Will Everyone Keep His Head?
The Dodgers will be in Shea Stadium on Tuesday night to start a three-game series against the New York Mets.
Somebody alert the National Guard.
For the first time since a spring-training melee between the teams, the central figures in that fight, Met catcher Mike Piazza and Dodger reliever Guillermo Mota, will be in the same stadium.
The last time they were in such close proximity, during an exhibition game March 16 at Port St. Lucie, Fla., Mota sparked a benches-clearing brawl by backing Piazza off the plate with his first pitch and drilling him in the left shoulder with his second.
Piazza bolted to the mound and was about to deliver a round-house right to Mota’s chin before being diverted by catcher David Ross. Several Mets chased the backpedaling Mota into the Dodger dugout while three Dodgers restrained Piazza.
Minutes later, Dodger outfielder Brian Jordan whisked Mota out of the stadium, a veteran move that might have saved Mota’s career. Piazza stormed into the Dodger clubhouse, his face full of fury, screaming, “Where’s Mota? Where’s Mota?”
Had Mota been in that nearly empty room, there is no telling what damage Piazza would have inflicted on the pitcher.
“Never, ever have I seen his thermometer up that high,” said Vince Piazza, Mike’s father, who was in Port St. Lucie that night. “He was at a boiling point. If he would have caught [Mota] I would have felt sorry for the kid.”
The potential for Piazza-Mota III -- they also scuffled after Mota had hit Piazza with a spring-training pitch in 2002 -- raises several intriguing questions:
* Is Piazza bent on revenge, and if so, to what extent would he go to exact it?
* Will Dodger Manager Jim Tracy be hesitant to use Mota, especially against Piazza?
* If Mota faces Piazza, will the hard-throwing right-hander pitch aggressively inside, possibly risking a Shea Stadium riot, or be extra careful, staying off the plate?
* And will other Dodgers, such as Shawn Green and Fred McGriff, become targets for Met pitchers looking to even the score?
Piazza declined to address the subject ast week. Vince Piazza doubted there would be any incidents.
“Unless Mota does something stupid,” he said. “And I don’t know how the rest of the team feels. You never know in these situations whether they feel they have to do something.”
There is concern among the Dodgers that because the last-place Mets are struggling, and because bench-clearing brawls often provide a spark and improve team chemistry, the Mets could be itching for a fight.
Both Piazza and Mota got four-game suspensions for the spring incident, and Bob Watson, baseball’s discipline czar who will be in Shea on Tuesday, made it clear the penalties for another flare-up will be severe.
“I understand that when you play the game, the machismo, the ego and the testosterone levels rise, but you still have to use common sense,” Watson said. “This type of behavior is not going to be tolerated.”
Watson wouldn’t speculate about punishment should the Piazza-Mota feud escalate, but it would probably make Arizona pitcher Miguel Batista’s recent 10-game suspension seem like a slap on the wrist.
“Both teams paid the price [to start the season] and the hammer is going to be dropped even worse if something else happens,” Dodger center fielder Dave Roberts said. “We can’t afford to lose Mota, just like they can’t afford to lose Mike. We need to take the high road.”
But will Mota take the high-and-tight road? One reason the 6-foot- 4, 210-pound Mota has developed into one of baseball’s better relievers is that he has learned to pitch inside more effectively. And he has no intention of changing this week.
“I have to pitch just how I’m pitching now,” said Mota, who is 1-1 with a 1.59 earned-run average in 15 appearances. “That’s part of the reason I’ve been so successful. No matter who is hitting, I have to pitch and get people out.”
Tracy said he had no intention of shielding Mota from Piazza.
“We’re going to play the same way we’ve played these first  games,” Tracy said. “Whatever matchup gives us the best chance to win, that’s exactly how we’re going to handle it. I’m not concerned.”
Major League Baseball and team officials are. Veteran umpire Joe Brinkman, the crew chief for the series, will meet with Tracy and Met Manager Art Howe before Tuesday’s game, and Rob Kasdon, vice president of security for Shea, said there would be increased surveillance in the seats above the visiting bullpen and dugout.
Security will be beefed up -- not to the red-alert levels sparked by former Brave reliever John Rocker’s visit to Shea after his derogatory comments in a Sports Illustrated article in 1999, but there will be a stronger police presence in the stadium and on the field during batting practice.
Of course, there will be no one between the mound and home plate if Mota hits Piazza again. And unlike the 2000 World Series, when Piazza declined to charge the mound after Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens hurled the barrel of a broken bat toward him, the Met catcher won’t be so forgiving.
In some ways, the Piazza-Clemens feud -- Clemens had beaned Piazza earlier in 2000 -- might have contributed to Piazza-Mota. Some of Piazza’s teammates questioned his ferocity in 2000, and the Mets did not retaliate to their satisfaction when they faced Clemens in 2001.
When told how furious Piazza was with Mota in March, Philadelphia reliever Turk Wendell, a 2000 teammate of Piazza’s, said:
“I like Mike a lot.... I wish he would have had that same rage when Clemens threw at him. Guys were talking smack, calling him a wimp because he didn’t go after Clemens. I told him, ‘Why didn’t you go get him? We would have been right behind you.’ I don’t know if that affected him or if he just got tired of being hit.”
It was probably both, Vince Piazza said.
“To have someone throw at your head ... Mike had to let people know he wasn’t going to allow that to happen again,” he said. “And all that ... with Clemens, people saying he should have gone after him, the perception he’s not going to fight back, so go ahead and pitch him inside, maybe he had to establish himself.
“Superman could be pitching, and if he throws at Mike’s head, he’s coming to get you. When he gets into that state of mind, I don’t care who it is, he’s going to fight.”