeles in the sixth round, along with shortstop Gary DiSarcina (Angels) and pitchers Pat Mahomes (Twins), Rheal Cormier (Cardinals) and Greg McMichael (Indians).
Eventual eight-time Gold Glove center fielder Jim Edmonds was the Angels' choice in the seventh round. The next round, the Pirates chose a first baseman from Florida Tech College named Tim Wakefield. In his second season in the Minors, Wakefield developed a knuckleball and switched to pitching, which he is still doing for the Red Sox.
Pete Rose, Jr., son of the career hits leader, was drafted in the 12th round by the Orioles and began an odyssey that has taken him to more than 20 Minor and independent league teams, although he did get a brief shot in the Majors with the Reds in 1997.
Piazza wasn't the only talented player to go in the late rounds. Outfielder Kenny Lofton was a 17th-round pick of the Astros, one of 11 clubs for which he played over 17 seasons while banging out 2,428 hits. Pitcher Woody Williams, who would win 132 games and overcome an aneurysm in his right arm, was selected by the Blue Jays in the 28th round. Going in the 29th round was third baseman Russ Davis (Yankees) and in the 30th round infielder Damion Easley (Angels).
Among the players drafted in 1988, but did not sign and were taken in subsequent Drafts were pitchers Paul Byrd, Aaron Sele, Chad Ogea and Scott Erickson; catcher Mike Matheny, infielder Fernando Vina and outfielder Orlando Palmeiro.
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.