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Mets May Have New Spot for Piazza

With Vaughn injured, team officials have asked All-Star catcher to learn how to play first base.

May 09, 2003|Jason Reid | Times Staff Writer

NEW YOR — NEW YORK -- If the New York Mets hope to end the circus-like atmosphere at Shea Stadium, they're going about it unconventionally.

The Mets further fueled the perception of an organization in disarray Thursday, announcing their plan to have All-Star catcher Mike Piazza learn how to play first base.

General Manager Steve Phillips and Manager Art Howe surprised Piazza, informing reporters before a 6-1 loss to the Dodgers that Piazza would begin practicing at first soon.

"If he said that to you, he didn't say that to me yet," Piazza said before meeting with Phillips during the game. "Let's see if that's the case. I don't know what was said, not said. We need to get on the same page."

The Piazza situation marked the latest embarrassing episode for the Mets in a week it was revealed that shortstop Rey Sanchez got a haircut in the clubhouse during a loss. Phillips is on the hot seat after many questionable decisions that pushed the payroll to $120 million, and now a future Hall of Famer has been caught off guard by management.

"I'm just trying to weed through the confusion," said Piazza, out of the starting lineup against the Dodgers after undergoing surgery to have a benign mole removed from his right lower abdomen.

Phillips and Howe acted because first baseman Mo Vaughn is facing season-ending left knee surgery, and Piazza, considered the major leagues' premier offensive player at his position, continues to get pounded physically behind the plate. Moreover, Piazza, who began his career with the Dodgers, is still criticized for his poor throwing.

After the game, Piazza spoke cautiously.

"Well, the cat's out of the bag now," he said. "We can discuss it internally behind the scenes, but I can't stress enough it's not an overnight process."

With the difficulty of a position change, and everything going on with the Mets, why do this now?

"I think Mo's injury is the big impetus," said Phillips, who repeatedly stressed the Mets don't have a definitive timetable for the uncommon in-season move.

"It's something you do only if there's a good reason to do it. Mike Piazza at catcher gives us the greatest advantage of any position over our opponents' players at that position. Obviously, with Mo out of playing for a while, it makes it a more pertinent topic."

After emerging from a meeting with Piazza and Howe, Phillips expressed optimism about Piazza's new path.

"We had a very good conversation with Mike," he said. "It was a very frank and open conversation, and Mike was very receptive to the idea and the concept.

"Right now, he can't do anything because of the stitches he has. It buys us a few days to talk through some of the details of what to do and how to go about it."

Phillips acknowledged the situation could have been handled better.

How soon will Piazza become an everyday first baseman?

"You just don't take a few ground balls, and all of a sudden you're a first baseman," Phillips said. "When the details are put together, it's not going to be some specific date that everybody's shooting for. We'll just see how it goes."

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