All Seems Forgiven
On a visit to Los Angeles with the Mets, Mike Piazza got the feeling he would be welcomed back
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.
The small percentage of fans on hand who had booed Piazza when he first stepped into the cage went silent as he exited, and the majority, who had been cheering for him, turned it up a notch. There was more of the same during that night's game. Every time his name was announced or he did anything noteworthy on the field, Piazza—who hastened his departure from L.A. by turning down the Dodgers' six-year, $80 million contract offer at the start of this season—was cheered by most of the 52,154 in attendance. The message was clear: You might be greedy, Mike, but if you want to come back, that's fine by us.
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.