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All Seems Forgiven
On a visit to Los Angeles with the Mets, Mike Piazza got the feeling he would be welcomed back
by Mark Bechtel
Posted: Wed September 2, 1998
Mets catcher Mike Piazza needed all of one minute to remind fans in Los Angeles of what they had been missing since the Dodgers traded him in May. At 5:47 p.m. last Friday he stepped into the batter's box at Dodger Stadium for the first time since the deal, and at 5:48 p.m. he hit a batting practice pitch over the pavilion in leftfield.
Piazza's homecoming was just one of the juicy subplots that came west with the Mets, who arrived in Los Angeles tied with the Cubs for the National League wild card. Earlier in the week there had been reports that Dodgers interim general manager Tommy Lasorda wanted to hire New York manager and longtime friend Bobby Valentine as Los Angeles's general manager and manager-in-waiting. (Valentine is contractually prohibited from managing any team except the Mets until 2000.) Then one of New York's most popular players, catcher Todd Hundley, threw in the towel in his noble effort to play leftfield following reconstructive right elbow surgery. Unable to catch because his throwing arm wasn't fully recovered from the Sept. 26 operation, Hundley went to the outfield, but his bid to return to the lineup was a disaster.
"This season has had major soap opera after major soap opera," says Valentine, who laughed off the reports that he was L.A.-bound. "We've had distractions with Todd Hundley, but to his credit, he's tried his damnedest, and we've weathered that. We've weathered storms of trades, we've weathered injuries, and we've weathered hurricanes of boos in our home park."
Among those who needed shelter from the imprecations of the fans at Shea was Piazza, acquired from the Marlins on May 22, a week after the Dodgers traded him to Florida. Piazza had 22 RBIs in June and July while hitting only .220 with runners in scoring position, a big drop-off from his career average of .346 at the start of the season. Through Sunday he had picked up the pace, knocking in 28 runs and batting .330 (.294 with runners in scoring position), but the cold initial reception probably eliminated any chance the Mets had of re-signing Piazza when he becomes a free agent after the season.
But in L.A. countless fans wore Dodgers jerseys and T-shirts bearing his name and number 31. Souvenir stands at Dodger Stadium still offer Piazza shirts, which sell far more briskly than those adorned with the name and number of Piazza's All-Star replacement from the Marlins, Charles Johnson. (One souvenir vendor had to be informed by a colleague that they had Johnson shirts for sale. "We have them," his coworker told him. "I don't remember ever selling one, but we have them.")
After last Friday's game, in which he homered off Carlos Perez in a 5-4 Mets win, Piazza said the positive reception from the fans, to whom he twice doffed his helmet, surprised him. "I was honored," he said. "I didn't think I'd get that response." Whether the warm welcome opened the door for a reconciliation between Piazza and the Dodgers remains to be seen. Piazza's close relationship with Lasorda, who was named Los Angeles's interim general manager on June 22, is among the factors leading to speculation that Piazza will return to L.A. after the season.
For his part Piazza sounds as if he's sorry for having played fiscal hardball, and he suspects the Dodgers feel the same way. "For whatever reason, whatever happened happened, and everyone has regrets about it," says Piazza, 29. "Not specifically about not getting a deal done, but maybe about how the thing was approached. This whole year for me has been one big learning experience. Talking to friends and family, they say, 'Mike, think about how boring your career would have been if you hadn't done this.' Well, boring's looking pretty good right now."
Not to everyone it isn't. One of the primary complaints from Hundley, who set the major league record for homers in a season by a catcher (41 in 1996, one more than Piazza hit last year), is that leftfield is "the most boring position I've ever played." While Hundley had improved from dropping fly balls to making more subtle mistakes, such as throwing to the wrong base, Valentine realized that the transition to the outfield wasn't helping the Mets make the playoffs.
After an Aug. 25 loss in San Francisco, during which Hundley misplayed two balls, Valentine voiced his concerns to a group of reporters, who relayed the comments to Hundley. That night Hundley called Valentine and asked out of the lineup for the rest of the season. The Mets placed him on the disabled list and sent him to Triple A Norfolk for rehab. "There wasn't any point in me going out to leftfield in a pennant race," says Hundley. "We need an outfielder, not a guy who is getting used to playing a position he's never played. It's not fair to the team."
Hundley's poor defensive play would have been forgiven if he had been hitting well. "Our challenge in bringing him back wasn't to make him a Gold Glove leftfielder," Valentine says. "It was to get production from his bat." But Hundley hit just .162 with two homers in 42 games, and in 16 at bats against lefthanders the switch-hitting Hundley had one hit and 14 strikeouts. Hundley's priority now is to get his stroke back so that he might make the postseason roster as a pinch hitter and emergency catcher.
But unless the Mets get some production from their leftfielders (at week's end Tony Phillips had started four of New York's last five games in left), they might not have to worry about the postseason. Through Sunday, Valentine had started 10 players in left who had combined to hit .228 with nine homers and 51 RBIsand the centerfielders and the rightfielders hadn't done much better. Overall, New York outfielders had batted .242 with only 46 homers.
With such forgettable numbers, the Mets say intangibles have been a big part of their success. "The camaraderie here is as good as any team I've been on," says lefty Al Leiter, who has played for three World Series winners. "I would say we're not the most talented team around. But does that mean we can't win? Absolutely not."
There might be one more factor at playfate. Last Saturday, an hour or so after Toms River, N.J., won the Little League World Series with a last-inning home run, the Mets beat the Dodgers 4-3 on Edgardo Alfonzo's ninth-inning, two-run blast. That homer gave the Mets their major- league-leading 29th one-run victory, and it made a winner of Leiter, who was born in Toms River.
Issue date: September 7, 1998
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