When you think of Mike Piazza, you think of the all-time home run champion for Major League Baseball catchers, hitting 400! You think playboy, because of his good looks and success. You think of a 12-time all-star during a career that is likely to end up getting him into the Hall of Fame. You don’t necessarily think of a family man and a guy that’s hip on car dealerships.
All right Mike, let’s start with the very beginning. What was your first car?
I believe it was a, yes, it was a ’72 Nova. It was kind of neat. It had the air shocks in the back with the air hose. It was red. My father was in the car business so we always had a plethora of cars. I even had an IROC Z.
What motor did you have in the IROC Z?
I don’t even remember. I think it was the larger motor. The sport with t-tops and stuff. That was standard issue in high school for me. What else did we have? We had a bunch of stuff. Like I said, the good thing about being in the car business was that you get so many trade-ins. I mean, my first job was when I was 12 years old, washing cars down at my dad’s car lot. So I was driving around the parking lot when I was 14. I’ve always loved cars and it is such a big part of my family history.
Your dad’s dealership, was it a used car dealership or was it a franchise?
My dad started with used cars and then he was one of the first Datsun dealers in this country in 1968,1 believe, which is now Nissan. Then he eventually went into Honda. He got a Honda franchise, and the gas crunch hit in the ’70s. They did really well for him, especially in the last year or two, as there’s been a big push for hybrids because of the gas prices. Remember, back in the ’70s, there was a gas crunch and people were lining up for gas? Do you know what I’m talking about?
Mike, I was not pumping gas in the ’70s, so I do not remember that!
There was this gas crunch in the ’70s and people were waiting for gas. I don’t know if it was OPEC or what.
Each station had a certain allotment of gas per week and when they sold out, they were done. So, the point is, there was a rush on Hondas. They were selling hundreds and hundreds of Hondas a month based on what was going on with gasoline.
Cars are cool.
No, they are very cool. It’s a part of Americana. Like the way horses were in the 1800s and horseless carriages were in the 1900s. There’s something about America and its vastness and the freedom it offers, you know.
People love to drive with the top down. It gives them a sense of freedom, it’s what the United States is, whereas, in Europe, the towns are laid out in a communal sense. You have the plaza orthe piazza and the church.
You could walk to church or walk to breakfast or walk to coffee. This country is a little more based on the automobile. I’m going off on a weird tangent here.
That’s okay (ALL LAUGH). You mentioned you were driving at 14. How old were you when you got your driver’s license?
Why were you 17 and not 16?
Because my dad wouldn’t let me drive. He thought if I drove at 16, that I wouldn’t be as focused on baseball.
Yeah. I think it goes back to what I was saying. You’re rebellious at that time. I think if I got my license at 16,1 would have been too worried about cruising for girls instead of baseball.
That’s what we all did at 16.
Yeah, but I remember him telling me,’If you get to the Major Leagues, you’ll have all the cars you want and all the girls you want but you have to get to the Major Leagues first’ I remember him saying those words, so, again, I have to thank him for that.
Your dad was very insightful and correct regarding his beliefs in your future career.
He was right, so maybe, again, I have to thank him. In his defense, too, I was a very aloof, free-spirited kid. It all worked out, as you can see.
Okay, so you got your driver’s license when you were 17 and you had a Nova. Can you tell me more about the Nova. Was it a trade-in at your dad’s dealership?
Yeah, it was a trade-in. I actually think a friend of his had it and then I drove it for a few months. I really only had it for a couple of months, then I just started looking around at other cars. I would be at my dad’s dealership when a trade- in would come in and would drive the salesmen crazy because they wanted to resell all of the trade-ins, but I wanted dibs on some of them.
This is how I got my IROC. It was funny because I remember that car, being as I have an affinity for those late-’60s muscle cars – the Camaros, the GTOs, the Chevelles. I love watching auto auctions on TV. I think it’s cool. But I’m more into the one-off classic car look with a new car vibe. I’m not big into the whole complete reproduction, which I think is cool, but I like the newer versions of the old car.
Of course! Like the new Camaro and/or the Challenger coming out. What do you think about the Saleen Mustangs?
I think they’re cool cars. I’m not a huge Ford aficionado. Obviously, some people are Ford and others are Chevy. There are a few Fords that I like, but I was always big on GM – a little bit of MOPAR and I like the Chargers. I watched The Dukes of Hazzard as a kid and those are cool cars. Some guy here locally has a beautiful Charger. He’s trying to sell it and keeps reducing the price.
How fast have you gone in a street car?
It’s pretty funny. I had a ’97 Mercedes S-600 in California when I played with the Dodgers. It’s so funny, but I don’t want to tell it. A friend of mine is a guy named Eddie Braun – a Hollywood stunt man. He has crashed cars his whole life. He’s Charlie Sheen’s stunt double and I met him in California. He’s huge. So I had this, not the SL, but the S, the 600, the two-door with aftermarket 19-inch Pirellis. I just remember we were going down the 405 with no traffic, about 11:30 in the morning. Eddie kept telling me to step on it so we could see what it could do. So I hammer it down. This car was a monster, the V12.1 look down and I’m doing 120, and I blow right by a C.H.I.P.
Yeah. He pulls me over. He comes up to the window. He says, ‘License and registration.’ Then he says, “Where you going so fast, Mike?’ Just like that. Apparently he recognized’ me. I was playing for the Dodgers, so I was somewhat recognizable, I guess, and my buddy Eddie said, ‘Officer, I’m a stunt guy. It’s my fault. I encouraged him. I said let’s see what this can do.’ He was totally trying to help me out and this guy goes, ‘Do you know this girl?’ He just started to make small talk and didn’t give me a ticket. I told him, ‘Officer, I never drive like this – wide open road, not a truck in sight – so I opened it up.’ I don’t want to say that’s an excuse, but this was the most safe condition where you could actually do that. This was so straight, at a point after Laguna Beach, where you could see for five miles. I hammered it and never felt anything like it It was, like, 120. That’s it -11:30 in the morning and I got pulled over.
It’s too tempting not to feel the rush of the speed when you have perfect conditions.
I’m not advocating breaking the law, but you’re right. I find it hard to believe that someone in the middle of Montana in the summer with five lanes and no cars… again. I’m not saying it’s okay, but, if you’re going 100 miles an hour, nobody’s going to notice.
I love coming to Florida. It is so laid back here.
Yeah. There are so many cars out there now, it really is dangerous. You don’t know. In Florida, a cop told me 20 percent of the drivers are over 80.
That’s one in five over 80. With that statistic, you have to be careful. You have to drive defensively.
It should always be about safety and safety first.
Yeah. Now I have Cheerios on the floor of my Mercedes.
Do you ever see yourself owning a hybrid; don’t you want to go zero to 60 in 30 minutes?
That’s a good question. The Escalade – isn’t that the biggest contradiction-the Escalade hybrid. It’s like having a huge golf cart.
Yeah. You don’t have the horsepower like you would with a big V8 gas engine, so do not expect to really be able to punch it.
Until they really perfect the technology of some kind of alternative fuel, whether that be the hydrogen cell or the hybrid, I think I will stick with my current cars.
Have you heard about the Tesla?
Yeah, the four-door they’re now making. I just had the Car and Driver that it was in, and that’s a pure plug-in car, right?
Yes, and it does have quite a bit of umph and get-up- and-go!
No, I don’t doubt that. I think the question is, again, if you plug it into the wall, you’re still using some form of fossil fuel – some coal plant or whatever – unless it’s nuclear. I don’t know. I have no problem with alternative fuels. I think it’s cool and there is a market for that one day. I don’t think you’ll ever get the gas-fueled combustible engine out of the Americana, as it is in our blood. Of course, you can tone it back. If you have a Prius you take to work every day, that’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I’m not saying you always have to have a Ferrari or a Mercedes, but I think there is an affinity for a combustible engine in this country. I don’t ever see it subsiding.
Well, it can’t totally. For instance, you take the South, you take construction workers. They’re never going to work out of a Prius. They need a truck. They’ll have to have their three-quarter and one-ton pick-up trucks to use for their careers, to make a living.
You’re right. It’s like when I travel; I take the babysitter and my wife, my daughter and the luggage and her coach and other stuff. So I have to call for an SUV to pick us up at the airport. Am I going to take two Priuses? We’re a traveling culture, we’re a driving culture and I think alternative fuels are great. I think they should be pursued and perfected. I think it would be great to pull up and get hydrogen. It would be cheaper. I just don’t want to end up like the Hindenburg. I don’t want to blow up.
(LAUGH) When you first got signed to a big contract what was the car that you went out and grabbed up?
That’s a good question. I would say, not when I first got signed, but that Mercedes was like my first toy car, that two-door.
Now you have a Mercedes and a Range Rover. What other cars have you owned?
Living in New York, I always had an affinity for Mercedes. I had one of the first BMW 7 Series in this country-the new 2002, black 745.
You know not to buy the first year of any new model. Why’d you do that?
Because I wanted it. Because I wanted to be the first to have one.
They had a series of mechanical problems with that new body 745 in 2002, so your car probably spent more time in the shop than in your garage, right?
Yeah. I don’t follow suit with most people. Usually you’re either a BMW guy or a Mercedes guy. I like them both. I think the BMW 7 Series is a great driving car. My Mercedes S-550 I have now is a great car. I think there’s something to be said about German engineering. The doors shut more crisply.
Nice luxury suspension. There’s a butt for every seat. That’s why so many manufacturers stay in business – because we all have different tastes.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s like with wine – there’s French wine, a little more European, a little smoother. There’s California wine, a little more robust; Cabernet, out-of-the-barrel drinkable, a little smoother. I think that’s the cool thing, and I’m into being all over the map. If I see a car and I like it, then I will buy it. I don’t stick to a genre.
Do you have your eyes on a particular vehicle now?
Yeah. I want the four-door Lamborghini, black exterior with parchment/tan interior or the silver. I just don’t know if I want to pay $400,000 for a car.
A four-door Lambo?
I think it’s cool. I have to have a baby seat in the back.
I can’t have a two-door anymore. When you have kids, your whole life changes.
What has been your favorite car from the get-go?
That’s a good question. That’s like picking a favorite flavor of ice cream, a favorite candy.
You probably have a certain passion for each car that you have owned.
I was never a huge Porsche fan. It’s sort of smaller and I’m a bigger guy, so it’s tough for me to get in. I’ve always liked larger formatted cars with four doors, and with that said, yeah, it’s fun driving a Ferrari. I was actually considering getting the, you remember the 456 GT automatic Ferrari. When it first came out it was the first automatic car that I can recall. It had a front engine, so it was kind of a cool car.
I see you cruising down South Beach in a Bentley Arnage.
The Bentley Arnage. Maybe the Silver Spur, but I don’t know about the Arnage. I would have to say that this is the largest collection of Bentleys in the world, in South Beach. There’s no question. It’s funny, you pull up to a hotel and you expect special treatment with a Bentley. I have a friend and we joke. We’re, like, There’s another Bentley and another Bentley. There’s another Bentley.’ Yeah, when those first came out, they were all over the place. But look how Bentley got in that market, that higher-end luxury market in the U.S.
SUVs, without a doubt give you a sense of security by being elevated.
Oh my God, you just want a fighting chance if, God forbid, you get in an accident. There’s something to be said about that. With a lot of cars in America, there are also a lot of bad drivers…really bad drivers. I now think, as a parent, your priorities shift. You kind of become more evolved. I want my daughter in a nice safe Mercedes with something around her.
What Mike was most proud of was his wife, daughter and family. He seemed to be at a very happy place in his life, improving his dream home – a renovation project he began as soon as he retired – and building a family.