PHOENIX, Feb. 22 -- Mike Piazza showed up at the Oakland Athletics' camp early Thursday morning -- the day of the team's first full-squad workout, and six days after its pitchers and catchers reported -- with an enormous green Spalding duffel bag, the kind favored by catchers, slung over his shoulder. Inside it was some catching gear, including five mitts -- three brand-new ones still in their plastic wrap, the other two used, one of which was wrapped tightly with shoelaces to help get it conditioned -- and some bats.
But when Piazza followed his new teammates into the glaring desert sun for the workout, all but the bats stayed behind in his locker. The catching gear was still there, untouched, when the workout ended some four hours later. And it is safe to say Piazza's newest mitts will still be wrapped in plastic when this season ends, if the A's have their way.
Piazza, 38, is beginning his 15th full season in the major leagues, but his first with the A's, his first in the American League and his first as a full-time designated hitter. All of those transitions will take some getting used to for this superstar -- who is, almost without question, the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history -- but none more so than the fact that here, in this camp, on this team, he has no need whatsoever for his beloved catcher's mitts.
It is a notion that Piazza may not be quite ready to accept. Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, Piazza in one breath said he was "resigned" to being a full-time DH and that he has to "embrace" it, but in the next breath he admitted: "It's very difficult for me to put the gear on the shelf and just hit. I'm an old catcher at heart." He spoke of getting some innings in behind the plate later in spring training, and attending the catchers' daily meetings during the season.
When the A's signed Piazza this winter to a one-year, $8.5 million contract, they made clear their intentions. Piazza would be expected to replace the departed Frank Thomas as their full-time DH. The job entailed no catching whatsoever -- except, perhaps, in the case of emergency. He could report to camp with the position players, a luxury he quickly accepted because his wife, Alicia, gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Nicoletta, on Feb. 3.
But somewhere between signing and reporting to camp, Piazza forgot about the position switch, or else he began to concoct ever-plausible emergency scenarios in his head in which he would be called upon to catch.
Before heading out to the practice fields Thursday morning, Piazza told new A's manager Bob Geren, "If you need an extra catcher to catch somebody, I'm here for you." But Geren, according to Piazza, politely rejected the offer.
"No, we have plenty of guys to catch," Geren said. "Go get yourself ready to hit. We don't want you spraining your thumb or getting hit by a foul tip."
Piazza paused, then added his postscript to the story: "But I'll get in there eventually."
Not according to the A's. They already have an entrenched veteran starting catcher, Jason Kendall, who likes to catch 150 games a year, and a serviceable backup in Adam Melhuse. The A's have no plans to use Piazza at catcher at all in spring training, and in an injury emergency, according to General Manager Billy Beane, they would be more likely to call up a catcher from the minor leagues than to put Piazza behind the plate.
The truth is, Piazza, a 12-time all-star with 419 career homers, was never valued for his defense. He has been followed throughout his career by whispers that he was a liability behind the plate, and talk of moving him to another position -- mostly first base -- is at least a decade old.
Beane, perhaps the best in the business at spotting a bargain, looked at Piazza's numbers from 2006 -- when he had 22 homers and 68 RBI in 399 at-bats for the San Diego Padres, while catching 99 games -- and figured he might be able to approach or duplicate Thomas's fine 2006 season for Oakland (39 homers, 114 RBI), if he was freed of the intensive chores and the body-aching grind of catching.
"He had a good year [in San Diego] as it was," Beane said, "and it could have been an even better year with more at-bats."
Among the practice fields of Papago Park, where fans are virtually unrestrained and mingle among the players as they move from station to station, Piazza was clearly the top attraction. His every move was accompanied by hordes of children and professional autograph seekers. At one point, a fan handed him a baby gift, wrapped in a pink bow, and Piazza accepted it with thanks.
But as the A's catchers warmed up pitchers and performed ball-in-the-dirt blocking drills, Piazza was on another field, taking more batting practice.
"It was weird not being out there blocking balls," Piazza said later.
Plenty of older players have struggled to adjust to the lighter workload of a DH, but it must be particularly difficult for a catcher. No player is more involved with every aspect of the game than a catcher. And no player is less involved than a DH.
"When you catch a good game, you feel like you don't have to get a hit," said Piazza, who frequently served as the DH when his National League teams went to AL stadiums in interleague play. "That's going to be one thing about DH'ing that's frustrating. If you don't swing the bat well, you feel like you're dead weight."
When Piazza left for the day, the duffel bag went with him, loaded down with bats. The catcher's mitts, however, remained in his locker, just a bunch of dead weight.