Mike Piazza warms to the idea of playing a new position for the Mets
Mets Catcher Mike Piazza has heard it all: that he's too selfish to make the move from catcher to first base, that he's obsessed with surpassing Carlton Fisk's alltime home run record for a catcher instead of being focused on helping his team.
Piazza, the best-hitting catcher in history, who needs seven homers to surpass Fisk's mark of 351 (of Piazza's 355, 11 came when he wasn't catching), would like to set the record straight: He isn't ready to be an every-day first baseman, but he is ready to learn the position. "The perception is that I've been completely against the idea, which I've never been," he says. "I'm as curious as anybody. I don't know what my abilities are [as a first baseman]. Maybe I'll be fine. Maybe I'll love it."
Debate about Piazza's positional future has been raging on New York City talk radio and in the papers for more than a year, but the first discussion of the potential move between Piazza and the Mets didn't take place until May 8. To his chagrin, Piazza says, he first learned through reporters that the team wanted to talk to him about the switch. "The troublesome thing," Piazza says, "was the lack of communication."
The next week Piazza took grounders at first base before a game, but on May 16 he strained his groin and went on the disabled list for three months. Since returning to action last week, Piazza has appeared more willing to learn to play first. He took a first baseman's mitt with him on his rehab assignment at Triple A Norfolk and played two innings in a game. "I felt naked without my catcher's gear," Piazza said. Last Friday he asked infield coach Matt Galante to hit ground balls to him.
Manager Art Howe told Piazza that he could see playing time at first this season but didn't speculate on how soon that would be. Interim general manager Jim Duquette says that he foresees Piazza as perhaps a late-inning replacement at first by season's end. "It's not an overnight thing, and the last thing I want to do is go out there unprepared," Piazza says. "That's irresponsible to the team."
Indeed, Piazza could turn out to be more of a defensive liability at first than at catcher, where he has been oft criticized for a weak and inaccurate arm. (Since the start of 1993 he has thrown out 24.6% of runners attempting to steal, fourth worst among catchers with 500 or more games caught in that span.) "Piazza is not blessed with great athleticism," says an NL advance scout "He doesn't have a ton of agility, and there's a lot more to the position than catching the ball, like footwork and positioning."
Next season Piazza could be a catcher who plays first occasionally, but the reality is that the Mets would love to have Piazza's power numbers at first base full time. Mo Vaughn, the team's Opening Day first baseman, is 35 and overweight. Sidelined indefinitely with bone spurs and arthritis in his left knee, Vaughn will have appeared in only 166 of a possible 486 games from 2001 through '03, and he can't be counted on to be a productive player again. Also, the Mets acknowledge that rookie catcher turned first baseman Jason Phillips is not a long-term solution. In fact, Phillips, who was hitting .325 with nine homers and 47 RBIs in 84 games at week's end, is considered a defensive upgrade from Piazza at catcher. In 211? innings this season Phillips had a .993 fielding percentage and had allowed eight stolen bases; in 270? innings Piazza's fielding percentage was .964 and he had allowed 34 steals.
Before getting injured this season Piazza had made only two trips to the DL in his 12-year career while logging 1,346 games behind the plate. A move to first would most likely enable Piazza, who turns 35 next month, to extend his career. Over the last 10 years only two catchers who began a season 35 or older—Benito Santiago and Tony Pe�a—caught 120 or more games in a season.
"Right now I'm following the team's lead," Piazza says. "If [ Howe] asks me to go out there, I may not be that good, but I'll go out and do what's best for the team."