In what looked at first glance like a small airplane hangar festooned with netting, the not-quite-ancient catcher stepped into the enclosed batting cage to begin his first day of spring training in the San Diego Padres' complex. He had traded in, involuntarily, as it happened, his Mets blue and orange of the previous eight seasons for the Padres' blue and yellow.
In his short-sleeve batting jersey, baggy basketball-like shorts and sneakers, he took his familiar wide-legged stance with his blond bat, a 33-ounce, 34 1/2-inch Mike Piazza model.
While relatively old by baseball standards at 37, Piazza still has no gray in his full head of dark hair and still swings with the authority of a man who has a lifetime .311 batting average and has bashed 397 home runs, more than Carlton Fisk, more than Yogi Berra or Johnny Bench, more than any catcher in big-league history.
"Oh, jeez," said Dave Magadan, the Padres' batting coach, sitting beside the batting cage, as Piazza cracked one of the first pitches from another coach, Tony Muser. "Loud." The ball hit the top of the screen and dropped, nearly hitting Muser.
"Heads up, Muse!" Magadan cried.
"Need a hard hat," Muser said, laughing and bending to pick up another ball from the nearby bucket.
Piazza arrived in camp weighing 230 pounds -- "230 ripped pounds," he joked -- which is a little bit over his playing weight. But he looked fit. And he will need to be because the job he really wanted for 2006 -- designated hitter with an American League team with an occasional game behind the plate -- never materialized. Instead, he will serve as the Padres' No. 1 catcher, blocking pitches in the dirt and bracing for collisions with runners far more than he originally envisioned. Easy street will have to wait.
All of which seemed fine with Kevin Towers, the Padres' general manager. "Mike's been one of our nemeses all these years," Towers said. "I hated seeing him come up against us in the late innings when the game was on the line. And the thing I've especially always liked about Mike is that he plays hard. He always runs hard, runs everything out, even if he didn't run well. And he probably didn't throw with the great catchers in the game, but he's a good handler of pitchers.
"He's caught some Hall of Fame pitchers -- Tommy Glavine and Pedro Martinez, for two -- and he's still got power. He also brings a pedigree and a swagger to our team, something I think we lacked."
Bruce Bochy, the Padres' manager, and a former catcher himself, said he was excited about Piazza working with some of San Diego's good young pitchers, like Jake Peavy and Chris Young.
For the Mets, however, Piazza's minuses did not outweigh his pluses. At the end of a seven-year, US$91 million contract, they let him go. His work behind the plate was hurting them, it was felt, and he seemed, as he got older, to be more prone to injury. His production as a hitter was nowhere near what it was in his best seasons in New York.
Still, it was somewhat surprising that Piazza got no takers in the AL. "Things have changed in what teams want with DHs," he said. "They want players who can also play a certain amount in the field, too. And I guess I wasn't fitting the bill with them."
So he will catch. Bochy said he did not know in how many games Piazza will be putting on the gear, but he thought it would be a substantial number. "We'll rest Mike when he needs it," said Bochy, who has Doug Mirabelli, recently obtained from Boston, as a capable backup.