Jose Reyes and the Piazza Precedent

Going, going, gone? Not necessarily. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

A Mets superstar has a monster year just before becoming a free agent. He refuses to negotiate a new contract midseason. The sports scribes say he is, in all likelihood, a goner and that this will surely doom the franchise.

Jose Reyes? No, Mike Piazza in 1998.

While there are differences in the two players' situations--not to mention the financial state of the team--Piazza's case is instructive, if for no other reason than as a bromide to those panicking (or who would like to make you panic) about how Reyes not wanting to discuss a contract means he's headed for the hills.

Early in 1998, with free agency looming for Piazza, the Dodgers attempted to negotiate a contract extension with the catcher. However, the Dodgers ownership situation was in flux; the O'Malley family was in the midst of trying to sell the team to Fox, and Rupert Murdoch was in no mood to accommodate Piazza's self-imposed deadline of February 15 for a new contract.

As spring training began, former Dodger Brett Butler was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times' Bill Plaschke and called Piazza "a moody, self-centered '90s player" more concerned about his stats than winning. Piazza was left feeling the feature was a calculated hit piece. From that point on, his days in LA were numbered. The Dodgers reportedly offered him a seven-year deal that would have made him the highest paid player in baseball, but he rejected it and cut off negotiations with the team in April. By May, he was shipped to the Marlins for Garry Sheffield. The Mets--needing both a catcher and a slugger, thanks to Todd Hundley's elbow woes--leaped in and acquired him from cash-strapped Florida on May 22 for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnall, and Geoff Goetz.

Piazza's early returns in Flushing were not great--not awful by any stretch, but not the spectacular numbers he'd put up on the West Coast. Boos regularly greeted his at bats when he failed to do anything other than homer. Thanks to the Butler/Plaschke article, he carried with him a diva reputation, someone who was not a team player, not a leader. Someone who wilted under the bright lights of the big city.

As early as July 2, the Daily News' Bill Madden wrote that the Mets "have to be prepared to let Mike Piazza walk if some other team is dumb enough to give him the seven-year, $85 million contract he turned down from the Dodgers." But that figure would be getting him cheap, as the most frequently cited figure said Piazza was looking for a seven-year, $100 million contract.

On August 3, Jack Curry in the Times wrote a lengthy piece ("Mets Cautiously Surveying Life Without Piazza") in which he described Piazza showing up for batting practice at Shea with "the worn look of a man who had to mow lawns for the next eight hours."

Get a close look at Piazza wearing those black Mets jerseys because there are increasing indications that the marriage between Piazza and the club will end after this season. Piazza is intent on becoming a free agent and pursuing a $100 million contract, and Phillips has expressed his doubt about having Piazza back in black. ''We have options behind the plate,'' Phillips said. ''Whether we're able to work out Mike's deal or not, we have options.''

 

A few days after Curry's piece appeared, a report "widely circulated on the internet" (in the words of the Daily News) said Piazza had already decided he would not return to the Mets. Tiring of all the speculation, Piazza held a closed-door meeting with GM Steve Philliips, then announced he would not discuss a contract with the Mets midseason.

Almost immediately, Piazza--and the Mets--went on a tear, catapulting themselves back into the wild card race. They went 20-12 in August, and 12-7 through the first 19 games in September. Piazza led the way, batting .351 in the second half of the season and an astounding .378 in September. Unfortunately, the Mets missed out on the playoffs by losing their last five games of the regular season, when even one win would have ensured a three-way tie for the wild card with the Cubs and Giants.

The press pounced on the Mets--not just for their collapse, but to insist they needed resign a player many of them figured didn't want to be there in the first place. The future of the team depending on bringing back both Piazza and Al Leiter, another big-time free agent who joined the team that year. "Losing either of them would serve as an enormous public relations blow at a time when the club can ill-afford negative publicity," wrote Thomas Hill in the Daily News.

Negotiations between the Mets and Leiter progressed rather quickly; a New Jersey native who grew up a Mets fan, Leiter needed little wooing to stay in Flushing. The return of Leiter played a role in Piazza's decision, as did something he discovered something when he returned to his home in California to begin a long off season: He missed New York, and all its energy and tumult.

Not long after the World Series ended, Piazza signed a seven-year, $91 million contract with the Mets. "I didn't want to go out and start again," he said at the press conference announcing the deal. "I knew I had unfinished business."

As I said, there are some obvious differences between the two players' circumstances. Reyes is a home grown player, Piazza was an import. The Mets had a much lower payroll in 1998 than they do now, and were (presumably) in better financial shape. But, much like Piazza, Reyes made his intention not to sign a contract midseason known early on (January, actually). It didn't keep Piazza from returning to Queens, and it shouldn't necessarily keep Reyes from doing so, either.

Another difference between the two that bodes well for the Mets: Piazza had only half a season to warm up to New York, and was booed ferociously during his first few weeks there. Reyes is so much a New Yorker by this point that he and his family spend most of their winters on Long Island. If you have tons of money at your disposal and come from a tropical climate and still choose to stay in New York in January, you probably like it here.

Does any of this mean Reyes is coming back? No, but it doesn't mean he's necessarily leaving, either. But if you'd prefer to panic, you have to ignore history, and the Piazza precedent.

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