"They're good kids, every one of them," he said. "My wife (Veronica) and I are very proud of all of them."

The Piazzas are, quite simply, a very close family.

For a number of years, though, Vince and Veronica Piazza have learned it is very difficult, virtually next to impossible, to avoid a conversation that doesn't center around or focus on their second-born.

That's Mike.

Mike Piazza, of course, plays baseball for the New York Mets. He's an 11-time National League All-Star selection and been lauded as the greatest hitting catcher in the history of the game and, whenever he decides to call it quits, will likely be a first-ballot inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He also happens to be as popular off the field as he is on it, gracing the covers of nearly every sports publication from The Sporting News to Sports Illustrated, as well as New York Magazine, GQ and Playboy, and popping up on television screens across America as a national spokesperson for MCI, Claritin and Nerf.

And while an alarming number of other professional athletes' names and games continue to get smudged or stained because of their egocentric ways and disdain for what's right and wrong, Mike Piazza's name and game is spotless.

That's why he's as respected as highly as he is among his baseball peers, why he's looked up to as a leader in the Mets' dugout and clubhouse, and why fans of all ages around the country adore and admire him.

So, yes, as Vince and Veronica Piazza have discovered, everyone wants to talk about Mike.

"When I think and look back to what we've all been through, the conversation I always remember most is the one I had with (former Los Angeles Dodgers owner) Peter O'Malley when Mike was in Triple A (at Albuquerque, N.M.)," Vince recalled.

"O'Malley told me Mike was a fine young man. I told him I hope Mike makes it up to the majors and at least gets a chance someday to play with the Dodgers. O'Malley looked at me and said, 'Vince, even if Mike never gets that chance, remember you still have a very, very fine son, and that's the most important thing.' When he said that I couldn't handle it. I had to walk away. It really hit me."

Good son, good brother, good ballplayer.

Piazza has become that and more because of his family, according to John "Doc" Kennedy, his former high school coach at Phoenixville.

"Mom and dad laid the foundation and brought Mike up to do things the right way," Kennedy said. "Mike has learned the difference between right and wrong from his mom and dad. Look how many people have tried to discredit him, discredit how he plays the game."

Perhaps one of the best examples of Piazza's discipline, his focus, surfaced in the 2000 season. On June 7, he hit a grand slam off of Yankees ace and future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens. On July 8, he was beaned by Clemens, suffering a concussion that forced him to miss what would've been his eighth straight All-Star Game appearance. Then on Oct. 22, in the second game of the World Series between the Mets and Yankees, Piazza fouled off a pitch from Clemens that shattered his bat and sent the barrel portion rolling out to the side of the mound. Clemens retrieved the bat and heaved it past Piazza, narrowly missing him.

Except for a brief exchange of words, Piazza never stepped out of the base path. Major League officials reviewed the incident and fined Clemens $50,000 for actions.

Just two weeks ago, during the Major League All-Star Game, when it was announced Clemens and Piazza would be the starting battery for the National League, the Phoenixville High School graduate refused to get caught up in the media frenzy.

"Mike doesn't allow himself to be distracted from the game because of what he learned at home," Kennedy said. "He's proved that by his behavior, and that's the result of how he was brought up, and the support he got from everyone in his family."

The support has never waned. It was there for Mike when he lit up the baseball skies at Phoenixville, continued when he played oh so briefly at the University of Miami and then at Miami-Dade North Community College, and was strong throughout his four seasons in the minor leagues.

That unwavering support didn't come from just dad and mom, either.

"We're proud of Mike, happy for Mike," Vince said. "But all his brothers are proud of and happy for Mike, too. They're not envious of him. They want to see Mike do well and succeed. And they'll all do whatever they can for him, just like Mike would do anything for any of them."

Vince Jr., the eldest at 37, has an accounting degree and oversees operations at Westover Country Club in West Norriton, owned by the Piazza family. Dan, 33, is a lawyer, and Tony, 26, has a business degree, and both are involved in the family's automobile franchises. And Tommy, the youngest at 21 and currently playing professional baseball in Utah, is still working on a degree in computers.

"They're all so different, all so unique," said Veronica. "But they've always realized they're different, so (with Mike being the baseball celebrity) it was never an issue between them.

"They've always been proud of one another, and proud of one another's accomplishments. As they've grown up, they've become very aware and very supportive of each others talents."

"I have a great relationship with my family," Mike said. "They are all very supportive. I'm very proud of them, all of them."

Vince Piazza, whose own life as a self-made millionaire has been well-documented, credits his wife for creating and maintaining that closeness, the bond the family shares.

"Family is important to us, and I give a lot of that credit to their mother," Vince said. "She's had a big influence on all the boys. Even Mike, despite baseball and all the traveling, rarely ever misses any masses. Religion, our faith, has always been a big part of our family."

"Growing up our sons went (to church) every Sunday," Veronica said. "Now that they're on their own it's their choice. I don't check on them anymore, but I do know they still go (to church). I think that's important."

Even though Vince and Veronica, their sons and friends sit in on a number of Mike's games during the season - most inside their suite at Shea Stadium - whenever the Mets (and the Dodgers before that) fly into Philadelphia for a series with the Phillies, Mike opts for the drive up the expressway to stay at home.

There's nothing like a night's sleep in his old bed - or homemade breakfast, courtesy of mom, first thing in the morning. And, as mom said, he still likes to fiddle around with his drums, too.

"It's nice to have him home," Veronica said. "He still stays in his old room. It's not quite the same as it once was, but it's still a lot of fun to have him here."

For Mike, it is home sweet home all right.

But whenever he's in New York, or on the road in any one of baseball's big cities, there aren't too many days that pass by without a chat with dad, or too many days that pass without reflecting on what dad and mom taught him as a youngster.

"My dad has helped me a lot," Mike said. "I like being just me. I never take myself too seriously, and I like to have fun and do what makes me happy. I live my own life, but he helps me keep things in perspective, reminds me about the simple things in life on occasion.

"Religion is also a part of my life - of my family's life. I've always been kind of a spiritual person. My faith gives me that calmness, keeps me grounded. And a lot of all that was instilled in me by my mom and dad."

Dad admits he enjoys every conversation he has with Mike nowadays, regardless of the subject. And he won't hesitate to give his son a little advice, if needed, either.

"We talk a lot and talk about a lot of things," Vince said. "We've discussed what we think he should be doing, and when he's down what we can do to try and get him up. Heck, if he's in a slump we try to talk things out.

"As a father you want to be able to communicate with your son, there's no question about that. And that is the same with Mike as it is with my other sons. I think some people don't realize that Mike's the same person now as he was when he was in the minor leagues. Sure, people have problems at times and they have their mood swings, but that's human nature. He's still Mike."

That's Mike Piazza, the son everyone likes to talk about.

"Some of the things we hear people say about Mike is just incredible," Vince said. "It's impossible to explain how good it makes us, as a family, feel.

"All of this, his career and how people treat him, it's something you never can fathom, something you just can't imagine happening to you or your family. I just don't know how to put it all into words ... we are all just so proud of him."

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