2004-01-23 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

New York Mets manager Art Howe, left, talks to Mike Piazza, right and Al Leiter, center, during the Mets Caravan at Grand Central Terminal. (AP Photo/ Osa­­mu Honda).New York Mets manager Art Howe, left, talks to Mike Piazza, right and Al Leiter, center, during the Mets Caravan at Grand Central Terminal. (AP Photo/ Osa­­mu Honda).

The Mets kicked off their annual winter caravan in a ceremony at spacious Grand Central Terminal this week, assembling underneath a banner hawking their new slogan for the 2004 season: "Catch the Energy."

Seeing this, one newspaper reporter smirked and asked aloud, "Catch the energy? How about catching the ball?"

Luckily for the Mets – especially for the beleaguered pitching staff which had to retire four batters an inning last year – they should be able to do a much better job of flashing the leather in this upcoming campaign. The acquisitions of Gold Glove Award winner Mike Cameron and Japanese shortstop Kazuo Matsui will help to seal a defense that arguably had more leaks than the Titanic.

Similarly, signing groundskeeper-friendly free agent Karim Garcia to play right field was an instant winner. Garcia’s statistics won’t approach the numbers put up across town by the man the Yankees acquired to fill his position, Gary Sheffield, but no matter the offensive production, Garcia will be a valuable pickup in that he’ll help keep Roger Cedeno’s defensively-challenged bottom stapled to the bench.

But if you’re going to truly examine the state of the Mets’ glovework for this upcoming season, you have to focus your attention on just one great topic – when will Mike Piazza make that long-awaited move to first base, and for how many games?

Hopes for an offseason miracle were dashed this week, when manager Art Howe said that he still expects Piazza to be in the lineup as a catcher on Opening Day; this, even though Piazza will have had at least six extra weeks of work in the infield under his belt by the time the Mets head north.

At least publicly, Piazza says that he is "looking forward" to the position switch, citing the fact that playing first base will save some extra wear and tear from his body down the road.

But in case you haven’t noticed, the Mets don’t have an everyday first base­man – Jason Phillips did a nice job there last year, albeit in awkward fashion, and nobody expects Mo Vaughn to rumble into Shea Stadium any time soon.

Sticking Piazza 90 feet down the line would not only allow Phillips and Vance Wilson (both superior defensive catchers) to have more time in the lineup, it would eliminate the ugly proposition of exposing veteran backup Todd Zeile – another ‘03 Yankee castoff – for more than 250 at-bats this season.

"I’ll do what’s best for the team," Piazza said. "It’s just a matter of seeing how it works out in spring training. It’s up to Art. There are no numbers and no set plan."

As for Howe, he still sounds – as he did for much of last season – like a man simply hoping that the pieces of the puzzle will fit, with no real plan of recourse if they don’t.

"Hopefully, he’ll enjoy playing there," Howe said. "Maybe he’ll want to play there more often."

The truth is, the Mets have to be grateful to Piazza just for not raking them over the coals in an offseason that started off nicely with the Camer­on, Matsui and Braden Looper signings, but took a sharp downward spiral with their failed pursuit of Guerrero.

Having suffered through three consecutive frustrating seasons, Piazza could have easily battered the Mets with requests to be traded to a club with a legitimate chance of contending for a World Series title in 2004. That being said, Piazza’s sometimes-mopey demeanor won’t fade if the Mets get off to yet another poor start, but at least Piazza seems prepared to help the youth-infused Mets on their road back to respectability.

• It wasn’t too long ago that the Rangers looked as though they might have some glimmer of hope for a playoff spot. Why, then, does it always seem like the team always backs itself into an impossible corner, making every regular season game into a crucial "must win"?

The Rangers are literally out of wriggle room, having fallen into 10th place in the Eastern Conference this week after suffering through back-to-back unimpressive games against the Bruins. Not surprisingly, fans are calling – loudly – for the head of GM/coach Glen Sather.

Even so, it’s unlikely that the Cable­vision-owned Rangers will stomach eating Sather’s salary, especially after shaking up the Garden last month by making wholesale (and costly) changes on the Knicks side. Sorry, Rangers fans, but this all means that there may be plenty more ugly scenes on tap for those who closely follow the Blue­shirts.

• Good news for the bean-counters in Queens: the Mets picked up their first victory of the year this week, when a British court ruled that the team could use their logo to market caps, clothing and similar products in the United Kingdom. The British Meteorological Office, which goes by the name "Met Office" across the pond, claimed that the similarity in names might confuse consumers.

Maybe we’re missing something, but when, exactly, was the last time you saw someone shopping for a replica jersey of his or her favorite weatherman?

Contact Bryan Hoch at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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