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Slammed From Both Sides

Opening Day '98

Baseball: Piazza unhappy and confused about state of his contract negotiations.

April 01, 1998|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. LOUIS — The Dodgers experienced the emotion of another opening day on Tuesday, and they greeted the new season with excitement and optimism.

But Mike Piazza did not have a warm feeling after the St. Louis Cardinals' 6-0 victory here, and the Dodgers' performance was only part of the reason.

After the game had ended, the all-star catcher broke his silence to The Times about his contract negotiations, saying for the first time that he is "confused and disappointed" by the lack of progress on the multiyear extension he is seeking. And Piazza is no longer confident about his standing in the organization, and wonders if his future will include the Dodgers.

"I'm not going to lie and say I'm not concerned about this, that I'm not confused and disappointed by the whole thing, because I am," said Piazza, who sat slumped in a chair in an empty visitors' clubhouse at Busch Stadium.

"I'm mad that this has dragged into the season, and that it now has the potential to become a distraction. I'm not going to use this as an excuse if things aren't going well, because that wouldn't be fair to the fans, my teammates or [team management]. But how can I not think about this?"

Piazza, who singled in four at-bats Tuesday, stopped commenting about the situation after the team failed to meet his self-imposed Feb. 15 deadline to agree on an extension. He instructed his agent, Dan Lozano, to handle the matter without his involvement until the seven-year extension he has sought since October, believed to be for at least $100 million, was completed.

However, Piazza has grown increasingly frustrated during the past few days. Negotiations between Lozano and team counsel Sam Fernandez stalled Friday, and they are not scheduled to speak again.

In Piazza's perception, the Dodgers' words and actions haven't coincided about their desire to keep him in Los Angeles.

"If they say they have the intent to sign me, then sign me," he said. "But if they don't have the intent to sign me, then just let me know.

"Just let me know, so at least I'll be able to start to think about having a future somewhere else after the season. But what they're doing now, the way this is going, I just don't get it."

Piazza will make $8 million this season in the final year of a two-year, $15-million contract. He is coming off the best season of his outstanding five-year career, hitting .362 with 40 home runs and 124 runs batted in. He was also the runner-up in voting for the most-valuable-player award for the second consecutive season.

However, Piazza, 29, began wondering about the Dodgers' desire to keep him under contract after hearing comments made by Bob Graziano, the team's new president and chief executive, shortly after the sale of the franchise to the Fox Group was completed March 19. During a news conference that day, he downplayed the urgency to meet with Lozano, because Piazza is under contract. He also said the completion of the sale would not spur activity.

"When I see something like that from Mr. Graziano, I don't know what to think," Piazza said. "I mean, what exactly does that mean?

"Are they trying to smoke us out, trying to get us to reveal something to help their negotiating position? If that's the case, they really don't have to do that. We've been upfront from the beginning, and it's not like we're holding a gun to anyone's head."

Fernandez, reached at home in Los Angeles, reaffirmed the team's commitment to signing Piazza to an extension. But he declined to comment on when, or if, negotiations will resume.

"We've said in the past that Mike is a very important member of our team, and that it is our intention to try to sign him," he said. "We're going to continue in our efforts, but we're not going to get into particulars. We're just not going to do that."

Team sources said that the Dodgers wanted to have a deal completed before the season opener, but that the sides are far apart. And although it seems unlikely, it is possible that the Dodgers might not want to sign Piazza, who is expected to eclipse Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez as the game's highest-paid player, for the price it may take.

The Dodgers will have their highest payroll in franchise history at $50 million this season, but that doesn't approach the projected $70-million payrolls of the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees. And they didn't acquire high-profile free agents in the off-season despite having perceived shortcomings in their lineup and bullpen.

Fox Group officials have repeatedly said that they won't spend wildly on players, and that they expect a return on their investment.

"I'm surprised by this," said Lozano, contacted at his office. "I have to believe that if they're committed to winning, Mike Piazza has to be a big part of that. But right now, the ball is in their court, and we don't have any idea what they're doing."

Piazza believes that the longer the situation drags on, the less likely the team wants him.

"I understand that this is business, and we're trying to handle this the way we feel we have to," he said. "But if they're going to force our hand, I'll play the season out and see what other teams out there want me."

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