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Making the Rounds

Mike Piazza moved from one coast to the other, from Manhattan Beach to Manhattan Island, but, as he contemplates playing against the Dodgers tonight for the first time since he became an ex-Dodger in May, he finds himself in exactly the same place he was before he left.

Fans in his home park are booing him, critics are taking aim at his catching, the media are debating whether he’s worth the money it will take for his team to sign him. With no contract beyond October, he’s not sure where he will be next season.

In the New York Mets’ clubhouse before Thursday night’s game at Shea Stadium against the San Diego Padres, Piazza said he’s not even sure where he will be next week.

Major league baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline is midnight (EDT) tonight. If the Mets aren’t going to sign him to the long-term contract he wants, now would be the right time to trade him.

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No one has given that more thought than Steve Phillips, the Mets’ general manager who sent three prospects to the Florida Marlins for Piazza and, now faced with the Dodgers’ problem of a couple of months ago, is concerned about losing him as a free agent with only a couple of draft choices as compensation.

Phillips said Thursday it was “very highly unlikely” he would trade Piazza within the next 24 hours, but he wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

“You hear the talk,” Piazza said. “You’d be lying if you said you don’t listen and that you aren’t curious to find out what your situation’s going to be. I’m not going to be able to relax until the deadline passes.”

It’s almost inconceivable that a player of Piazza’s caliber, at age 29, should have to worry about the trading deadline. He’s a future Hall of Famer, possibly the best offensive catcher ever, a hitter who had numbers for his first five seasons in the major leagues like no other player since Joe DiMaggio.

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Yet, Piazza has been traded twice since May 15 and may be traded again.

“It’s been a very, very strange season,” he said.

You could say the same thing about the first team that traded him, the team he believed he would be with for the rest of his career until the front office caused him to start thinking otherwise by balking two years ago at giving him a long-term contract.

With the Dodgers coming to Shea Stadium tonight for the first of a four-game series, Piazza said he has given them no thought.

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“Nobody made a big deal about it when I played against my other old team, the Marlins,” he said.

He was joking. Florida had him for five games before sending him to the Mets.

But, in all seriousness, he said he doesn’t expect to feel as sentimental as he might have before the Dodgers started operating like the Yankees West. Their only starters who were in the lineup at this time a year ago with Piazza are Eric Karros and Raul Mondesi.

“The Dodgers almost don’t seem like the Dodgers anymore,” he said. “Look at Billy [Russell]. I figured he would be the manager until the end of the season, no matter how the team played, just because the Dodgers don’t fire managers in the middle of the season. But it’s a different era now.”

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Piazza said he realized that during the second game of spring training when he played all nine innings because the game was televised in Los Angeles and Russell thought it important to win in order to impress the new ownership.

Piazza, however, didn’t realize he would have no role with the new Dodgers until they refused in negotiations at the start of the season to give him a no-trade clause.

“Everyone focused on the money, the $100 million I supposedly wanted, but nobody ever said that figure was a deal breaker,” Piazza said. “I’m not going to say money wasn’t important, but the no-trade clause was an equally important issue.”

Piazza wouldn’t reveal the amount it would have taken for him to stay in Los Angeles--the numbers reported in the media here when his future with the Mets is discussed are $85 million for seven years--but he said it’s clear from the Dodgers’ payroll today that they could have afforded to sign him and still have traded for Gary Sheffield and Jeff Shaw.

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Considering that none of the five players, except Sheffield, acquired from the Marlins in the Piazza trade have contributed as much as expected, it’s arguable that the Dodgers would be better if they had done that.

As for the Mets, they’re definitely better because of their trade for Piazza.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that from going to a game at Shea Stadium, where Piazza hears boos each time he goes to the plate. His .227 average with men in scoring position has obscured the .345 batting average he has had since joining the team.

“It’s not the most productive .345,” he acknowledged. “I’m the first one who will say that. I’m hitting .345, but I don’t feel like I’m contributing anything.”

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As for his defense, former Met catcher Bob Brenly, now a broadcaster for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network, said on the air last week, “Piazza is a liability behind home plate. The decision the Mets have to make is: Is he giving you enough offensively to make up for what you lose defensively?”

Met Manager Bobby Valentine said it would be an easy decision for him, not that it’s his to make.

Told that Piazza is anxious about the trading deadline, Valentine said, “I don’t think he’s got anything to worry about. I hope not. He’s one of our trump cards.”

When Valentine gave Piazza a couple of games off last week, some media reports called it a benching. Valentine said Piazza was pressing and needed to relax.

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Piazza has improved since and extended his hitting streak to 12 games Thursday night with a second-inning home run off the Padres’ Sterling Hitchcock that traveled an estimated 472 feet.

A solo home run, his critics no doubt will point out.

“Mike is a good guy with a good sense of humor, but I don’t think he’s a guy who can handle too much criticism,” said Lenny Harris, a Met outfielder who played with Piazza in Los Angeles.

Piazza, who grew up near Philadelphia, understands booing.

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“The fans have been fair with me,” he said. “If you don’t produce, they’ll boo. I still really love playing here.”

If the Mets don’t sign him, though, he said he’s looking forward to going somewhere next season where he’s wanted as much as he wants to be there.

Maybe back to Los Angeles, now that his former mentor, Tom Lasorda, is the Dodgers’ interim general manager?

“I’m not going to close that door,” he said.

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But he still wants a no-trade clause.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Piazza Factor

How Mike Piazza’s statistics compare before and after his trade from the Dodgers (through Thursday):

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WITH DODGERS

At-bats: 149

Average: .282

Home runs: 9

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RBIs: 30

Record with Piazza: 19-22, .463

Record without Piazza: 37-30, .552

WITH MARLINS

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At-bats: 18

Average: .278

Home runs: 0

RBIs: 5

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Record with Piazza: 1-4, .200

Record without Piazza: 38-66, .365

WITH METS

At-bats: 207

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Average: .343

Home runs: 9

RBIs: 24

Record with Piazza: 33-29, .532

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Record without Piazza: 24-20, .545

OVERALL

At-bats: 370

Average: .316

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Home runs: 18

RBIs: 59

TONIGHT’S GAME

Dodgers at New York

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Time: 4:30

TV: Channel 5

Radio: AM 1150


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