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from today's USA Today

Posted by elliott on 8/21/02 at 07:45 (093066)

http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/health/2002-08-20-blame-game_x.htm

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Re: from today's USA Today

BrianG on 8/21/02 at 21:23 (093165)

Thanks for the link Elliott, I wish I knew the answers. I have to believe one problem is CEO's with hugh annual saleries, whether their company makes a profit, or not! Think of it, most are making more than the President of the Free World!! There is something wrong here.

BrianG

Re: To Brian from today's USA Today

Pauline on 8/22/02 at 08:54 (093191)

So are Professional Football players who never have a winning season.
I'd like to see their pay based on performance only. What incentive do they have to put forth a 100% effort in each game? They are already assured of the money. Same in any professinal sport.

Re: since you bring up performance-related pay for football players...

elliott on 8/22/02 at 09:38 (093197)

I think your comments apply more to baseball players, what with their stratospheric-dollar, long-term guaranteed contracts, but not as much to football players. I might've thought incentive-laden contracts are the way to go in football too, but please read this fascinating, albeit longish, interview with running back Edgerrin James (which someone just happened to email me a few days ago) for an alternative point of view. After that, another article on the pitiful state of baseball players' attitudes (also fortuitously sent to me a few days ago):

-------
ESPN
Over the Edge
By Edgerrin James with Dan Le Batard

Edgerrin James is the truth, and he'll give it to you undistilled. He doesn't much care whether you like how it sounds. You agree? Cool. You don't? He never knew you anyway. It's his truth, and it's non-negotiable, so he doesn't have much use for anyone massaging his message so that it gets out in a way that really isn't his way at all. That's why he does so few interviews. That, and he isn't real big on talk. He agreed to talk now because we allowed him to do so without a filter, just him talking to you -- the same raw, real way he did when he was on The Magazine's cover two years ago (Sept. 4, 2000).

What motivates Edgerrin James?
What follows are his words. In the fourth year of a seven-year, $49 million contract, James is unhappy with the incentive-laden nature of his deal, and says so with his usual honesty. After leading the NFL in rushing his first two seasons, James disappeared from public view after tearing knee ligaments in last season's fifth game. He hadn't said much of anything since -- to the media or to the Colts -- until he reported for training camp in late July. I interviewed him for three hours before he left for camp, from midnight to 3 a.m., while he worked out in the gym of his South Florida condo. Those are the hours he keeps in the off-season. --D.L.

***

Either way, one of us was gonna be mad. And it sure as hell wasn't gonna be me. My coach, Jim Mora, wanted me to just get the first down in a game against Detroit a couple seasons ago [Oct. 29, 2000]. Fall down and run out the clock. But I've got too many incentive clauses in my contract for that. Every yard is money, man. So I started laughing in the huddle when I heard what Coach wanted. And then I kept running past that first-down marker until I had my touchdown. And I heard a cash register ringing the whole damn way, too. Coach was mad as a mother, but how mad can your coach really be when you score a touchdown for him? I know the haters think that's selfish, and I understand that. But I've got a contract that forces me to be selfish. That's why I want to renegotiate. You want to change my attitude? Then change my contract. Because I lost $3.875 million in incentives last season when my knee exploded, and the haters weren't crying for me then.

Let the haters get down there in goal-line situations and feel what I have to feel to make my money, and then we can talk about selfish. Look at my hands, man. I dislocate my fingers during a play, and I pop them back into place on the field -- even though they are all messed up, like spaghetti -- because I need to stay in the game every play. I'm not going to the sidelines if there's money on that field. I'm always happy when we win, but I'm not gonna be as happy when we win and I get 40 yards as I'm gonna be if we win and I get 100. If it's a blowout and the choice is between staying in bounds and keeping the clock going, or going out of bounds and getting more carries, I'm going after my yards.

I'm sorry if you don't like it, but I'm not gonna duck and dodge the issue. I'm gonna give it to you raw. Worrying about incentives all the time, that takes away the fun. I've got to be looking at my stats all the time. I like this game, but I can't keep playing under these circumstances.

My body is gonna be all broke up when I'm done. How much are a person's legs worth? We're not the only ones making money here, you know? There are a whole lot of people making money off us, and they ain't risking their knees. I get hurt last season and miss a bunch of games, and I lose $3.875 million? Hell, yeah, that bothers me.

Look at these players who can barely walk when they're done playing. That's gonna be me, so I've got to squeeze everything I can out of this now. We're not guaranteed the money in our contracts like basketball and baseball players are. I ain't hating on nobody in baseball, but I know I'm speaking for every NFL player when I say it ain't right the best baseball player [Alex Rodriguez] gets $252 million and our best player, Marshall Faulk, just signed for $200 million less than that. Ain't no crazy 300-pounders trying to break no baseball player's legs. And Marshall's money ain't even guaranteed, man.

This is a temporary game, and I got a whole family I gotta hold up. A big family, too. Real big. I don't even know how many brothers and sisters I have. For real. Grandma had 13 kids, and a lot of them were boys and they had a lot more kids, so I don't know how many nieces, nephews and cousins I have, either. But I know they need my help, my money. That's why I've got the bankers at my house every Monday, telling me where every dollar is.

How many people am I supporting? I don't know. A lot. And my biggest fear in the world is going broke and having to depend on someone else again. You watch Tyson fighting, and he says he has to fight because he's broke, and that's flat crazy. I don't want to be chasing money the rest of my life. I don't want to be like my granddaddy, working all day at 77 years old and then dropping dead that night. I got a saying -- when your outgo exceeds your income, then your upkeep becomes your downfall.

But I got three brothers in jail for allegedly shooting into an occupied dwelling, and I'm always putting up so much bond money I should start me a bail bondsmen service. I don't want to see friends or family locked up, and I don't want to be a parent to everyone, but I gotta give the people around me what I didn't have.

We couldn't even afford to buy school pictures when I was young. I never celebrated Christmas. If I needed a bike, I'd steal it, repaint it and make it my bike. Merry Christmas. I want everyone around me to have a better life than that.

The Sept. 4, 2000, cover story.
That's why my Reebok contract is set up to give me more merchandise than money -- so I can call up anytime and have them send kids back home the kind of stuff I could never have. That's why I set up my foundation to give money to the Immokalee, Fla., Pop Warner league and high school. Y'all can join the James Gang at http://www.daedge.com .

I'm always around kids. Grownups, you have to hear their problems all day, but kids just want to have fun, and I always let them be themselves. They get yelled at and run off by the old people in our neighborhood, so sometimes I'll fill a van with Immokalee kids and we'll just roll. We stopped by Daunte Culpepper's house this off-season. The kids wanted to meet him, so I just drove up with a van full of them, rang his doorbell, and they got to hang with No.11. I took a bunch of them to Universal Studios in Orlando before training camp, too. We always stay at an Embassy Suites because the breakfast is free. I give each of the kids $20 apiece to run around on our trips, but they gotta work for it. I ain't giving them nothing for free.

I bought a rundown place in the main drug area in Immokalee and fixed it up so the kids have a place to chill. We call it the Fun House. I hooked it up. Video games. PlayStation. Xbox. Big screen. Pool table. Cards. Kitchen. I let the kids spray-paint it, too. Everyone was using Grandma's house, and she couldn't watch her stories on TV, so I had to get the kids their own place.

The crackheads don't mess with the stuff inside. They know it's mine, and they respect that, just like they respect my cars when I'm down there.

I go to the Fun House all the time. I got up there one time at like 4 a.m., and it was empty. When I woke up a few hours later, there were kids sleeping all over the floor. They didn't want to wake me up with the video games, so they just went to sleep around me and waited.

I know there are a lot of people who don't want me hanging there, but nobody is going to tell me who my friends should be, not when my friends were around before the Colts, the NFL or anyone else. I'm always surrounded by people who would go to war for me.

I missed voluntary camps and a mandatory training camp this off-season, and people thought it was because I was mad at the Colts about my contract, or mad at the team doctors. Man, I don't want to be traded. I'm cool with the Colts. I'm just a lot more comfortable in South Florida than anywhere else. I needed to be in a comfortable place rehabbing my knee. I was already mad I was losing out on all that money, and I didn't want to be reminded of it every day, limping to meetings, moping, getting asked a thousand questions by reporters.

My doctor, my physical therapist, my friends, my school, all my people are in South Florida. Why do I need to be anywhere else? I've been in rehab incarceration for the past eight months, and I wanted to stay close to the people I trust. And voluntary means voluntary, man. If your boss made tomorrow voluntary, you might not damn well go to work either. You want to fine me for missing a mandatory camp? Fine me. I'll pay you to let me stay home. It's worth it to me. I needed to let my physical therapist put me back together, to get my body and mind right.

If camp had been around the corner from South Florida, I would have been there. But I hate to fly. I hate it so much that, if Coach Dungy lets me, I'm gonna buy a bus so that when we play in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tennessee this season, I can just roll back into Indianapolis instead of getting on a plane. When I'm done with this game, I ain't flying nowhere. I like being in control too much. That's why I won't even get on a roller-coaster when I take the kids to Disney World.

Fly up to Indianapolis for what? To stand around? I get paid for playing. I don't get paid to watch. If I can't play and give it my all, it kills me to just stand there. And what good is 100% attendance at those camps if you lose? I'm about producing. All that other crap you're going to get mad at me for, you can have all that. I ain't hurting no one. I'm married to being free. I led the league in rushing my first two years, and it's because I worked real hard, not because of no voluntary camps.

You want to accuse me of being a bad teammate? During the off-season, you can label me a bad teammate. But come season time, there's no way you can consider me bad unless you have a grudge. I work my ass off, but it's going to be on my schedule. I'm always in the gym at 2 a.m. during the off-season. I got a friend in Immokalee who can turn on the lights at a field, and I was always calling him all off-season at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., so I could run routes and work on my cuts. The Colts know how hard I work. They know what kind of person I am. You can test me, and you can test everyone else on the team, and I guarantee you I'll be at or near the top of everything. Those tests don't lie. They'll tell you how hard I've been working.

When reporters were coming down from Indianapolis, thinking I was mad at the Colts, where did they find me? At the gym. Always. But I didn't do interviews. There was nothing to talk about. They want to make something out of nothing. It's not my job to babble. That doesn't bring in cash and doesn't heal torn ACLs.

I'm guaranteeing you I'm coming hard and prepared this season when I come to ball, and you can throw all that other crap out the window.

I know Peyton [Manning] says I should have been there at the camps with the team last season, but me and him are cool on this. Peyton is a good guy, a team player. I got no problems with Peyton. This won't be a big deal. I'm going to do my own thing, regardless. I make my own decisions. The NFL isn't making them for me. You think that just because I'm in the NFL, I'm going to let someone else make me uncomfortable?

He's still Real & Raw.
I stuck to my routine, and I'm way ahead of schedule now. I'm going to tear the league up.

I know I'm going to be just as bad as I was. I know it. Failure isn't an option. It's not like I've been down in South Florida drinking piña coladas. I'm not out there partying. This is not a year to party. That's not common sense. I don't take a sip of anything from Memorial Day until the last snap of the season. My life during the season is being at the practice facility, then coming home and waiting to be at the practice facility.

This is an easy-ass game for me, too easy. The only way for me to get stopped was some bulls--- injury. It got to the point where I was coming home after running the ball 20, 30 times in a game, and I wasn't even sore. I'd come home on Sundays after games and play basketball for hours with my friends. Believe that.

High school, college, the pros, it has all been the same. Work hard, practice hard, same results. It's just a little faster and more detailed at this level. But I'm a little faster and more detailed at this level too. After a while, you don't even have to study that hard. Practice is so long, drawn-out and boring that I'll start doing push-ups in the middle of it. I wish I could have headphones out there or play Tetris on the GameBoy. You can only study so much. It's basic, the same old stuff. The only mistakes I make are from being bored.

That's why playing flag football with my boys this off-season was so much fun. It felt new. It was all over TV, and I got criticized for it, but I was testing my body, cutting, running around for the first time in months on my knee. I was having it taped on my camcorder and studying it. I knew my knee was okay when I started dunking again in basketball.

There was nobody at the flag football games at first, but then people found out and the crowds and reporters came. It became a big deal, and I had to quit before the championship game. We lost, but I can't be disrespecting Mr. Irsay and Mr. Polian [the GM]. I think Mr. Irsay is the coolest owner in the league, and he didn't want me out there. I think you can get hurt any old way, playing flag football or walking across the street, but everyone looks at things differently than I do.

My relationship with my Colts teammates is cool. It's not like college, when it was super tight, rooming together, eating together, borrowing each other's cars, but it's cool. A lot of my teammates on the Colts are married, and that's why I'm always around the guys from the University of Miami. They're real hungry in college. I want to be around people like that. When you get older, that hunger is gone. But those guys at UM are starving. I miss those days.

I still got my Impala, though, in Hurricane orange. The 1975 one has nitro in the back, but I haven't used that yet. It scares me. And I lost my driver's license speeding back and forth to Immokalee, so I won't be testing the nitro out anytime soon. I had to take a $150 cab ride to get to training camp [in Terre Haute, Ind.], but now I'm ready to ball again. The only thing I don't like about football right now is my contract situation. Incentives -- I would never, ever do that again.

But I've got my incentive now, man. It's time to have fun and get paid.

--------------------
N.Y.T.
The Season That Wasn't
By WILLIAM BERLIND

Inside the soundproof den of his Gramercy apartment, Mike Piazza shows off his $70,000 Krell stereo. It's 2:30 p.m. on a midsummer Wednesday, almost time to go to work. In the kitchen his girlfriend and the woman who doubles as his personal assistant and housekeeper are absorbed in the World's Strongest Man competition on ESPN.

The style of the apartment is sleek and modern. Except for two samurai swords hanging in their sheaths next to the fireplace, the place could pass for a business-class airport lounge. In the small, dimly lighted den I am sitting in a deep plush tan chair; Piazza is in another. He commands the entire setup on a touch-sensitive computer screen alongside his chair. The 110-inch projection TV lights up and George C. Scott is standing in front of a huge American flag. It's ''Patton,'' Piazza's favorite movie in the whole world.

He scrolls through the scenes on the DVD. Suddenly we're in the German bunkers. ''Captain Steiger, follow me,'' the subtitle reads. ''Kommen Sie, Steiger,'' Piazza says under his breath.

Patton moves on to a battlefield in Tunisia, where we find the general on a bluff proudly surveying the obliteration of Rommel's 10th panzer division. Piazza's subwoofers growl with artillery fire.

''Patton'' is Piazza's kind of movie -- straightforward, action-packed and morally succinct -- and Patton is Piazza's kind of guy, a warrior with intellectual panache. ''Patton's whole theory was roll up your sleeves, quit whining and go get some work done,'' he says a little later in the chauffeured S.U.V. that takes him to Shea Stadium. ''He symbolizes what I think this country was built on.''

Piazza goes on in this vein. This is a subject he likes. ''After you're done watching 'Patton,' you're moved, you're inspired,'' he says. ''How many films give you that today? After that movie I feel so many things. I feel patriotism. I feel nationalism. He was so focused and disciplined. He's a true leader, and I would be proud to fight for him.''

Piazza wants baseball to be more than a game and to become for baseball what Patton was for war. He wants the game to be noble, heroic and real. The problem for the New York Mets, for whom he is the best player, is that Piazza wants to be led by a Patton, not be a Patton.

Piazza, in fact, rarely displays the emotion that people want from him. His intensity is vast but private. When Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens was due to make his first plate appearance at Shea since he chucked a broken bat at Piazza during the 2000 World Series, Piazza refused to share in the outrage. When a New York Post item implied that he was gay, people expected a blowup. Even his own father, Vince, was out for blood. (''I wanted to go after the guy,'' Vince says.) But Piazza simply called a news conference, said he was not gay and let it pass without visible anger.

''People seem to think that I'm this charismatic, flamboyant guy,'' he says. ''They want me to be more animated. But I don't feel comfortable getting into it.''

For a brief time last season, Piazza found his element. This was when baseball resumed after Sept. 11, and the Mets, who had been underperforming all season, were in the middle of a tear. The pictures of Piazza's face plastered onto the backs of the tabloids, his lips tightly pursed and his eyes narrowed beneath the brim of an N.Y.P.D. cap, were symbols of determination, persistence and humility. All the qualities that made him seem somewhat remote in normal times suddenly became noble and dignified. ''People responded,'' he says, ''because it was genuine.''

Now the Mets find themselves back where they were before Sept. 11, and the game itself is in even worse shape. The entire season has been played under the dark cloud of a player strike. Longstanding suspicions about steroids burst into headlines after startling admissions by two former players. Even a hard-to-mess-up custom like the All-Star Game devolved into a farce when the commissioner called a tie after the contest had drifted into extra innings.

All this brings out another quality in Piazza that is rarely glimpsed -- a defensiveness on behalf of his fellow players and on behalf of a game that he says he believes is under siege. For most of the players, labor negotiations are an abstraction, but for Piazza, the players' struggle to earn what the free market will bear is personal, resonating with his own struggle to gain acceptance as a baseball player, to withstand accusations from scouts, coaches and even teammates that he only made it because he had a rich father who knew the right people.

''I don't get it,'' he begins in typical Piazza fashion, a tone that suggests that what he really doesn't get is how other people don't see things his way. ''It's just amazing to me that people think we're striking just to make more money. I appreciate the money and the lifestyle, but it's not the reason why I play. If you take everything away from me I would be able to put a roof over my head and food on my table. I'd do something. I wouldn't sit around and moan about guys who are making money.''

He's on a roll: ''And then people will read this and say: 'Oh, how dare you, your dad was rich. Blah. Blah. Blah.' I'm sick of that. There's a lot of opportunity out there. Go and make it. I give 100 percent to what I'm doing. I'm not going to apologize for what I make. That's not what this country is about. As players, we're fighting to make what the market will bear. We're centurions for the American way.''

Piazza's conservatism -- he describes himself as a ''a moderate libertarian who likes to debate'' -- comes from the same place that his talent and drive come from: his father, Vince. During Piazza's childhood, Vince, a high-school dropout, was building what was to become a $100 million empire of auto dealerships. So Piazza grew up in the kind of house that most ballplayers live in after they make it.

It was Vince's all-consuming passion that his son Mike become a baseball star. Piazza has four brothers, but Mike demonstrated the most athletic potential, and so he got all the attention from Vince. ''I really started focusing on Mike,'' Vince says. ''It got to where we'd be playing ball at the local park, and Mike would keep on batting, and the other sons would be in the outfield saying, 'Hey, what about us?' ''

When Piazza was 11, Vince constructed a batting cage in their backyard in suburban Philadelphia. Piazza came home from school and hit hundreds of balls every night. ''It became like an addiction to me,'' he said.

Because of baseball, Piazza rarely hung out with friends or went on dates. He missed his high-school prom to play in a baseball game. Everything he did was about making himself a better player. Watching the TV miniseries ''Shogun,'' he was taken with the intense discipline of the samurai warriors and looked for ways to apply it to baseball.

Piazza was a star first baseman in high school, but pro scouts didn't think he was strong enough. So he enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and played a season there. Then Vince placed a call to Tommy Lasorda, his old Philadelphia buddy, who was also at that point deep into his tenure as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team drafted Piazza in the 62nd round, the 1,390th player taken in 1988.

The 62nd round is baseball oblivion, a spot for wild shots in the dark and courtesy picks. You could be drafted in the 62nd round. But Piazza reported to camp determined to be a major league player. He bulked up and switched to catcher, a position he'd rarely played before but one where good hitters are scarce.

Piazza thrived in the Dodger farm system and got called up in 1992. In his first full season with the Dodgers he hit .318, drove in 112 runs, hit 35 homers and was named National League rookie of the year. Piazza played a total of seven years for the Dodgers. He became Mr. L.A. He lived by the beach, jammed with rock bands and used the word ''dude'' a lot. But he never quite shook the label of ''Tommy's boy,'' and after Lasorda was eased out of the Dodgers organization, it wasn't long before Piazza found himself traded -- briefly to the Florida Marlins and then to the Mets.

Piazza's arrival in New York was supposed to mark a new era for the Mets, one in which they might finally achieve equal footing with the Yankees. With the help of his hitting, they reached the National League championship series in 1999 and then the Subway Series a year later. But the team has been in almost constant flux. Only four players -- Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter, Rey Ordonez, and John Franco -- remain from his first Mets team, in 1998. Piazza's personal life has been similarly unsettled. He has lived in three different places since he has been with the Mets -- a five-bedroom spread in New Jersey, an Upper East Side apartment and now a duplex in Gramercy. He intends to move again soon.

He has dated a few different women but has never come close to settling down. His previous girlfriend was a Playboy Playmate whom his agent introduced him to at a nightclub. His agent also introduced him to his current girlfriend. ''My agent is kind of like an icebreaker,'' Piazza says.

His unwavering passion, baseball aside, is hard rock. The mere mention of Led Zeppelin or any metal act invariably sends Piazza into a frenzy of air guitar. ''I started to listen to AC/DC when I was about 14, and it just hit me in the face,'' he says. ''Power chords. Three-chord progressions. It was good driving, aggressive, motivation music. Sabbath. Slayer. AC/DC. I just totally bought it. I grew to love it. I still love it. It's like Beavis and Butthead. I'm 34 years old but I love metal like the day when I first heard it.''

When Piazza wakes up, typically around 11:30 in the morning, there's barely enough time to eat lunch or run an errand before he must be at the stadium, three and a half hours before the start of each night game. At 2:45 Piazza's driver pulls up outside his apartment in a large black Chevrolet Suburban. They take the Midtown Tunnel toward Shea, making it through just before rush hour.

It's an unbearably hot weekday afternoon in Flushing as the Mets begin preparing to play the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets are way back in the standings, a dozen games behind the surging Braves. Their play has been erratic and at times unprofessional: popped-up bunts, missed signs, bats flying into the stands, apathetic trots to first, dropped balls, missed cut-off men and base-running blunders that would get a little leaguer benched.

During the off-season the team's bickering owners, Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, retrofitted their lineup with pricey stars. In came Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Alomar, gifted players with dubious reputations. They, along with a slew of lesser acquisitions, have made for a team of strangers, one that, more than most, could use a clubhouse leader to pull together.

Piazza gets to his locker around 3:30. He's in sunglasses, shorts and a gray Quiksilver T-shirt. He takes a seat on a white folding chair and begins to change into his practice uniform. A few of the guys are already there, but Piazza keeps to himself, and they do the same. Burnitz is slumped at his locker leafing through a Newsday. Utility outfielder Tony Tarasco, moody and dreadlocked, is sprawled on a black leather couch, engrossed in ''Planet of the Apes'' on a big-screen TV suspended from the ceiling.

Next to Piazza, Alomar is also getting changed, but they don't say anything to each other, not even hello. Alomar has been a perennial All-Star second baseman, and the Mets expected him to become a significant part of the team, another star to pair with Piazza. Alomar lives alone in a Long Island City condo, and whenever he gets a chance, he flies back to his home in Cleveland, which is crammed with posters and paintings of himself. Earlier in the season, outfielder Roger Cedeno tracked down a picture of Alomar's rookie baseball card and taped it up in his locker. When he saw it, Alomar flipped, and they nearly came to blows in the dugout before the game.

Piazza gets up and walks back into the training rooms to receive his daily massage. The players stay at Shea for eight hours every game day but only three or four of those are spent actually playing baseball. The rest of the time is spent warming up on the field or hanging out in and around the clubhouse. The clubhouse is designed to help the players relax and bond -- a cross between a frat house rumpus room and a Chuck E. Cheese's. But in the weeks I spent around the Mets, I witnessed little bonding amid the tubs of Bazooka bubble gum, packets of sunflower seeds, boxes of doughnuts, bags of chips, bottles of soda, beer, Gatorade, M&M's, Hershey bars, Power Bars, ice cream, pizza, pasta, ribs and macaroni and cheese.

In the windowless rooms, in which the air-conditioning is always on full-blast, the flickering blue lights give the players a pasty, somewhat sickly aspect as they watch TV, play John Madden's video football on Nintendo 64, read tabloids, get massages and eat -- the narcotizing rituals that prime them for the game of baseball.

Timo Perez saunters by Piazza on his way to the training room.

''Timo,'' Piazza says as they high five. ''Mike,'' Perez says.

Perez is a merengue nut from a small town in the Dominican Republic, and after playing four seasons for the Hiroshima Carp, his Japanese is much better than his English. But even if he and Piazza spoke the same language, they might have a hard time holding a conversation. There are 25 Mets; 8 are from outside the United States. Of the Latin players, only Alfonzo, Alomar and Cedeno know enough English to be comfortable speaking to the media. There are other divisions, too -- between guys like Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel and Piazza, who grew up in the suburbs, and Grant Roberts, Burnitz and David (Stormy) Weathers, country boys through and through. Satoru Komiyama, a relief pitcher from Japan, seems to speak only to his full-time translator.

Piazza changes into his practice uniform and heads out to the field to stretch, a low-impact affair, about what you'd expect just before nap time at the sanitarium. For all the talk of steroids, strength training and even basic fitness are alien to many of the players. Vaughn doesn't seem to have hit the treadmill in years, and Alfonzo is quite possibly the world's oldest-looking 28-year-old.

On the field, Bobby Valentine, the Mets' manager, watches intently as Piazza takes batting practice. The manager and his star have at least one powerful thing in common -- they are both Lasorda guys -- but this doesn't seem to have made them particularly close. Valentine is a complex character, a twitchy, troubled Goofus to Joe Torre's impassive Gallant. Valentine prides himself on his baseball knowledge and likes to make sure nobody ever forgets that he's managing. In years past, it was speculated that his constant interventions made it hard for a team leader to emerge and take on the role that Keith Hernandez played for the great Mets teams of the 1980's.

This season, however, perhaps as a reflection of big-league managers' increasing difficulty of motivating and directing their players, Valentine has taken a step back. He has been quieter and more deferential, defending his slumping players to the media. But no leader has stepped forward. On that subject, Valentine offers only a rote endorsement of Piazza. ''Mike carries this team, without a doubt,'' he says. ''Players look up to him. They can count on him playing well.''

Stretching and batting practice are over. Piazza returns to the clubhouse and changes into the uniform that he will wear during the game. He casually chucks his dirty uniform, his pants, shirt and jock into a large hamper being wheeled around by one of four clubhouse attendants.

As game time approaches, the 20-odd beat reporters begin to migrate upstairs to the press box, leaving the players in their own private universes of junk food and mass entertainment. Vaughn and Tarasco put on headphones. Burnitz, looking sad, takes a seat back on the couch and stares blankly at the day-old loop of highlights on ESPN.

There is virtually no conversation, no evident camaraderie, no locker that everyone gathers around, just 25 guys slowly putting on matching shirts and pants. Piazza, alone with his great spread of gear, is lost in his own thoughts, listening to the Zeppelin riffs in his head.

tarting some time around the All-Star break, the Mets' season began to turn around a bit. Though the National League East title had already been conceded to Atlanta, the offense was perking up and a wild card seemed like a realistic possibility. The worrisome thing now was the impending strike. Or at least worrisome to fans. The Mets themselves seem entirely unfazed.

I meet Piazza at Pete's Tavern, a bar near his apartment. Piazza arrives in surfer shorts, a blue T-shirt, sandals, sunglasses and a gray cap. He sits down in a booth with one leg up on the bench and orders a pizza burger and a Diet Coke.

Piazza is proud of his ability and his hard work, and he enjoys the money he gets for them. He likes to eat well, and he likes his high-end audio equipment, but he also wants to be taken seriously as a regular guy.

''I enjoy being laid back,'' he says, as if being laid back were an activity. ''People will ask me, friends of friends, 'Can you go out to lunch?' 'Can you go out to a mall?' 'How do you know if people like you for you?' It's like this vision repeating in my mind, people asking me these things. 'It must be hard for you.' '' He gives me a sharp look. ''What's hard for me?''

As a baseball player, Piazza has an almost superhuman ability to focus, to be single-minded, to not get distracted. It is what makes him so good. But it also makes it hard for him to understand other people -- it bothers him that everyone else is so easily distracted, that the world is not rising to the level of rigor and discipline that he and his father set out.

He told the following story as an example of standing by your team and being a real fan. Two years ago, when the Mets were trying to sign Alex Rodriguez, the brilliant shortstop, Piazza quipped to a reporter: ''We should send the guy some flowers. Does 1-800-Flowers deliver on weekends?''

Sure enough, a 1-800-Flowers employee read the remark in the tabloids the next day and eventually got in touch with Piazza through the team.

Most players would have blown her off, but Piazza called her back. Not only that, he gave the woman his cellphone number and encouraged her to call, which, of course, she did. It turned out that both the woman and her mother were huge Mets fans.

After a tough extra-inning loss to the Phillies at Shea, Piazza got a call on his cellphone from this woman, whom he had never met. ''She was at the game, and she left me this message,'' he says. He remembers exactly what she said, too. ''She was like: 'It was a great game. You guys really battled hard. So don't be mad. We still love you. You're still our guys.' ''

The entire message is coming back to him. '' 'We still love you,' '' Piazza says, continuing the woman's message. '' 'Don't be mad. You battled back. I know it's frustrating, but we're still behind you no matter what. Real fans love their team no matter what.' It was so innocent and so refreshing.''

This relationship seems to carry vivid symbolism for him. It's not one with a teammate or his manager, but just one loyal, anonymous fan out there with whom he has played phone tag.

------------

Hey, weren't we supposed to be talking about health care?

Re: from today's USA Today

BrianG on 8/21/02 at 21:23 (093165)

Thanks for the link Elliott, I wish I knew the answers. I have to believe one problem is CEO's with hugh annual saleries, whether their company makes a profit, or not! Think of it, most are making more than the President of the Free World!! There is something wrong here.

BrianG

Re: To Brian from today's USA Today

Pauline on 8/22/02 at 08:54 (093191)

So are Professional Football players who never have a winning season.
I'd like to see their pay based on performance only. What incentive do they have to put forth a 100% effort in each game? They are already assured of the money. Same in any professinal sport.

Re: since you bring up performance-related pay for football players...

elliott on 8/22/02 at 09:38 (093197)

I think your comments apply more to baseball players, what with their stratospheric-dollar, long-term guaranteed contracts, but not as much to football players. I might've thought incentive-laden contracts are the way to go in football too, but please read this fascinating, albeit longish, interview with running back Edgerrin James (which someone just happened to email me a few days ago) for an alternative point of view. After that, another article on the pitiful state of baseball players' attitudes (also fortuitously sent to me a few days ago):

-------
ESPN
Over the Edge
By Edgerrin James with Dan Le Batard

Edgerrin James is the truth, and he'll give it to you undistilled. He doesn't much care whether you like how it sounds. You agree? Cool. You don't? He never knew you anyway. It's his truth, and it's non-negotiable, so he doesn't have much use for anyone massaging his message so that it gets out in a way that really isn't his way at all. That's why he does so few interviews. That, and he isn't real big on talk. He agreed to talk now because we allowed him to do so without a filter, just him talking to you -- the same raw, real way he did when he was on The Magazine's cover two years ago (Sept. 4, 2000).

What motivates Edgerrin James?
What follows are his words. In the fourth year of a seven-year, $49 million contract, James is unhappy with the incentive-laden nature of his deal, and says so with his usual honesty. After leading the NFL in rushing his first two seasons, James disappeared from public view after tearing knee ligaments in last season's fifth game. He hadn't said much of anything since -- to the media or to the Colts -- until he reported for training camp in late July. I interviewed him for three hours before he left for camp, from midnight to 3 a.m., while he worked out in the gym of his South Florida condo. Those are the hours he keeps in the off-season. --D.L.

***

Either way, one of us was gonna be mad. And it sure as hell wasn't gonna be me. My coach, Jim Mora, wanted me to just get the first down in a game against Detroit a couple seasons ago [Oct. 29, 2000]. Fall down and run out the clock. But I've got too many incentive clauses in my contract for that. Every yard is money, man. So I started laughing in the huddle when I heard what Coach wanted. And then I kept running past that first-down marker until I had my touchdown. And I heard a cash register ringing the whole damn way, too. Coach was mad as a mother, but how mad can your coach really be when you score a touchdown for him? I know the haters think that's selfish, and I understand that. But I've got a contract that forces me to be selfish. That's why I want to renegotiate. You want to change my attitude? Then change my contract. Because I lost $3.875 million in incentives last season when my knee exploded, and the haters weren't crying for me then.

Let the haters get down there in goal-line situations and feel what I have to feel to make my money, and then we can talk about selfish. Look at my hands, man. I dislocate my fingers during a play, and I pop them back into place on the field -- even though they are all messed up, like spaghetti -- because I need to stay in the game every play. I'm not going to the sidelines if there's money on that field. I'm always happy when we win, but I'm not gonna be as happy when we win and I get 40 yards as I'm gonna be if we win and I get 100. If it's a blowout and the choice is between staying in bounds and keeping the clock going, or going out of bounds and getting more carries, I'm going after my yards.

I'm sorry if you don't like it, but I'm not gonna duck and dodge the issue. I'm gonna give it to you raw. Worrying about incentives all the time, that takes away the fun. I've got to be looking at my stats all the time. I like this game, but I can't keep playing under these circumstances.

My body is gonna be all broke up when I'm done. How much are a person's legs worth? We're not the only ones making money here, you know? There are a whole lot of people making money off us, and they ain't risking their knees. I get hurt last season and miss a bunch of games, and I lose $3.875 million? Hell, yeah, that bothers me.

Look at these players who can barely walk when they're done playing. That's gonna be me, so I've got to squeeze everything I can out of this now. We're not guaranteed the money in our contracts like basketball and baseball players are. I ain't hating on nobody in baseball, but I know I'm speaking for every NFL player when I say it ain't right the best baseball player [Alex Rodriguez] gets $252 million and our best player, Marshall Faulk, just signed for $200 million less than that. Ain't no crazy 300-pounders trying to break no baseball player's legs. And Marshall's money ain't even guaranteed, man.

This is a temporary game, and I got a whole family I gotta hold up. A big family, too. Real big. I don't even know how many brothers and sisters I have. For real. Grandma had 13 kids, and a lot of them were boys and they had a lot more kids, so I don't know how many nieces, nephews and cousins I have, either. But I know they need my help, my money. That's why I've got the bankers at my house every Monday, telling me where every dollar is.

How many people am I supporting? I don't know. A lot. And my biggest fear in the world is going broke and having to depend on someone else again. You watch Tyson fighting, and he says he has to fight because he's broke, and that's flat crazy. I don't want to be chasing money the rest of my life. I don't want to be like my granddaddy, working all day at 77 years old and then dropping dead that night. I got a saying -- when your outgo exceeds your income, then your upkeep becomes your downfall.

But I got three brothers in jail for allegedly shooting into an occupied dwelling, and I'm always putting up so much bond money I should start me a bail bondsmen service. I don't want to see friends or family locked up, and I don't want to be a parent to everyone, but I gotta give the people around me what I didn't have.

We couldn't even afford to buy school pictures when I was young. I never celebrated Christmas. If I needed a bike, I'd steal it, repaint it and make it my bike. Merry Christmas. I want everyone around me to have a better life than that.

The Sept. 4, 2000, cover story.
That's why my Reebok contract is set up to give me more merchandise than money -- so I can call up anytime and have them send kids back home the kind of stuff I could never have. That's why I set up my foundation to give money to the Immokalee, Fla., Pop Warner league and high school. Y'all can join the James Gang at http://www.daedge.com .

I'm always around kids. Grownups, you have to hear their problems all day, but kids just want to have fun, and I always let them be themselves. They get yelled at and run off by the old people in our neighborhood, so sometimes I'll fill a van with Immokalee kids and we'll just roll. We stopped by Daunte Culpepper's house this off-season. The kids wanted to meet him, so I just drove up with a van full of them, rang his doorbell, and they got to hang with No.11. I took a bunch of them to Universal Studios in Orlando before training camp, too. We always stay at an Embassy Suites because the breakfast is free. I give each of the kids $20 apiece to run around on our trips, but they gotta work for it. I ain't giving them nothing for free.

I bought a rundown place in the main drug area in Immokalee and fixed it up so the kids have a place to chill. We call it the Fun House. I hooked it up. Video games. PlayStation. Xbox. Big screen. Pool table. Cards. Kitchen. I let the kids spray-paint it, too. Everyone was using Grandma's house, and she couldn't watch her stories on TV, so I had to get the kids their own place.

The crackheads don't mess with the stuff inside. They know it's mine, and they respect that, just like they respect my cars when I'm down there.

I go to the Fun House all the time. I got up there one time at like 4 a.m., and it was empty. When I woke up a few hours later, there were kids sleeping all over the floor. They didn't want to wake me up with the video games, so they just went to sleep around me and waited.

I know there are a lot of people who don't want me hanging there, but nobody is going to tell me who my friends should be, not when my friends were around before the Colts, the NFL or anyone else. I'm always surrounded by people who would go to war for me.

I missed voluntary camps and a mandatory training camp this off-season, and people thought it was because I was mad at the Colts about my contract, or mad at the team doctors. Man, I don't want to be traded. I'm cool with the Colts. I'm just a lot more comfortable in South Florida than anywhere else. I needed to be in a comfortable place rehabbing my knee. I was already mad I was losing out on all that money, and I didn't want to be reminded of it every day, limping to meetings, moping, getting asked a thousand questions by reporters.

My doctor, my physical therapist, my friends, my school, all my people are in South Florida. Why do I need to be anywhere else? I've been in rehab incarceration for the past eight months, and I wanted to stay close to the people I trust. And voluntary means voluntary, man. If your boss made tomorrow voluntary, you might not damn well go to work either. You want to fine me for missing a mandatory camp? Fine me. I'll pay you to let me stay home. It's worth it to me. I needed to let my physical therapist put me back together, to get my body and mind right.

If camp had been around the corner from South Florida, I would have been there. But I hate to fly. I hate it so much that, if Coach Dungy lets me, I'm gonna buy a bus so that when we play in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Tennessee this season, I can just roll back into Indianapolis instead of getting on a plane. When I'm done with this game, I ain't flying nowhere. I like being in control too much. That's why I won't even get on a roller-coaster when I take the kids to Disney World.

Fly up to Indianapolis for what? To stand around? I get paid for playing. I don't get paid to watch. If I can't play and give it my all, it kills me to just stand there. And what good is 100% attendance at those camps if you lose? I'm about producing. All that other crap you're going to get mad at me for, you can have all that. I ain't hurting no one. I'm married to being free. I led the league in rushing my first two years, and it's because I worked real hard, not because of no voluntary camps.

You want to accuse me of being a bad teammate? During the off-season, you can label me a bad teammate. But come season time, there's no way you can consider me bad unless you have a grudge. I work my ass off, but it's going to be on my schedule. I'm always in the gym at 2 a.m. during the off-season. I got a friend in Immokalee who can turn on the lights at a field, and I was always calling him all off-season at midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m., so I could run routes and work on my cuts. The Colts know how hard I work. They know what kind of person I am. You can test me, and you can test everyone else on the team, and I guarantee you I'll be at or near the top of everything. Those tests don't lie. They'll tell you how hard I've been working.

When reporters were coming down from Indianapolis, thinking I was mad at the Colts, where did they find me? At the gym. Always. But I didn't do interviews. There was nothing to talk about. They want to make something out of nothing. It's not my job to babble. That doesn't bring in cash and doesn't heal torn ACLs.

I'm guaranteeing you I'm coming hard and prepared this season when I come to ball, and you can throw all that other crap out the window.

I know Peyton [Manning] says I should have been there at the camps with the team last season, but me and him are cool on this. Peyton is a good guy, a team player. I got no problems with Peyton. This won't be a big deal. I'm going to do my own thing, regardless. I make my own decisions. The NFL isn't making them for me. You think that just because I'm in the NFL, I'm going to let someone else make me uncomfortable?

He's still Real & Raw.
I stuck to my routine, and I'm way ahead of schedule now. I'm going to tear the league up.

I know I'm going to be just as bad as I was. I know it. Failure isn't an option. It's not like I've been down in South Florida drinking piña coladas. I'm not out there partying. This is not a year to party. That's not common sense. I don't take a sip of anything from Memorial Day until the last snap of the season. My life during the season is being at the practice facility, then coming home and waiting to be at the practice facility.

This is an easy-ass game for me, too easy. The only way for me to get stopped was some bulls--- injury. It got to the point where I was coming home after running the ball 20, 30 times in a game, and I wasn't even sore. I'd come home on Sundays after games and play basketball for hours with my friends. Believe that.

High school, college, the pros, it has all been the same. Work hard, practice hard, same results. It's just a little faster and more detailed at this level. But I'm a little faster and more detailed at this level too. After a while, you don't even have to study that hard. Practice is so long, drawn-out and boring that I'll start doing push-ups in the middle of it. I wish I could have headphones out there or play Tetris on the GameBoy. You can only study so much. It's basic, the same old stuff. The only mistakes I make are from being bored.

That's why playing flag football with my boys this off-season was so much fun. It felt new. It was all over TV, and I got criticized for it, but I was testing my body, cutting, running around for the first time in months on my knee. I was having it taped on my camcorder and studying it. I knew my knee was okay when I started dunking again in basketball.

There was nobody at the flag football games at first, but then people found out and the crowds and reporters came. It became a big deal, and I had to quit before the championship game. We lost, but I can't be disrespecting Mr. Irsay and Mr. Polian [the GM]. I think Mr. Irsay is the coolest owner in the league, and he didn't want me out there. I think you can get hurt any old way, playing flag football or walking across the street, but everyone looks at things differently than I do.

My relationship with my Colts teammates is cool. It's not like college, when it was super tight, rooming together, eating together, borrowing each other's cars, but it's cool. A lot of my teammates on the Colts are married, and that's why I'm always around the guys from the University of Miami. They're real hungry in college. I want to be around people like that. When you get older, that hunger is gone. But those guys at UM are starving. I miss those days.

I still got my Impala, though, in Hurricane orange. The 1975 one has nitro in the back, but I haven't used that yet. It scares me. And I lost my driver's license speeding back and forth to Immokalee, so I won't be testing the nitro out anytime soon. I had to take a $150 cab ride to get to training camp [in Terre Haute, Ind.], but now I'm ready to ball again. The only thing I don't like about football right now is my contract situation. Incentives -- I would never, ever do that again.

But I've got my incentive now, man. It's time to have fun and get paid.

--------------------
N.Y.T.
The Season That Wasn't
By WILLIAM BERLIND

Inside the soundproof den of his Gramercy apartment, Mike Piazza shows off his $70,000 Krell stereo. It's 2:30 p.m. on a midsummer Wednesday, almost time to go to work. In the kitchen his girlfriend and the woman who doubles as his personal assistant and housekeeper are absorbed in the World's Strongest Man competition on ESPN.

The style of the apartment is sleek and modern. Except for two samurai swords hanging in their sheaths next to the fireplace, the place could pass for a business-class airport lounge. In the small, dimly lighted den I am sitting in a deep plush tan chair; Piazza is in another. He commands the entire setup on a touch-sensitive computer screen alongside his chair. The 110-inch projection TV lights up and George C. Scott is standing in front of a huge American flag. It's ''Patton,'' Piazza's favorite movie in the whole world.

He scrolls through the scenes on the DVD. Suddenly we're in the German bunkers. ''Captain Steiger, follow me,'' the subtitle reads. ''Kommen Sie, Steiger,'' Piazza says under his breath.

Patton moves on to a battlefield in Tunisia, where we find the general on a bluff proudly surveying the obliteration of Rommel's 10th panzer division. Piazza's subwoofers growl with artillery fire.

''Patton'' is Piazza's kind of movie -- straightforward, action-packed and morally succinct -- and Patton is Piazza's kind of guy, a warrior with intellectual panache. ''Patton's whole theory was roll up your sleeves, quit whining and go get some work done,'' he says a little later in the chauffeured S.U.V. that takes him to Shea Stadium. ''He symbolizes what I think this country was built on.''

Piazza goes on in this vein. This is a subject he likes. ''After you're done watching 'Patton,' you're moved, you're inspired,'' he says. ''How many films give you that today? After that movie I feel so many things. I feel patriotism. I feel nationalism. He was so focused and disciplined. He's a true leader, and I would be proud to fight for him.''

Piazza wants baseball to be more than a game and to become for baseball what Patton was for war. He wants the game to be noble, heroic and real. The problem for the New York Mets, for whom he is the best player, is that Piazza wants to be led by a Patton, not be a Patton.

Piazza, in fact, rarely displays the emotion that people want from him. His intensity is vast but private. When Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens was due to make his first plate appearance at Shea since he chucked a broken bat at Piazza during the 2000 World Series, Piazza refused to share in the outrage. When a New York Post item implied that he was gay, people expected a blowup. Even his own father, Vince, was out for blood. (''I wanted to go after the guy,'' Vince says.) But Piazza simply called a news conference, said he was not gay and let it pass without visible anger.

''People seem to think that I'm this charismatic, flamboyant guy,'' he says. ''They want me to be more animated. But I don't feel comfortable getting into it.''

For a brief time last season, Piazza found his element. This was when baseball resumed after Sept. 11, and the Mets, who had been underperforming all season, were in the middle of a tear. The pictures of Piazza's face plastered onto the backs of the tabloids, his lips tightly pursed and his eyes narrowed beneath the brim of an N.Y.P.D. cap, were symbols of determination, persistence and humility. All the qualities that made him seem somewhat remote in normal times suddenly became noble and dignified. ''People responded,'' he says, ''because it was genuine.''

Now the Mets find themselves back where they were before Sept. 11, and the game itself is in even worse shape. The entire season has been played under the dark cloud of a player strike. Longstanding suspicions about steroids burst into headlines after startling admissions by two former players. Even a hard-to-mess-up custom like the All-Star Game devolved into a farce when the commissioner called a tie after the contest had drifted into extra innings.

All this brings out another quality in Piazza that is rarely glimpsed -- a defensiveness on behalf of his fellow players and on behalf of a game that he says he believes is under siege. For most of the players, labor negotiations are an abstraction, but for Piazza, the players' struggle to earn what the free market will bear is personal, resonating with his own struggle to gain acceptance as a baseball player, to withstand accusations from scouts, coaches and even teammates that he only made it because he had a rich father who knew the right people.

''I don't get it,'' he begins in typical Piazza fashion, a tone that suggests that what he really doesn't get is how other people don't see things his way. ''It's just amazing to me that people think we're striking just to make more money. I appreciate the money and the lifestyle, but it's not the reason why I play. If you take everything away from me I would be able to put a roof over my head and food on my table. I'd do something. I wouldn't sit around and moan about guys who are making money.''

He's on a roll: ''And then people will read this and say: 'Oh, how dare you, your dad was rich. Blah. Blah. Blah.' I'm sick of that. There's a lot of opportunity out there. Go and make it. I give 100 percent to what I'm doing. I'm not going to apologize for what I make. That's not what this country is about. As players, we're fighting to make what the market will bear. We're centurions for the American way.''

Piazza's conservatism -- he describes himself as a ''a moderate libertarian who likes to debate'' -- comes from the same place that his talent and drive come from: his father, Vince. During Piazza's childhood, Vince, a high-school dropout, was building what was to become a $100 million empire of auto dealerships. So Piazza grew up in the kind of house that most ballplayers live in after they make it.

It was Vince's all-consuming passion that his son Mike become a baseball star. Piazza has four brothers, but Mike demonstrated the most athletic potential, and so he got all the attention from Vince. ''I really started focusing on Mike,'' Vince says. ''It got to where we'd be playing ball at the local park, and Mike would keep on batting, and the other sons would be in the outfield saying, 'Hey, what about us?' ''

When Piazza was 11, Vince constructed a batting cage in their backyard in suburban Philadelphia. Piazza came home from school and hit hundreds of balls every night. ''It became like an addiction to me,'' he said.

Because of baseball, Piazza rarely hung out with friends or went on dates. He missed his high-school prom to play in a baseball game. Everything he did was about making himself a better player. Watching the TV miniseries ''Shogun,'' he was taken with the intense discipline of the samurai warriors and looked for ways to apply it to baseball.

Piazza was a star first baseman in high school, but pro scouts didn't think he was strong enough. So he enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and played a season there. Then Vince placed a call to Tommy Lasorda, his old Philadelphia buddy, who was also at that point deep into his tenure as manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The team drafted Piazza in the 62nd round, the 1,390th player taken in 1988.

The 62nd round is baseball oblivion, a spot for wild shots in the dark and courtesy picks. You could be drafted in the 62nd round. But Piazza reported to camp determined to be a major league player. He bulked up and switched to catcher, a position he'd rarely played before but one where good hitters are scarce.

Piazza thrived in the Dodger farm system and got called up in 1992. In his first full season with the Dodgers he hit .318, drove in 112 runs, hit 35 homers and was named National League rookie of the year. Piazza played a total of seven years for the Dodgers. He became Mr. L.A. He lived by the beach, jammed with rock bands and used the word ''dude'' a lot. But he never quite shook the label of ''Tommy's boy,'' and after Lasorda was eased out of the Dodgers organization, it wasn't long before Piazza found himself traded -- briefly to the Florida Marlins and then to the Mets.

Piazza's arrival in New York was supposed to mark a new era for the Mets, one in which they might finally achieve equal footing with the Yankees. With the help of his hitting, they reached the National League championship series in 1999 and then the Subway Series a year later. But the team has been in almost constant flux. Only four players -- Edgardo Alfonzo, Al Leiter, Rey Ordonez, and John Franco -- remain from his first Mets team, in 1998. Piazza's personal life has been similarly unsettled. He has lived in three different places since he has been with the Mets -- a five-bedroom spread in New Jersey, an Upper East Side apartment and now a duplex in Gramercy. He intends to move again soon.

He has dated a few different women but has never come close to settling down. His previous girlfriend was a Playboy Playmate whom his agent introduced him to at a nightclub. His agent also introduced him to his current girlfriend. ''My agent is kind of like an icebreaker,'' Piazza says.

His unwavering passion, baseball aside, is hard rock. The mere mention of Led Zeppelin or any metal act invariably sends Piazza into a frenzy of air guitar. ''I started to listen to AC/DC when I was about 14, and it just hit me in the face,'' he says. ''Power chords. Three-chord progressions. It was good driving, aggressive, motivation music. Sabbath. Slayer. AC/DC. I just totally bought it. I grew to love it. I still love it. It's like Beavis and Butthead. I'm 34 years old but I love metal like the day when I first heard it.''

When Piazza wakes up, typically around 11:30 in the morning, there's barely enough time to eat lunch or run an errand before he must be at the stadium, three and a half hours before the start of each night game. At 2:45 Piazza's driver pulls up outside his apartment in a large black Chevrolet Suburban. They take the Midtown Tunnel toward Shea, making it through just before rush hour.

It's an unbearably hot weekday afternoon in Flushing as the Mets begin preparing to play the Philadelphia Phillies. The Mets are way back in the standings, a dozen games behind the surging Braves. Their play has been erratic and at times unprofessional: popped-up bunts, missed signs, bats flying into the stands, apathetic trots to first, dropped balls, missed cut-off men and base-running blunders that would get a little leaguer benched.

During the off-season the team's bickering owners, Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday, retrofitted their lineup with pricey stars. In came Mo Vaughn, Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Alomar, gifted players with dubious reputations. They, along with a slew of lesser acquisitions, have made for a team of strangers, one that, more than most, could use a clubhouse leader to pull together.

Piazza gets to his locker around 3:30. He's in sunglasses, shorts and a gray Quiksilver T-shirt. He takes a seat on a white folding chair and begins to change into his practice uniform. A few of the guys are already there, but Piazza keeps to himself, and they do the same. Burnitz is slumped at his locker leafing through a Newsday. Utility outfielder Tony Tarasco, moody and dreadlocked, is sprawled on a black leather couch, engrossed in ''Planet of the Apes'' on a big-screen TV suspended from the ceiling.

Next to Piazza, Alomar is also getting changed, but they don't say anything to each other, not even hello. Alomar has been a perennial All-Star second baseman, and the Mets expected him to become a significant part of the team, another star to pair with Piazza. Alomar lives alone in a Long Island City condo, and whenever he gets a chance, he flies back to his home in Cleveland, which is crammed with posters and paintings of himself. Earlier in the season, outfielder Roger Cedeno tracked down a picture of Alomar's rookie baseball card and taped it up in his locker. When he saw it, Alomar flipped, and they nearly came to blows in the dugout before the game.

Piazza gets up and walks back into the training rooms to receive his daily massage. The players stay at Shea for eight hours every game day but only three or four of those are spent actually playing baseball. The rest of the time is spent warming up on the field or hanging out in and around the clubhouse. The clubhouse is designed to help the players relax and bond -- a cross between a frat house rumpus room and a Chuck E. Cheese's. But in the weeks I spent around the Mets, I witnessed little bonding amid the tubs of Bazooka bubble gum, packets of sunflower seeds, boxes of doughnuts, bags of chips, bottles of soda, beer, Gatorade, M&M's, Hershey bars, Power Bars, ice cream, pizza, pasta, ribs and macaroni and cheese.

In the windowless rooms, in which the air-conditioning is always on full-blast, the flickering blue lights give the players a pasty, somewhat sickly aspect as they watch TV, play John Madden's video football on Nintendo 64, read tabloids, get massages and eat -- the narcotizing rituals that prime them for the game of baseball.

Timo Perez saunters by Piazza on his way to the training room.

''Timo,'' Piazza says as they high five. ''Mike,'' Perez says.

Perez is a merengue nut from a small town in the Dominican Republic, and after playing four seasons for the Hiroshima Carp, his Japanese is much better than his English. But even if he and Piazza spoke the same language, they might have a hard time holding a conversation. There are 25 Mets; 8 are from outside the United States. Of the Latin players, only Alfonzo, Alomar and Cedeno know enough English to be comfortable speaking to the media. There are other divisions, too -- between guys like Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel and Piazza, who grew up in the suburbs, and Grant Roberts, Burnitz and David (Stormy) Weathers, country boys through and through. Satoru Komiyama, a relief pitcher from Japan, seems to speak only to his full-time translator.

Piazza changes into his practice uniform and heads out to the field to stretch, a low-impact affair, about what you'd expect just before nap time at the sanitarium. For all the talk of steroids, strength training and even basic fitness are alien to many of the players. Vaughn doesn't seem to have hit the treadmill in years, and Alfonzo is quite possibly the world's oldest-looking 28-year-old.

On the field, Bobby Valentine, the Mets' manager, watches intently as Piazza takes batting practice. The manager and his star have at least one powerful thing in common -- they are both Lasorda guys -- but this doesn't seem to have made them particularly close. Valentine is a complex character, a twitchy, troubled Goofus to Joe Torre's impassive Gallant. Valentine prides himself on his baseball knowledge and likes to make sure nobody ever forgets that he's managing. In years past, it was speculated that his constant interventions made it hard for a team leader to emerge and take on the role that Keith Hernandez played for the great Mets teams of the 1980's.

This season, however, perhaps as a reflection of big-league managers' increasing difficulty of motivating and directing their players, Valentine has taken a step back. He has been quieter and more deferential, defending his slumping players to the media. But no leader has stepped forward. On that subject, Valentine offers only a rote endorsement of Piazza. ''Mike carries this team, without a doubt,'' he says. ''Players look up to him. They can count on him playing well.''

Stretching and batting practice are over. Piazza returns to the clubhouse and changes into the uniform that he will wear during the game. He casually chucks his dirty uniform, his pants, shirt and jock into a large hamper being wheeled around by one of four clubhouse attendants.

As game time approaches, the 20-odd beat reporters begin to migrate upstairs to the press box, leaving the players in their own private universes of junk food and mass entertainment. Vaughn and Tarasco put on headphones. Burnitz, looking sad, takes a seat back on the couch and stares blankly at the day-old loop of highlights on ESPN.

There is virtually no conversation, no evident camaraderie, no locker that everyone gathers around, just 25 guys slowly putting on matching shirts and pants. Piazza, alone with his great spread of gear, is lost in his own thoughts, listening to the Zeppelin riffs in his head.

tarting some time around the All-Star break, the Mets' season began to turn around a bit. Though the National League East title had already been conceded to Atlanta, the offense was perking up and a wild card seemed like a realistic possibility. The worrisome thing now was the impending strike. Or at least worrisome to fans. The Mets themselves seem entirely unfazed.

I meet Piazza at Pete's Tavern, a bar near his apartment. Piazza arrives in surfer shorts, a blue T-shirt, sandals, sunglasses and a gray cap. He sits down in a booth with one leg up on the bench and orders a pizza burger and a Diet Coke.

Piazza is proud of his ability and his hard work, and he enjoys the money he gets for them. He likes to eat well, and he likes his high-end audio equipment, but he also wants to be taken seriously as a regular guy.

''I enjoy being laid back,'' he says, as if being laid back were an activity. ''People will ask me, friends of friends, 'Can you go out to lunch?' 'Can you go out to a mall?' 'How do you know if people like you for you?' It's like this vision repeating in my mind, people asking me these things. 'It must be hard for you.' '' He gives me a sharp look. ''What's hard for me?''

As a baseball player, Piazza has an almost superhuman ability to focus, to be single-minded, to not get distracted. It is what makes him so good. But it also makes it hard for him to understand other people -- it bothers him that everyone else is so easily distracted, that the world is not rising to the level of rigor and discipline that he and his father set out.

He told the following story as an example of standing by your team and being a real fan. Two years ago, when the Mets were trying to sign Alex Rodriguez, the brilliant shortstop, Piazza quipped to a reporter: ''We should send the guy some flowers. Does 1-800-Flowers deliver on weekends?''

Sure enough, a 1-800-Flowers employee read the remark in the tabloids the next day and eventually got in touch with Piazza through the team.

Most players would have blown her off, but Piazza called her back. Not only that, he gave the woman his cellphone number and encouraged her to call, which, of course, she did. It turned out that both the woman and her mother were huge Mets fans.

After a tough extra-inning loss to the Phillies at Shea, Piazza got a call on his cellphone from this woman, whom he had never met. ''She was at the game, and she left me this message,'' he says. He remembers exactly what she said, too. ''She was like: 'It was a great game. You guys really battled hard. So don't be mad. We still love you. You're still our guys.' ''

The entire message is coming back to him. '' 'We still love you,' '' Piazza says, continuing the woman's message. '' 'Don't be mad. You battled back. I know it's frustrating, but we're still behind you no matter what. Real fans love their team no matter what.' It was so innocent and so refreshing.''

This relationship seems to carry vivid symbolism for him. It's not one with a teammate or his manager, but just one loyal, anonymous fan out there with whom he has played phone tag.

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Hey, weren't we supposed to be talking about health care?