"You gotta sometimes have the courage to go out there and do something like this, and I think the overall effect will be positive," Piazza said Tuesday after his costume fitting for the role of a gangster in "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue."
Piazza will walk on stage and say a few lines in the company's May 3 production of the ballet George Balanchine choreographed as part of the 1930s musical "On Your Toes."
"If I have to take a few good-natured insults, you know, I've taken a lot of abuse before so, no question, I've got big shoulders," he said. "The bottom line is to draw attention to the show, to the arts, the art of ballet and dancing in general. It's something I'm very excited about."
He literally has big shoulders, too. In the ballet company's costume department, he swung his arms and shrugged his shoulders to test his range of motion in a taupe houndstooth suit usually worn by more lithe male dancers. Some tailoring would be required, along with a larger-sized fedora.
Even if he won't be dancing in the costume, he wanted to make sure his character could swagger convincingly to open a ballet featuring gangsters, strippers and an attempted murder plot.
Piazza, who had 427 career home runs and made 12 All-Star Game appearances, didn't know anything about Balanchine when he first stepped into the rehearsal studio, though he did impress the dancers with the exaggerated accent and smoking habit that he gave his character.
"He knows a lot about acting, which makes it a lot easier," said principal soloist Kleber Rebello, who will play the part of a jealous Russian dancer who hires Piazza's gangster to kill his rival.
"He'll be bringing different people, maybe people who haven't watched ballet yet. It's definitely a good opportunity," Rebello said.
Attracting new audience members has been a priority at the Miami Beach dance company, which is embracing new collaborations after a financial restructuring and a change in artistic director. One such collaboration paired two ballerinas with Miami Heat basketball players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for a recent ad campaign promoting downtown Miami's cultural scene.
Piazza, whose daughter is a student at Miami City Ballet School, said he's eager to help boost the dancers' image among sports fans.
Philip Neal, who is staging the production and coaching Piazza in his role, said he was thrilled that athletes such as Piazza are highlighting the athleticism and discipline of dance, particularly for boys. Neal played Little League baseball before growing up to dance at New York City Ballet when Piazza played for the New York Mets.
"It's a very taxing and athletic activity," Neal said. "I'm really grateful for Mike to bring some light to that fact."
Miami City Ballet: www.miamicityballet.org