Piazza Looks To Regain Ordinary All-Star Form

At one point, Mike Piazza was the most feared right-handed hitter in the sport of baseball. Yet, eight months shy of his 36th birthday, the future Cooperstown inductee is coming off the first major injury of his career and dealing with the prospect of moving from behind the plate to first base.

"I'm going through things I've never gone through before," Piazza said. "It's going to be interesting to see where it all leads."

Piazza was forced to sit out three months last season after tearing his groin muscle in San Francisco against the Giants. With the Mets long out of contention, he opted to undertake a deliberate rehabilitation program that included five games in the minor leagues.

Following his return in August, Piazza was certainly not his vintage self. He hammered just six home runs over 35 games -- none in his final 88 at-bats of the season.

Over the last two seasons he has hit just .285, thirty-four points lower than his career average of .319. That is a precipitous dive for a future Hall of Famer.

The injury explains part of the decline in production. A weak Met lineup in recent seasons can also be targeted as a reason. But outside factors contributed only so much. Piazza, unquestionably, is at a crossroads in his career.

The brass of the Mets organization hope that playing first base once or twice a week will cut down on nagging injuries and return Piazza to his customary All-Star form. Not only would it help keep their star healthy, but it allow the team to have him in the lineup more often. Such instances like a day game following a night game, a time when the catcher would usually miss one of the two.

It was an idea manager Art Howe planned to follow before Piazza became injured. Now it has become almost a necessity.

"The fact is that Mike is getting older, and he had a serious, serious injury," Howe said. "He's got to be open to it, and I've talked to him and he's ready to do it."

While falling short of praising the notion, Piazza no longer bristles when the subject of playing first comes up. Howe has assured him that he will still be the team's regular catcher.

Mike realizes the benefits of a transition.

"My key is to stay healthy the whole year," Piazza said. "With the speed at the top of the lineup, we should be all right and put some runs on the board. ... I'm definitely optimistic."

As is his custom, Piazza kept a low profile after the season. Not even a breathless tabloid report in November that claimed he wanted to be traded merited a response at the time.

"It was total fiction," Piazza said. "I've never asked to be traded. Why would I?"

Now Piazza will be faced with a new challenge, fielding questions about his glacial transition to first base. It's a subject that has become extremely tedious to him, but he understands the interest and importance.

"I've learned to roll with the punches," he said. "I'm just looking forward to playing again."

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