First Move Mike Piazza warms to the idea of playing a new position for the Mets

August 24, 2003

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 1/3 innings
this season Phillips had a .993 fielding percentage and had
allowed eight stolen bases; in 270 2/3 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 Pena--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."

Read Tom Verducci's Inside Baseball column every week at
si.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: MARC LEVINE Piazza made his mark as catcher with his bat, not with his defense.

Exclusive Club

Mike Piazza isn't only the greatest hitting catcher but also one
of seven players with a .320 career average and at least 350
homers. --David Sabino

Player Team Avg. HR

Ted Williams Red Sox .344 521
Babe Ruth Red Sox, Yankees, Braves .342 714
Lou Gehrig Yankees .340 493
Stan Musial Cardinals .331 475
Jimmie Foxx A's, Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies .325 534
Joe DiMaggio Yankees .325 361
Mike Piazza* Dodgers, Marlins, Mets .321 355

*Through Sunday

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)