Mike Piazza emerged from the post-career shadows this week, first in his new autobiography, "Long Shot," which hit bookstores Tuesday, then in the flesh, on a weeklong promotional tour.
But as Piazza well knows, the shadow from the cloud of baseball's steroids era never fully dissipates, and so he found himself still stuck in it as he made his interview and book-signing rounds.
It was the Big Question that dominated coverage of "Long Shot" and unfortunately obscured the fact that it is a rather good book as sports bios go, offering insights into a complicated, surprisingly angry fellow.
More on that later. First, as always, the matter of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Piazza denies using them on Page 251: "It shouldn't be assumed that every big hitter of the generation used steroids. I didn't."
All week he has referred interviewers to that and other denials. "I just don't understand what part of 'no' people don't understand," he said on WFAN Thursday.
Piazza seeks to add to his credibility by copping to various subsequently banned products, including amphetamines, Vioxx and androstenedione, an ingredient in an over-the-counter supplement he used in the 1990s.
But even Piazza knows that by now, it is impossible to take athletes' PED denials at face value, so many people do not believe him and never will, even if that does keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
Piazza got nearly 58 percent support in last month's vote and is expected to get in eventually, as long as his PED use remains more a matter of suspicion than proof.
Still . . . he does not help his cause by defending Barry Bonds and downplaying the impact of steroids, attributing the home run binge of the late 1990s and early 2000s more to weight training, nutrition, smaller ballparks and such.
"The sea change came in the gym, [not from an injection]," he writes. "I'll go to my grave screaming about that."
Veteran baseball writer Murray Chass wrote on his blog Thursday that Sports Illustrated's Michael Bamberger initially was to write the book with Piazza but backed out, citing concern about whether Piazza was prepared to tell all.
"He wouldn't commit at that point to being forthcoming," Bamberger told Chass. "On that basis, I didn't feel comfortable going ahead. I hope he addressed it in a truthful way."
Lonnie Wheeler got the job, but after an interview with Newsday's Anthony Rieber in early January, he was not permitted to discuss the book with reporters. A publicist for publisher Simon & Schuster said that is common practice for a co-author. Regarding Chass' report, the publicist said, "Although the Piazza-Bamberger partnership didn't work out, and which is not at all unusual for collaborations, Mike then went on to work with Lonnie Wheeler to write a candid and insightful book about the totality of his career and the times in which he played."
Piazza spoke only to a carefully selected group of interviewers this week, with but one extensive print interview, further adding to the murkiness. But truth is, he has been a bit of an odd duck for years, including an elusive streak.
That and other quirky elements of his personality emerge in the book as he candidly addresses everything from his run-ins with Roger Clemens (he regrets not charging the mound during the 2000 World Series) to his strained relationships with Spanish-speaking teammates to even a charge that Vin Scully, of all people, was "crushing" him on the air during contract talks with the Dodgers in 1998. (Scully denied that in the Los Angeles Times Thursday.)
But the thread that runs throughout is a massive chip on his shoulder, which fueled resentment of the media, team executives and opponents and even limited his friendships in the game. He writes he "wasn't always the best teammate" and notes how many more friends his wife, Alicia, had at their wedding than he did.
Piazza never quite forgives the world for doubting his credentials, in part because of the support of a wealthy, well-connected father.
He recalls his friend Al Leiter asking him when he was going to simply enjoy himself. "I never really did," he writes. "That's the principal regret I have about my career."
But he also believes that had he not played angry, he would not have been the star he was.
"If I'd considered myself lucky to be there," he writes, "I wouldn't have been there."