Hall of Famer Mike Piazza on fatherhood, baseball and the secret to happiness

The Hall of Fame catcher and slugger reflects on his greatest challenges as a dad of three.
Mike Piazza
Mike Piazza retired from baseball in 2008, and is now tackling his most challenging role, as a father.NY Daily News via Getty Images

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/ Source: TODAY
By Rebecca Dube

Mike Piazza lives by one rule as a parent: You don’t have to like me, but you do have to respect me.

Actually, that's a pretty good rule for life, says the baseball Hall of Famer.

"The first rule — to try to be happy — is to not care what people think," Piazza told TODAY Parents.

Retired from the game in 2008, now living in Italy with his wife and three children, Piazza chatted with TODAY Parents while visiting New York and his former team, the Mets. A lot has changed since his playing days, and Piazza just smiles at the rise of social media.

"It's cool, there's nothing wrong, but when you see people like, 'Oh, how many likes do I have?" Piazza shrugs bemusedly. "It gets addicting, I guess."

Mike Piazza's post-9/11 home run

Arguably one of the best-hitting catchers in all of baseball, Piazza is known beyond the baseball world for his iconic home run in the first major league baseball game played in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks. On Sept. 21, 2001, Piazza and the Mets took the field against the Atlanta Braves before a highly emotional New York crowd. Piazza's home run in the eighth inning put the Mets ahead and etched Piazza indelibly into New York history.

NY Daily News via Getty Images

"I remember looking up and praying to God, saying, 'Lord, please give me the strength to get through this, because I don’t know if I can,'" Piazza said in an MLB Network Presents documentary about the moment. "It's amazing, when you're in the right place and the right time, and you believe in yourself and you have a lot of people pulling for you, and you feel it ... It was just this incredible release of emotion, and I think it became evidently clear that people just wanted to cheer — cheer about something."

Piazza has always been careful to remind people that the first responders who gave their lives to try to save others in the Sept. 11 attacks are the true heroes.

Lessons from his mother

His own mother taught him to live in the moment, something he tries to practice with his own children now. And yes, that means being a role model by putting his own phone away during family time.

"If we are in such a hurry, we miss the little miracles along the way," he says.

Mike Piazza with his wife, Alicia, and children Nicoletta, Paulina and Marco.

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When he or his four brothers stepped out of line, his mom had a hard stare that could stop them in their tracks and if that failed, she wasn't afraid to bust out the wooden spoon, he recalled.

Piazza's old school like that, too, he says — well, not the wooden spoon part. He believes kids need structure and discipline, but honestly he's a bit of a softy when it comes to children Nicoletta, 12, Paulina, 10, and Marco, 6. (He threatens them with not being able to fly in business class if they don't behave properly.)

He's got a "death stare" to keep them in line, Piazza says, but "it's not even a question of being intimidating. You want 'em to be like, 'I wanna please you and behave.'"

Traveling with kids: 'Just go!'

He travels often with his family. His advice to any parents who want to travel but are afraid to with kids: Just go. (Even if you're not in business class.)

"Traveling with kids, it's obviously stressful. But just go. You'll get it down, and they'll adjust."

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Something he loves about raising children in Italy is that in their international school they meet and befriend children from all over the world. It's a much different upbringing than the one he had in Pennsylvania.

"It definitely makes the world smaller for them," he said.

How to have your kid succeed in baseball

His father was loving but strict, pushing his son to succeed at baseball with nightly practice sessions — a push that may have been extreme but ultimately paid off, Piazza acknowledges. But the advice he most often gives parents with dreams of baseball stardom for their kids is that the passion has to come from within.

"When I have parents talk to me, like, 'What do you think of my kid, do you think he could make it?' I always say, 'Is he hungry?'" Piazza said.

"There's a lot of good players. But to excel at a certain level, you have to have an insatiable hunger to win. And I had that ... It was just weird. I got on the baseball field and I turned into a machine."

He's determined to let his children follow their own passions. Both daughters liked ballet when they were little, and he was a big supporter of the Miami City Ballet. Now his oldest is into track and his younger daughter loves to sing. Son Marco has started playing soccer in Italy, which is serious business.

"Even the youth soccer coaches are very serious. So this one coach starts yelling at him in Italian. And he comes back, telling me in English, 'Dad, the coach was yelling at me!' I said, 'Good, listen to him.'"

(Piazza and his family moved to Italy because he bought a professional Italian soccer team, A.C. Reggiana, which did not end well — the team went bankrupt.)

Staying humble

Listening was an important skill for Piazza as a young player, he says. One of the best compliments he got from a coach early in his playing days, he recalls, was, "You're gonna learn because you know how to keep your mouth shut."

Well, he acknowledges, that wasn't an exact quote — he cleaned it up a bit. Another, slightly more inspirational, bit of advice he got from coaches that he repeats to his kids is, "Aptitude plus attitude equals altitude."

"That's good, right?" Piazza laughs. While his altitude soared, it was his mother who kept him grounded and taught him and his four brothers the importance of everyday humility and gratitude.

"She deserves a medal of honor," he muses. "We were tough. She's a trooper."

Speaking of which, he mentions during the interview, it's his mom's birthday. Don't worry, no need to get out the spoon. He already called.

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