Mike Piazza was used to achieving more than was ever expected of him. Only taken in the 62nd round of the Major League Baseball draft as a favour to his father, he went on to establish himself as a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time.
After a playing career that saw him star for the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, retirement eventually came calling. So what does a third-generation Italian immigrant with a background in sport and money to play with do with his life once the glory days are gone?
The answer came during the 2014 World Cup. Piazza, a man who was just a fan in the stands, had a moment of inspiration – he would buy and run a football team.
Options were explored. Everton were eyed up, before he realised the figures were too big. Reading and Leeds – ‘I’ve always liked Leeds, it’s weird’ – emerged as options.
Then he turned to the land of his grandparents. Parma, that historic outpost fallen on tough times, was mentioned. But soon his thoughts had turned to Reggiana.
Reggiana, a third-tier side with aspirations of something more, was the place Piazza would make good on his heritage. But unlike his own career, this is no underdog success story. Instead, it is the tale of how a man from Pennsylvania got in over his head and killed a 100-year-old institution across the sea.
Reggiana have traditionally floated around the lower tiers of Italian football. They are based in Reggio Emilia, a city of fewer than 200,000 people in northern Italy. It is a place better known for its painters and sculptors than any sort of sporting success.
The club’s peak came in the 1990s, when they spent three seasons in Serie A and were managed by Carlo Ancelotti. In that time, they finished 13th in the top flight and counted Claudio Taffarel – the Brazilian international goalkeeper – among their players.
As part of their run in Serie A, they planned to build a new stadium. That eventually became something of a money pit and financial woes hit. It required them to reform the company under a new name in 2005 and eventually they dropped down to Serie C.
Instead of going local and helping set up an MLS franchise, Piazza went back to the land of his ancestors. He told the New York Times: ‘I’d rather be poor in Italy than based in St. Louis. You can’t get a good meal there!’
Their fans had dared to dream when Ancelotti was in charge. When Piazza arrived, as they held a rally in one of the major squares in the city to show their support for the new regime, they thought they could start imagining a brighter future again.
Amazing evening meeting the Tifosi of #reggiana #reggianacalcio #testaquadra , happy to be part of the #reggiana family.
The start of 2016 should have been filled with fond memories for Piazza. He was finally inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame and completed the purchase of Reggiana.
The seeds of his and the club’s eventual downfall were sewn in that spell.
Reggiana were run on a budget of around £450,000 a year before Piazza bought them. Between his purchase and his arrival in Reggio, those costs ballooned.
Speaking to The Athletic, midfielder Gael Genevier said: ‘It’s a jungle. And when you have money, it’s even worse. Mike had a big wallet, he was American, and he didn’t know the soccer in Italy. And I think that’s why he had a lot of problems.’
Wages were closer to Serie B levels. The sporting director was earning more than Lazio’s equivalent.
By the end of the season, they were spending closer to £5m to finish fifth in the third tier. Speaking to Calcio E Finanza in late 2018, Piazza explained: ‘Many involved from professionals to “trusted” advisers and partners constantly delivered misinformation, half truths, and outright lies.
‘From the first initial valuation of the club, to cash-flow issues, to shifting the deal, negotiating contracts, stadium rent included, with absolutely no authority to do so.’
Serie B was the only possible salvation, and even then it would have only been a temporary respite.
After his first year, Piazza knew he had to change things. This was a man who bought into the thrill of owning a team because it reminded him of his own days in the batters’ box.
‘When that ball went into the net, I felt like I was playing again,’ he told The Athletic. ‘I’ve never done cocaine, I’ve never done crystal meth, I’ve never done hard drugs, or any drugs for that matter besides aspirin. But let me tell you, that was f****** intoxicating.’
He needed someone with a stronger outlook to run Reggiana and bring it into line. Someone needed to win promotion and on a lower budget. He turned to the person he trusted implicitly – his wife, Alicia.
Alicia Piazza had appeared in Playboy and on Baywatch in the 1990s. They liked her in Italy, especially in a traditionally male-dominated sport. She was suddenly thrust into a role as the vice president of an Italian football club.
‘It’s not like he’s a p***y or he needs his wife. It’s the way he’s comfortable. He’s always been like that.’
She immediately set about cutting costs. The team coach no longer stopped at players’ homes to drop them off. Youth team players were told to wash their own kit – although she did not realise that many people in Reggio do not own washing machines.
Alicia eventually described herself as ‘the b****’. She sent a text to the former sporting director that ended with the words ‘f*** off’. No one avoided her wrath.
Eventually, the stadium became the key problem. They were renting their ground from the owner of Sassuolo. In that spell between the purchase and taking over, the cost of renting it had doubled.
This was not good, as far as the Piazzas were concerned. She eventually talked Mike into giving a press conference in March 2018 where he ranted about the problem.
‘We’ve reorganised this company, we’ve invested in this community. I’ve moved my family here, my children here to be part of this community, and we deserve respect,’ Mike began.
By the end, he was slamming his fist on the table, gesturing wildly and said: ‘We’ve gotten nothing… nothing! And I’m sick of it.
‘I’m tired and sick of Reggiana being pushed around. I am frustrated, and I’m frigging p***** off.’
The rent did not fall. The seeds that had been planted years prior began to bear fruit.
La conferenza di Reggiana Calcio. 🎤 #daicandom
Amid the stadium problems and the washing machine debacle, something good was happening on the pitch.
After an attempt to hire a Greek coach fell apart because Alicia changed the terms of the deal after he had arrived in Reggiana, a pair of youth-team coaches lacking the proper license took charge in all but name.
Reggiana began to hit form and found themselves in fourth by the end of the regular season. That qualified them for the play-offs.
It seemed to start well. They faced Siena at the quarter-final stage and won the home leg 2-1.
While Siena went 1-0 up in Tuscany, they were pegged back at the start of added time. That would mean Reggiana advancing to the semi-finals on aggregate.
Then disaster struck. Deep in added time, a cross came into the Reggiana box. A defender went to the ground under a push and fell on the ball, handling it in the process. The referee pointed to the spot.
Siena scored. Reggiana went out. The mayor of Reggio Emilia called it ‘unjust’. Mike wrote on the club’s official website: ‘I regret that they had to witness such corruption and incompetence. I’m deeply disgusted and angry. I’m really sorry for our fans, they do not deserve this.
‘It’s really a sad day for Italy and for Italian football. I will never understand how some dirty and corrupt individuals managed to make something so beautiful so repugnant and ugly. I’m sick.’
Ernesto Melauri stood at the gates of Reggiana’s stadium, shirtless and crying. He had placed his flag on the fence and muttered the words: ‘Do not do this’.
The 71-year-old was the social media manifestation of what had happened, the viral video that showed the damage that had been done over the summer.
Melauri’s flag had travelled with him to every game he had attended. He was giving it up because he did not know if he’d need it anymore.
The Piazzas had seemed committed when they held a ‘thank you’ event shortly after the play-off loss. The Reggiana Ultras chanted Alicia’s name as Mike spoke about her.
On June 8, Alicia said goodbye to the staff as she told them to enjoy their summer. By the following Monday, the offices were locked and chained up. The gates had been tied shut.
Non servono parole… #reggiana#persemprenelcuore#mediasetsport#skysport
A week later, Mike announced he was selling the club. Alicia made it clear they were cutting their losses: ‘Unfortunately, Reggiana has been under attack from negative forces since Mike’s arrival. … The suspicious loss in Siena was the final blow. We are generous but we are not crazy.’
When they returned to clear out the offices, Ultras marched on the ground. Police told them they would have to be sneaked out of the back door, for their own safety.
They had lost, by some estimates, around £9m on the club and were done with it. Dubai-based businessman Victor Pablo Dana said he had a deal to buy only for Piazza to pull out.
When the deadline came for teams to register for Serie C, the Piazzas let it pass without paying the fee. A post on Instagram from Alicia, captioned ‘Time to say goodbye’, was the extent of their communication with the fans.
So Ernesto wept.
Local businessmen would soon band together and rather than buying the existing club from the Piazzas, and with the blessing of the mayor, they set up a new team, Reggio Audace.
They played in Serie D last season. It is a semi-professional level, a serious drop down compared to the tier above. There are nine different divisions within the league and each one of them has just one automatic promotion slot and four teams competing in play-offs.
To put it another way, it will take time before Reggio has a third-tier team again.
They did come close last season, but play-off woe hit again.
The old institution was declared bankrupt in December of last year. The Piazzas came, saw, and left nothing behind.
Mike Piazza arrived in the city as a hero. His background meant he was more feted in Reggio Emilia than the first time he stepped into a Major League locker room.
Yet while he has since said he is keeping an ‘open mind’ about owning another club, no one will be keen to draft him as the man in charge. Even as a favour.