Sankey: Phoenixville folks always knew Piazza’s greatness even if scouts didn’t

Former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, right, poses with former Mets catcher Mike Piazza after throwing the ceremonial first pitch in the Mets’ first regular season baseball game Monday, April 13, 2009, at the new Citi Field in New York.
Former New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver, right, poses with former Mets catcher Mike Piazza after throwing the ceremonial first pitch in the Mets’ first regular season baseball game Monday, April 13, 2009, at the new Citi Field in New York. Kathy Willens - The Associated Press
Mike Piazza was once just a kid from Phoenixville. Come Sunday he will be a Baseball Hall of Famer upon his induction in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Mike Piazza was once just a kid from Phoenixville. Come Sunday he will be a Baseball Hall of Famer upon his induction in Cooperstown, N.Y. Barry Taglieber - For Digital First Media

Mike Piazza could always hit the baseball.

He could hit it hard to all fields and hit it far, too. His power, even as a young kid just starting out in the sport, was incredible. He was a big, strong kid who possessed quick bat speed because of his hands, wrists and sharp hand-eye coordination.

It was clearly evident as he began his youth career at the Phoenixville Little League (now Phoenixville Youth Babe Ruth League) at Vic Marosek Park at age 8. During his early days, he played third base and was also a pitcher. Later, at Phoenixville Area High School, Piazza moved to first base for head coach John “Doc” Kennedy’s Phantoms.

It was later on that he made the move to catcher, which helped lead him to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame honor and induction that he will officially receive at Cooperstown, New York, on the afternoon of Sunday, July 24.

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Longtime Phoenixville area photographer Barry Taglieber, who coached baseball and softball at the Little League level and a Phoenixville resident, first knew of Piazza at that point and started taking photographs of him from that juncture on up through his Phoenixville Babe Ruth League (PBRL) days at deSanno Field, senior high school, American Legion baseball and finally when he landed in the major leagues as a 62nd round draft choice with the National League’s Los Angeles Dodgers and later with the New York Mets. Piazza graduated from PAHS in 1986, and later Piazza earned NL Rookie of the Year honors back in 1993. Overall, he was the 1,390th player selected in the MLB Amateur Draft on June 3, 1988.

Piazza’s first manager was Abdul Ford-Bey, with the A’s in Phoenixville Little League. Ford-Bey, who served Phoenixville sports in a variety of roles for many, many years, is now a resident at the Manor Care health facility in Pottstown. Ford-Bey is a Vietnam War veteran.

Almost all of the scouts were wrong about Piazza. They did not really like him as a major league prospect because of his lack of speed and average defensive skills. The Dodgers picked him as a favor to former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who was from Norristown, where Piazza was born. Lasorda was also a friend of Mike’s father, Vince, a prominent car dealership businessman who was very instrumental in his son’s career.

Phoenixville, a small town just west of historic Valley Forge in suburban Philadelphia, is an old steel down that always treated its athletes and sports teams quite seriously. Large, loud crowds regularly attended Phoenixville’s games, especially years ago.

The town had its own local newspaper, The Daily Republican, from 1888 on up for more than 100 years as an afternoon daily. The newspaper then changed hands and became known as The Evening Phoenix when Piazza played his youth and school ball in the borough.

Taglieber joined the paper as a part-time photographer in 1977. I started at the paper as a reporter in 1978. The following October, I became sports editor and remained there until the office was eventually closed and the paper became first the weekly Phoenix and now the weekly Phoenix Reporter & Item.

Former Phoenix sports reporter Tim Kumpf and I first saw Piazza play some games as an all-star at the Little League stage. Also, during those years and then his PBRL days, Lasorda allowed Piazza to be the Dodgers’ batboy when the team made its visits to Veterans Stadium to play games against the hometown Philadelphia Phillies. Later, when Piazza did indeed make it to the big leagues, Taglieber and I returned to the Vet to see our man, the pride of Phoenixville, perform his great skills.

And now, some 23 years later, Piazza has reached the pinnacle of his profession as a Hall of Fame. And Taglieber and I are fortunate enough to still be around and involved in the newspaper business. We are members of the 21st Century Media chain now, and we will join all the Phoenixville faithful in making the journey to Cooperstown to witness Piazza’s induction into the Hall of Fame Sunday afternoon.

We made some visits to see and talk to Piazza even when he served as a batboy for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And the young man was always a polite, well-spoken, personable youngster even at that young age.

At deSanno Field, Piazza played for the Orioles, under manager Joe Bogus. The Phoenix used to cover doubleheaders there when it was a daily paper. The late Dave White, who served in multiple capacities including commissioner, public address announcer, scorekeeper, umpire, grounds crew worker, etc., would call Piazza’s titanic home runs there emphatically.

In the press box, we used to watch with awe at some of Piazza’s blasts.

From there, Piazza became a member of the Phoenixville High School team that was coached by Kennedy, a former local standout catcher himself and then a player at West Chester University. Kennedy spent 20 years as Phoenixville’s manager before retiring as a social studies teacher and coach. He went on to become an assistant coach at Villanova University and now serves as a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

Piazza starred in the old Ches-Mont League, where he hammered a league-record 12 home runs as a junior while recording a .500 batting average with 38 runs batted in. As a senior, he walloped 11 more home runs while most opposing teams pitched around him and walked him regularly.

Larger high schools like Boyertown and Downingtown ruled the Ches-Mont League at that time, but Phoenixville, a small school, still held its own with the likes of Piazza and many other outstanding individual players who developed into formidable teams.

At that time, Phoenixville’s graduation classes numbered less than 200 students. Boyertown and Downingtown, on the other hand, graduated around 1,500 students. Yet, former Boyertown manager Dick Ludy, who guided the Bears to phenomenal success at the senior high school and American Legion levels, used to rave about Piazza’s hitting ability. Ludy termed Piazza the finest hitter he had seen and called him really a prospect.

Back in high school, Phoenixville did not have a fence in left field for its baseball home games. That was one reason Piazza used his power to hit the ball to the opposite field. Most of his home runs were to right-center field at the scholastic level.

Later, with the success of Vince’s Acura dealership, the family built a home on Valley Forge Mountain, which overlooked the National Park, where in the winter of 1777, George Washington camped and trained some 12,000 men with the Continental Army. The grounds cover some 65 acres. Vince put a cage in the basement there, too, and Mike worked there day and night. Vince also put some colors in the background so that Mike could pick up the ball better when it was being delivered to hit.

Piazza was also a star golfer at Phoenixville, but baseball was always his passion.

The entire Piazza story is told in Mike’s book, “Long Shot,” which was published in 2013.

Piazza, whose No. 13 is retired at Phoenixville, spent a lot of him at home refining his hitting skills besides all the time he put in with the many teams he played on as he worked his way up the ladder to the big leagues. Vince built him a batting cage to assist with the pursuit of the dreams he and his son had. Hall of Famer Ted Williams paid a visit to the Piazza home on South Spring Lane in 1985 to watch Piazza hit and was instantly impressed.

By the time his baseball career was complete in 2007, everyone was as impressed, including the ones who knew all along.

And now all Mike Piazza’s talent, determination and work ethic are being recognized to the ultimate extreme with his induction into the Hall of Fame.