Who's on first? It might be Piazza for Mets

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Who's on first? It might be Piazza for Mets

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Who's on first? It might be Piazza for Mets

Mets talk to catcher about playing first base

Thursday, May 8

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Baseball's best-hitting catcher might eventually be moving out from behind the plate.

After years of speculation, the New York Mets talked with All-Star catcher Mike Piazza on Thursday about beginning the process of learning to play first base.

General manager Steve Phillips and manager Art Howe met with Piazza before Thursday night's game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I thought it went very well," Piazza said. "Art and Steve were very candid and we all got on the same page. I told them I would do whatever needs to be done to help this organization."

Before the meeting, Piazza appeared to be annoyed that Phillips and Howe discussed the move publicly before broaching it with him. Howe took the blame for not telling Piazza what the talk would be about before going on television to discuss it.

"It's probably my fault," Howe said. "I didn't communicate clearly when I talked to him. I'll take the hit there."

Howe and Phillips said earlier this week that they didn't expect to talk to Piazza about a possible move in the near future.

But Howe said he changed his mind Wednesday night because of the uncertainty surrounding first baseman Mo Vaughn's injured knee.

"This is the very first step in what will be a process with an undefined timeline," Phillips said. "It's not as easy as taking a couple of grounders."

Piazza is considered by many to be the greatest-hitting catcher ever. A 10-time All-Star, Piazza has hit 339 home runs in his career as a catcher -- 12 shy of Carlton Fisk's record.

Piazza had more homers and RBI in his first 10 full years as a catcher than any other player in history and his .321 batting average was one point behind Bill Dickey.

Piazza's hitting prowess while also catching has been a source of pride for him and he has often indicated he would be reluctant to change positions.

He said he would listen if the Mets asked him to change and now the time has come.

"Mike's our catcher," Phillips said. "When this thing starts to progress he'll be our catcher who also plays first base. Where it goes beyond that I don't know."

Piazza's poor defense and diminished offensive skills as the grind of catching wore on his body also contributed to the decision.

Piazza hit .280 last season -- his lowest average in a full season -- hasn't driven in 100 runs the past two seasons after reaching that level in each non-strike year of his career. He has only three homers and six RBI this season.

Piazza, 34, is at an age when many top catchers began moving out from behind the plate. Johnny Bench, who often played other positions, stopped being a full-time catcher at age 33. Gary Carter didn't catch more than 85 games in a season after turning 34 and Yogi Berra was 35 when he began splitting time as a catcher and outfielder.

"I used to play doubleheaders where I'd catch the first game then move to first base. Believe me, it's like a day off after you've been catching," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, who caught during his first 10 years in the majors. "You're not as tired, not as beat up. Mentally you stay a little fresher, too."

Piazza was out of the starting lineup for the third straight game Thursday because of seven stitches in his abdomen for removing a mole. He won't begin taking grounders at first until he feels healthier.

Piazza is able to hit but squatting aggravates it -- an example of why the Mets want to move their most dangerous hitter to a position that allows him to play more.

"It's a huge advantage to have his bat in there and fresh in August and September," backup catcher Vance Wilson said. "He's been catching 130 games a year for 11 years. He's going to wear down."

Piazza, who hasn't played more than 141 games the past four years, has already missed 10 of New York's first 34 contests because of injuries and a four-game suspension.

Piazza has played only one game at first base in the majors, handling his only two chances cleanly in 1993 for Los Angeles.

He has not taken grounders at first base during spring training or before games to prepare for this move and doesn't even own a first baseman's glove.

"I think the general misconception is that I'll take a few groundballs and be a first baseman," Piazza said. "This is not an easy position to play. It's been years since I played first base. The last thing I want is to be a liability to this team."
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