Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Piazza Thriving Under The Radar

Mike Piazza, Hall of Fame shoo-in, all-time catching great, has a little secret.
For the first time in his storied major-league career, the onetime marquee player of the mega-market Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets spent a season practically off the grid.
Moved to San Diego. Mellowed out. Went all Left Coast and low-key - and absolutely loved it.
"My whole career, I've had a big job and never shied away from it," said Phoenixville High's most celebrated baseball product. "I always enjoyed being the go-to guy. But this year it's been about being a pseudo-everyday player, and also a role player, and a mentor, working with young kids.
"And, you know what? It's been fun to play this way, to play under the radar."
As he spoke, a grin creased the face of baseball's all-time leader in home runs among catchers (398). And it illustrated just how happy the 38-year-old is to be where he is and who he is.
Who he is: a vital part of a Padres team that won the National League West. Where he is: in the NL division series opener today at home against the NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals.
As Piazza spoke, he did so with the precocious air of a schoolboy, which is understandable since no matter where this postseason takes him, the 14-year vet will go not as an afterthought.
"He's done a great job with the staff and helped stabilize it," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "He gives us a veteran presence back there. Our pitchers have confidence throwing to him."
Value has come at the plate as well as behind it. Though 28-year-old Josh Bard (50 starts) and 25-year-old Rob Bowen (eight) were key backups, it was the old man who started 99 games and hit 22 of the troika's 34 home runs and accounted for 68 of its 121 RBIs. Piazza had not achieved such totals since 2002, when he hit 33 homers and drove in 98 runs for the Mets.
Piazza's home runs this season ranked second among National League catchers, after Atlanta's Brian McCann (24). On the Padres, he trailed only Adrian Gonzalez's 24, a number compiled in 156 games compared to Piazza's 126.
"Twenty-some home runs?" said pitcher David Wells. "His bat is huge."
What a difference a year makes. Last season, back East, questions about whether Piazza could still be the go-to guy became irrelevant. How to get him to just go away became more pertinent as baseball-crazed New York increasingly fixated on Piazza's age, injuries and eroding defensive and offensive capabilities.
The end of what had been a long love affair with a legend was poignant and, at times, painful. Remember the mercifully short-lived attempt to convert Piazza into a first baseman?
Piazza, bright, sensitive, accepted the inevitable. "I wanted to finish my career in New York; I loved the tradition, I loved the fans," Piazza said. "But it just didn't seem like it was going to work out. And I didn't want to be a burden."
Thrown onto the free-agent market, Piazza had his suitors, including the team he grew up watching from his father's field box at Veterans Stadium.
"The Phillies definitely showed interest, and it was definitely an option," Piazza said, "but at the end of the day, with [Mike] Lieberthal there, well, an $8 million catcher is not going to sit.
"I wasn't looking to be a starter, or a guarantee of games, but at that time there was just so much more flexibility in San Diego. Even Pat [Gillick, the Phillies' general manager] said maybe that would be the best option."
San Diego did have its selling points. Weather - 72 and sunny every day - the slew of quality pitchers, a talented roster. Then there was a sincerity as the Padres convinced Piazza they would treat him as a valued commodity.
"You don't want guarantees, but you do want a little bit of a blueprint of how you would fit in," the catcher said. "And it just felt right. There was just an energy there. It became more of a spiritual decision than a mechanical one."
The job was not full-time, but that comes with age, Wells said.
"As a veteran, you know when you are winding down, when you're going to face limited playing time," the pitcher said. "So when people ask: Is his arm as strong? The answer is simple. No one's is when you get older.
"So, you come out for defensive purposes. Your backups take some of the pressure off."
Still, make no mistake, said Wells. "Mike's definitely an impact player. It's all about winning and compiling knowledge, and he's done that. So we need him back there, because he's still that strong a presence."

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