Baseball great Mike Piazza is performing in Miami City Ballet's May 3 production of George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."

OK, wiseguy, we know what you’re thinking: “Mike Piazza performing with Miami City Ballet? Well, so much for the rumors that he’s gay!” Har-dee-har-har.

But while you’re laughing about it, know that Piazza is laughing, too. The baseball great has heard all of your jokes and then some from friends and former teammates. As he points out in his new autobiography, “Long Shot” (Simon & Schuster), he’s comfortable with who he is.

Standing in the middle of a bright, mirrored rehearsal space at the Miami City Ballet Studio on Miami Beach last week, Piazza exudes a sunny, affable, relaxed disposition that contradicts the moody rep he had as a ballplayer. He’s clearly having fun with this curious return to the spotlight.

“The one thing I tried to express in the book is that I’m a very honest person. And I’m a very forward person. And, so, you know, if I was gay it wouldn’t be a secret,” he says with a laugh. “That’s what I’m saying.”

That last bit is delivered with a Noo Yawky shrug of his shoulders that is perfectly in character for his role in Miami City Ballet’s May 3 Arsht Center performance of George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Piazza, a former star with the New York Mets, will play an intimidating mob hit man in a performance that, like his stint with the Florida Marlins, is a cameo appearance with several speaking lines but no dancing. (The scene, above, of Piazza lifting MCB soloist Patricia Delgado was just for fun at the rehearsal.)

“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” was created as part of Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s 1936 hit musical, “On Your Toes” (Balanchine’s first Broadway collaboration), with a bold, brassy, streetwise score that is quintessential New York. Piazza will appear in 1930s gangster attire and, in rehearsals last week, he came with the required swagger already perfected.

“He’s excellent,” says Philip Neal, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Balanchine repetiteur who is staging the piece. While leading the rehearsal, Neal offers only a few tweaks for Piazza. His primary recommendation is to make a slow, deliberate entrance.

“There will be lots of applause, of course,” Neal warns Piazza, “because it’s you.”

After a brief appearance onstage, Piazza’s character will move into a box in the audience from which he is to shoot hit fatal bullet.

Piazza’s celebrity is not universal: The dancers he’ll be onstage with have little idea who the guy towering over them is. Kleber Rebello and Renato Penteado are both from Brazil.

“No, I really don’t know him,” Penteado says with a shy smile a few steps away from his co-star. “But they tell us he is a big deal.”

Piazza got involved after being tag-teamed by his 6-year-old daughter, Nicoletta, a student at Miami City Ballet School, and MCB artistic director Lourdes Lopez. While he has appeared on America’s biggest stage, the World Series, Piazza is anxious to show a different side of himself.

“As ballplayers, we’re performers at heart. We love to make the crowd cheer and stand up, and there’s a lot of theatrics to it. Unfortunately baseball is a very humbling sport, so I never really got to let my personality out,” he says. “But now that I’m retired, man … I enjoy life, and things like this are stuff that maybe 10 years ago I would have never done, but now I can have a lot of fun with.”

Piazza, a Miami resident who has two daughters with wife Alicia and another baby on the way, says Nicoletta will be in the audience for his performance. The experience with her at Miami City Ballet School has only renewed his appreciation for the dancers’ athleticism, discipline and commitment.

“I’ve always had a great amount of respect for this art form,” he says. “I mean I don’t have much rhythm, but I do enjoy the athletic aspect of it.”

Sharing that respect for the performing arts is part of the reason he has put himself in such an unusual environment. He knew the jokes would follow. But it’s worth it, he says, if support for the arts and arts education come, too.

“Take the personal … joshing I get from people out of it — this is very important,” he says. “It’s important for the city, it’s important for culture and development of the arts, so it’s a small thing for me to help out.”

IF YOU GO
What: Miami City Ballet's Program IV: Broadway and Ballet includes performances of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering” and George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”
When/where: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale; 8 p.m. May 3-4 and 2 p.m. May 5 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Piazza will appear May 3 only.
Cost: $20-$175 (both Broward Center and Arsht Center). Get half-off select orchestra seats at the Arsht Center performances May 3-5 by using promo code P4A50 when buying tickets via the box office (call 305-929-7010) or at MiamiCityBallet.com. Offer expires noon May 2.
Contact: 954-462-0222, BrowardCenter.org; 305-949-6722, ArshtCenter.org; MiamiCityBallet.org

Photo and video: Taimy Alvarez, Sun Sentinel

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