COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. >> As a young man growing up in baseball, Neil Herman always liked the Los Angeles Dodgers as his favorite Major League Baseball team.
His favorite player, all along, was a young man named Mike Piazza, who became a star catcher for the Dodgers while earning National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1993.
However, at that time, Herman, a Coatesville graduate, did not know that Piazza hailed from Phoenixville Area High School. And he certainly did not know at that time that in the year 2016, when Herman took over as Phoenixville’s head baseball coach in the spring as well as its summer coach for 16-19-year-olds, Piazza would enter the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., as one of two members of the Class of 2016.
Herman, other members of the current Phoenixville coaching staff and many members of the Phantoms’ varsity and junior varsity teams as well as their parents were on hand Sunday afternoon as Piazza,who graduated from PAHS as a 17-year-old back in 1986, entered the Hall of Fame as a New York Met and considered the greatest hitting catcher of all-time. He was enshrined along with Ken Griffey Jr., the slugging center fielder of the Seattle Mariners.
Also on hand for the large gathering of Phoenixville fans were other family members and friends of the large Piazza family. Also present were Phoenixville High School Athletic Director Matt Gionta and his wife, Rachel; as well as longtime Phoenixville baseball coach John “Doc” Kennedy and others.
Piazza’s Phoenixville roots didn’t go unnoticed in his eloquent induction speech Sunday.
“My love affair with baseball started in a small steel town, about a four-hour drive south of here named Phoenixville,” Piazza said. “It was a tough town, blue collar, coming off the prosperity of the 50s and 60s. The steel mills had closed and what was left were the sons and daughters of immigrants. They loved God, their families, and sports.
“I came up through an intensely competitive little league, youth league, and high school program. This town loved its sports. It was evident in the fact that we were not big as some of the neighboring towns, some twice our size, but in baseball, we punched above our weight.”
He thanked Kennedy specifically for his positive influence.
“My high school coach was John “Doc” Kennedy, and he loved the game, was a great teacher and still scouts today. From early in my high school career he never gave me anything. He knew my dad and knew who his friend was (Hall of Famer and Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda), yet he still made me work to earn a place on the varsity team.”
Piazza’s speech was filled with grace, his faith, and appreciation for the many coaches, teammates and family members that helped him become one of the game’s greats.
One anecdote illustrating the support of his mother, Veronica, brought back memories from a frigid afternoon in Bucktown.
“One special moment in my memory of my mother is an ice cold high school game at Owen J. Roberts High School in which I hit two home runs,” Piazza said. “There were maybe about five or six people watching the game, but as I crossed home plate, I noticed my mom jumping up and down clapping. Mom, you were the glue to our family and a true woman of God. Thank you.”
An emotional Piazza expressed his appreciation for his father, Vince, as the greatest influence on him becoming a Hall of Famer.
“My dad always dreamed of playing in the major leagues for his All-American love of baseball. He could not follow that dream as the realities of life and having to support his family forced him to work. My father’s faith in me, often greater than my own, is the single most important factor of me being inducted into this Hall of Fame,” Piazza said.
“He is a man deeply devoted to his family and after having suffered a major stroke a few years ago, is stronger willed than ever. We made it, Dad. The race is over. Now, it’s time to smell the roses.”
The Phoenixville contingent was just a tiny but important part of the large throng of some 50,000 fans who turned out on a hot summer day for the annual baseball spectacle, which was broadcast live by the Major League Baseball television network.
“This is a big thrill to experience,” said Herman Saturday evening prior to the festivities. “This was for kids who never imagined they could play at that level. This is a special moment, once in a lifetime. I am just so happy to be part of it.”
As soon as Piazza was officially elected to the Hall by the Baseball Writers of America back in January, Gionta and Herman immediately took action to have a large group make the trip to New York in support of Piazza’s historic election to the Hall in his fourth year of eligibility.
“As soon as it happened, Athletic Director Matt Gionta and I got together right away and said we’ve got to do this. We have to rally the troops and planned it right.”
They got the parents involved with various jobs in the project and told the players, who were immediately in favor of making the special journey. They were players who were not even born when Piazza was a star slugger as a youngster who went all the way through and up the ladder of the Phoenixville youth baseball program. And most of them had never visited the Hall of Fame previously.
But some of them knew about Piazza from his great years in the Major Leagues, either while attending professional games, watching him on television or listening to his games on radio. Some Phoenixville kids also heard or were told stories about Piazza from their parents and other relatives.
“He was in the minors and drafted in the last round,” said Herman. “He wasn’t supposed to be drafted. But he worked his butt off. He was an underdog, and I thought I hope he makes it. I hope the kids see that with his work ethic. You can’t nail down to one position. He was a big, strong kid. The whole thing is amazing.
“He was tough. You could tell he never wanted to take a day off. If he would have been allowed to, he would have caught every day. He took some foul balls that were some shots and would walk it off. He finally made it, and he was never going to let anything stop him. To get there and what he had to do to get there, there are no words for it.”
He said just spending time at the Hall is something special.
“There is nothing like going to the Hall of Fame if you are a baseball person,” said Herman. “There is nothing like it. The thing for me is going to see the look in the players’ eyes and the parents’ eyes. That is going to be the reward.”
Gionta also spoke about the special trip.
“That’s a good thing to give them a sense of history,” said Gionta. “They are lucky to be in school at this time. People bigger than these wore their school colors (purple, white) and reached the ultimate in their profession.”
Booser Club members Dan Cushing and T.J. Bagley were active in the project along with Paul Masalski, who arranged for lodging in nearby Binghamton.
“It is cool and exciting that someone is going into the Hall of Fame,” said Phoenixville pitcher Matt Osisek-Byrne. “It is always cool, even if you’ve seen it before.”
“His most famous thing is hitting the home run right after 911 (September 2001 attacks),” said Phoenixville outfielder Kyle Bennick.