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AN OLD STORY FOR PIAZZA VETERAN CATCHER REMINISCES.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

PEORIA, Ariz. - Sporting a ``Support Our Troops'' T-shirt as he sat at his locker in the San Diego Padres' spring clubhouse recently, Mike Piazza adjusted a fresh catcher's mask as he waxed nostalgic about Dodgers days.

Between the handiwork with the mask's straps and buckles and the far-away tone of the conversation, the vague impression was of somebody's grandpa sitting on a porch whittling and reminiscing.

A visitor asked if he worried that he sounded like an old guy.

Piazza looked up sharply.

``I got a hit, and I went to first base, and the kid (first baseman) said, `I used to watch you when I was growing up in L.A.!' '' Piazza said, breaking into a grin. ``I am an old guy.''

And so it's official.

If Mike Piazza gets old - Mike Piazza, who only yesterday was the Dodgers' future, the National League Rookie of the Year and The Playboy of the Western Division - then everybody gets old.

Even great ballplayers. This year, it seems, especially great ballplayers.

If you wanted to slap a title for the upcoming baseball season, it would have to be ``Thirtysomething.''

Piazza, who at age 37 has signed with the Padres to begin what he laughingly calls ``the last third of my career, hopefully a long third,'' is one of too many such stories to count on a pair of liver-spotted hands.

``I don't want to undersell myself. I'm just as curious as anybody,'' Piazza said of the questions about how much he can contribute to the Padres after injuries cost him big chunks of his last three seasons with the New York Mets. ``I've always been a streaky hitter, and if I can have a couple of my hot streaks ...''

Baseball players' careers are lasting longer than ever. In the 2005 season, major-league clubs' regular lineups (as listed by baseball-reference.com), starting rotations and closers included 52 players ages 35 and up, an increase of nearly 50 percent from 10 years ago once you adjust for expansion.

But players have developed no immunity to the pitfalls of what, for athletes, is advanced age. Injury and insecurity go with the virtues of proven ability and experience.

The Dodgers added five players ages 32 and up this winter, planning regular roles for four of them as well as Jeff Kent, 38. The Angels plan one more go-round with Garret Anderson, 33, and Darin Erstad, 31, before the kids start to take over.

The New York Yankees need Randy Johnson, 42, and Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and Jorge Posada - all 34 and up- to keep it going. For them, Johnny Damon, 32, represents an infusion of young blood.

The Boston Red Sox rely on starting pitchers Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield, both 39, and David Wells, 42, and closer Keith Foulke, 33.

The San Francisco Giants will field a starting eight that averages 34years of age.

Then there are scattered stars and faded stars with names as big as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and (if he decides to play) Roger Clemens - all old enough to be president. Oh, and Barry Bonds, 41, who goes into the season wrestling issues about his legacy that no player has faced.

To me, this is one of the things that make baseball special. Players with history, regrets, wrinkles.

You can keep all those long-view stories about 18-year-old NCAA basketball tournament stars who have overcome the self-doubts of late February thanks to the maturity of mid-March.

I'll take stories about the ups and downs of wizened specimens like Mike Piazza. Actually, he's as smooth-skinned and thick-haired as ever, but he speaks with the voice of hard experience.

This is Piazza on how he came to sign a one-year, $2 million free-agent contract with the Padres: ``There were a few (choices), not a ton. I'd never been a free agent. Even though I wasn't the top (player) on the auction block, it was an interesting process. Obviously, I didn't fit the plans of a lot of teams. It's just a fact at this stage of my career. I don't want to say I'm one-dimensional, but my multi-dimensions are not as alluring (as they used to be). The way the game has changed, teams aren't going for a straight DH (designated hitter) anymore, they want a DH who can play first or third base as well.''

On batting .265 and averaging 17 home runs and 50 RBI the past threeseasons after hitting .316 and averaging 35 and 107 the previous 10 seasons: ``It's been frustrating. I feel like at times in the last three years I've swung the bat as well as ever - and then I've got hurt. It's just a testament to how physical this game is. I've caught more than 1,500 games, and when a catcher gets into his late 30s, it's something you have to monitor .... It's a humbling game. It's not conducive to popping off. I've learned that many times.''

On what it will take to make his twilight years fulfilling: ``Everything is icing on the cake for me. I've been blessed in my life, I've had a lot of personal success, been on some great teams, made a great living. Now it's about getting on a team that will make it to the postseason. A lot is made about the ring, the ring, the ring. Every athlete wants to win a championship. That said, does it make an athlete's career any less important (not to have won the World Series)? It's not for me to say. For that one moment, it's not about the individual, it's about the team. That's pretty much what I'm playing for now.''

On becoming a more-rounded person, his enjoyment in playing for Italy in the World Baseball Classic, his four trips to Italy and his plans to learn to speak Italian: ``I think it's maturity. When you get older, you evolve and sort of open up a little bit. I've always wanted to experience new cultures and things like that. When you're younger, you're chasing that dream, and you have blinders on. I've enjoyed traveling, become more cosmopolitan. It's given me a lot of inspiration.''

On his amusement that L.A. fans still bring up his abrupt parting with the Dodgers, which came in a trade with the Florida Marlins nearly eight years ago: ``I guess it's because of what transpired, which was a controversial thing. There's not a negative I can think about with the Dodgers. What better organization can you come up with? Especially with Mr. (Peter) O'Malley owning the team, it was a family. They were so adamant about tradition. They had the Hall of Famers around in spring training, and I learned (catching) from Johnny Roseboro. It was a very fertile environment. Though it's been a long time, and my memory has fleeted a little bit, it's something I still look back with affinity and love. You come to a fork in life, you go down one road and you can't go back.''

And, sooner than anybody expects, an All-Star in his prime is an oldguy trying to hang on.

It's an old theme for a new season.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo:

Cather Mike Piazza, who joined San Diego as a free agent in the offseason, signs autographs for Padres fans during spring training. Piazza, 37, one of a number of ``Thirtysomethings'' playing large roles in the major leagues this season, laughingly calls this ``the last third of my career, hopefully a long third.

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Box:

AND THE WINNER IS ...
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 30, 2006
Words:1268
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