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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Could Piazza's Next Move Be Back to the Dodgers?

May 09, 2003|Ross Newhan

Who can blame Rey Sanchez for leaving New York Met teammates in the dugout and getting a clubhouse haircut during the course of a recent game?

After all, it's turning into another hair-raising season for the Mets.

The general manager (Steve Phillips) could lose his job at any moment, the first baseman (Mo Vaughn) has about $30 million remaining on his contract and arthritis in his left knee and could face season- or career-threatening surgery, the esteemed second baseman (Roberto Alomar) is in the process of blowing a spot in the Hall of Fame through indifference and the $120-million payroll is the outrageous price of making bad decisions trying to keep tabloid pace with the Bronx neighbors.

Amid the combustion, the Mets have now made a long-predicted and, perhaps, inevitable decision that could compound the tumult already surrounding a young year.

Phillips and Manager Art Howe, as if in response to suggestions from every media outlet in Gotham, met with catcher Mike Piazza on Thursday and asked him to begin taking ground balls at first base in preparation for moving from behind the plate to replace the sidelined Vaughn.

If the timing perplexed Piazza, who still has goals he would like to achieve at catcher, it may ultimately serve to open the door to an even more dramatic -- and satisfying? -- move for him:

His return to the Dodgers as a first baseman at the end of the season.

Say, what?

Well, OK, no one will talk about this because of tampering restrictions, and no one will even suggest that it's being talked about, but why not?

A new general manager -- be it Met assistant Jim Duquette, Montreal's Omar Minaya, San Francisco's Brian Sabean or any other possibility -- is certain to take the Mets in a payroll-reducing new direction, and the Dodgers can fill New York's third base hole with Adrian Beltre (providing he is not traded in July), while including the talented arm of Guillermo Mota (no scenario would have Mota and Piazza, those noted antagonists, occupying the same clubhouse), among others.

Piazza is 34 and carries a steep price. He is owed $30 million in 2004 and 2005, but the Dodgers will have some payroll flexibility given that Fred McGriff is strictly a one-shot emergency at first base and Brian Jordan and Andy Ashby -- who are being paid $17 million this year -- are both likely to be gone at the end of the year.

In addition, Piazza might be so revitalized by the thought of a full-time return to Manhattan Beach and escaping the dark hole of Shea Stadium that he would be willing to defer some of that $30 million. There is also no overestimating the impact that the return of arguably the most popular player in L.A. Dodger history would have on attendance or a lineup in which Shawn Green and he would represent a potent left-right punch.

Piazza has long resisted the idea of moving to first base, citing the work that went into becoming a major league catcher and intent on securing his reputation as the most productive catcher in history.

Although he has pretty much secured that stature -- he is the only catcher to have hit 20 or more home runs for 10 consecutive seasons and he needs only 13 home runs to surpass Carlton Fisk's record of 351 for catchers -- the decision by the Mets to ask Piazza to move to a new position amid the pressure of the season and, possibly, before he has broken Fisk's record could not have set well with him.

Phillips said there was no timetable to the move and Piazza was receptive during their private meeting shortly before the series finale with the Dodgers, but Piazza did not seem pleased when he heard the news of the Mets' decision from reporters before meeting with Howe and Phillips.

He called it a "Catch-22," saying he would be perceived as selfish if he wanted to stay at catcher but would be left to feel that he was stepping on teammates' toes (particularly those of first baseman Tony Clark) if he made the move. He said it could be more of a distraction than a benefit to the team and that, "I still enjoy [catching], still feel I'm good at it and still feel I bring a lot of positives back there."

Perhaps, but some believe that Piazza has absorbed so much physical abuse behind the plate and taken so much criticism for his ineffective throwing -- he threw out only 17.8% of would-be base stealers last year, 34th among 36 qualifying catchers, and is at 26% this year -- that he may have been waiting only for the Mets to ask him to move, leaving the onus on an organization in seeming disrepair.

For now, Piazza will "do what needs to be done," swallowing whatever deeper emotions and sentiments he has.

He has been left somewhere between the plate and first base, with no certainty he can make this long-speculated transition without the luxury of an off-season to prepare and no certainty what the future may bring.

Would the Mets even consider trading him, and would the Dodgers be interested?

Well, it's only May and there are no obvious answers except these:

* The Mets seem headed for a total overhaul that would translate to a two- or three-year rebuilding process that is unlikely to interest Piazza.

* There are no big-time first base prospects readily apparent in the Dodger system and no player anywhere who could generate as many headlines and emotions as Piazza could by ending or extending his career where it began.

At this point, as the Dodgers left New York after the completion of their series Thursday night, it's strictly a clip-and-save concept based on the direction the two clubs seem headed.

The newly shorn Sanchez, of course, can supply the clippers if it becomes reality.

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