Piazza: The Price of Lesson Learned
It became official Monday, the news that--based on the reception he received when he returned to Chavez Ravine last summer for the first time in another uniform--most Dodger fans didn’t want to hear. Mike Piazza has signed a $91-million, seven-year contract that he believes will tie him to the New York Mets for the rest of his career.
Until details surfaced in the media over the weekend, some here had hoped Piazza’s separation from the Dodgers was merely that and would not result in divorce.
Those in the know, however, realized it was hopeless. Although the Dodgers wanted their fans to believe they were interested in reconciliation, they have too many other expensive needs--a No. 1 starting pitcher to replace Ramon Martinez, a left-handed power hitter, perhaps a closer if Jeff Shaw demands a trade.
The Angels, believe it or not, seemed like a more serious contender for Piazza, especially if they couldn’t sign the free agent who appears to be their and the Dodgers’ first choice, Mo Vaughn.
Willing to bend their bottom line for the right player, the Angels thought they might also entice Piazza with an opportunity to serve two- or three-dozen knee-sparing games as a designated hitter playing close to his home in Manhattan Beach.
But Piazza took Manhattan, well, OK, Queens.
It’s possible he went primarily for the money, that his Beverly Hills agent, Dan Lozano, had informal discussions with intermediaries from the Dodgers and Angels, realized Piazza would command more as a Met and advised him to sign without formally testing the market.
I have to believe, however, that there was more to it than that. If you saw Monday’s news conference from New York, you saw a Piazza who was more at ease, more at home, than at any time in the previous year.
“I went back to California in the off-season,” he said. “I knew the page had turned in my life, that there was a new chapter. I knew I had to move east.” He didn’t mean to Torrance.
The Mets made sure he could afford at least a two-bedroom co-op on the Upper West Side, giving him a $13-million-a-year deal that makes him baseball’s highest-paid player.
Met General Manager Steve Phillips cited intangibles in discussing Piazza’s value.
“We needed an identity, a marquee player, someone the fans could latch onto, that the players could latch onto,” he said.
He also cited an important tangible, calling Piazza “the best right-handed hitter in baseball.”
Phillips didn’t have to spell it out for the New York Times, which headlined a column about Piazza’s deal in the previous day’s editions, “Mets Got Themselves a Bargain.”
How could Dodger executives not have understood that when they failed to sign Piazza last spring?
Maybe some did. In discussions with Fred Claire before and since he was fired as the Dodgers’ executive vice president, it’s clear he knew how much Piazza was worth to the franchise.
In retrospect, Claire, chief contract negotiator Sam Fernandez and Peter O’Malley erred in January 1997, when they signed Piazza to a two-year, $15-million contract instead of the six-year, $60-million deal he wanted. Talk about a bargain.
But, as Claire explains, O’Malley had announced that the team was for sale and believed the new owner should decide how much of an investment to make in Piazza.
Claire, however, never envisioned the day Piazza would wear another team’s uniform, not even during the first week of last season when acrimonious talks broke down. As far as Claire was concerned, that was an ebb in the tide of negotiations.
In his worst-case scenario, talks would resume and continue until the trading deadline in late July, when the Dodgers might then conclude they couldn’t sign Piazza and start entertaining offers.
In Claire’s more likely scenario, they would either sign Piazza before the trading deadline or make enough progress to believe they could reach an agreement during the 15-day period after the World Series, when they were guaranteed exclusive negotiating rights.
Although Claire hasn’t discussed numbers publicly, enough other people have, among them Piazza, to conclude that the Dodgers were closer than even they knew to signing him.
A six-year deal worth $85 million, with a limited no-trade clause, would have done it. In fact, the six-year deal worth $79 million they ultimately offered probably would have done it if he had been warned they were about to trade him.
We’ll never know now because Fox executive Chase Carey, perhaps believing Piazza’s demand for $100 million really was a demand instead of a negotiating point, panicked and traded him without seeking Claire’s counsel.
The Dodgers made us believe Florida offered the best deal available, but we’ll never know that either because, as it turns out, the Dodgers didn’t check out other potential deals.
We now know three things for certain:
* Piazza’s $100-million demand wasn’t set in stone.
* He wasn’t committed to testing the free-agent market.
* The so-called best deal available was a terrible deal.
Who among the five players they received from the Marlins will the Dodgers have to show for it when next season begins?
Not Bobby Bonilla, who can’t coexist with new Manager Davey Johnson. Not Jim Eisenreich, whose option for next year wasn’t exercised by the Dodgers. Not Manuel Barrios, the young pitching prospect who was cut loose and reclaimed by the Marlins.
They will have Charles Johnson, a Gold Glove catcher whose bat is so lame he bats eighth in the order, and Gary Sheffield, an $11-million a year player who didn’t want to play in the All-Star game, doesn’t want to play left field and has indicated he doesn’t want to play for the Dodgers if his friend, Bonilla, is gone.
If anything good has come from this episode, it is that Fox now realizes how little it knows about baseball and will entrust future decisions to its new general manager, Kevin Malone.
It’s time to move on. Unless Piazza hits a home run to beat the Dodgers, we won’t have to ask ourselves again what might have been until five years or so after he retires.
“If I have the fortune someday to go into the Hall of Fame,” he said Monday, “it definitely will be in a Met uniform.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Player, Team: Avg.
Mike Piazza, New York Mets: $13,000,000
Pedro Martinez, Boston: $12,500,000
Greg Maddux, Atlanta: $11,500,000
Barry Bonds, San Francisco: $11,450,000
Gary Sheffield, Dodgers: $11,416,667
Player, Team: Avg.
Troy Aikman, Dallas: $5,874,200
Drew Bledsoe, New England: $5,298,900
Barry Sanders, Detroit: $4,988,300
Trent Dilfer, Tampa Bay: $4,493,400
Dan Marino, Miami: $4,343,100
Player, Team: Avg.
Michael Jordan, Chicago: $33,140,000
Patrick Ewing, New York: $20,500,000
Horace Grant, Orlando: $14,290,000
Shaquille O’Neal, Lakers: $12,857,143
David Robinson, San Antonio: $12,397,440
Player, Team: Avg.
Sergei Fedorov, Detroit: $14,000,000
Paul Kariya, Mighty Ducks: $8,500,000
Eric Lindros, Philadelphia: $8,500,000
Dominik Hasek, Buffalo: $8,000,000
Mats Sundin, Toronto: $6,347,164
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