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PIAZZA FEVER IS CATCHING METS STAR WITH HOT SWING FAVORED TO WIN COVETED MVP.

Byline: Matt McHale Staff Writer

Whether you are watching tonight's Dodgers/Mets game from the living-room couch or the fancy seats behind home plate, don't be surprised how far away Mike Piazza looks now.

He has been gone just a few years, but in the past several months he has really moved on, forging an identity Dodgers fans once hoped they would see forever: National League MVP.

In a season filled with worthy candidates, including the Dodgers' Gary Sheffield and former Angel Jim Edmonds, Piazza is the hottest player on baseball's hottest team. A year ago, the Mets were one inning from the World Series and this season they might be even better.

``He's been the most valuable, the most spectacular, the most dependable,'' Mets manager Bobby Valentine said of Piazza during their recent run of 19 victories in 24 games. `He's been the most of a lot of things this year.''

It isn't just the numbers, although his .346 average, 31 homers and 97 RBI clearly have helped the Mets lock onto Atlanta's bumper in the tight Eastern Division race.

Piazza is headed to his first MVP award - and the first by an NL catcher since Johnny Bench in 1972 - for plenty of other reasons, reasons that never were fully realized with the Dodgers. In L.A., he twice finished second in MVP balloting, including 1997 when his gaudy .362 average, 40 homers and 124 RBI earned him runner-up to Colorado's Larry Walker.

But though he was the team's best player, Piazza was aloof in the dysfunctional Dodgers clubhouse. He wanted to just lead by example when the Dodgers needed Kirk Gibson to grab them by the throat.

Now, through maturity and a growing comfort level with his new surroundings, Piazza has an expanded role in New York. He still is not the loudest guy in the room, but on a team filled with veterans of pennant races past, Piazza is just as important joking or cutting up with teammates. He never let his hair down like that until this year.

He even has called two clubhouse meetings this season. Once in L.A. he tried to call one with pitcher Ramon Martinez and was laughed at by teammates.

These days, a table for 10 teammates at a Manhattan restaurant is a regular stop, making the $91 million man with the Playboy Centerfold girlfriend and a date in Cooperstown just one of the guys.

``Leadership take on many shapes,'' said Mets third baseman Robin Ventura, who Orel Hershiser once called the greatest clubhouse presence he had ever seen. ``You can't have players be someone they aren't. Mike has carried us. He is our MVP. And not just on the field.''

Piazza refuses to get swept up in MVP hype even though he plays in a city that knows no other way.

``I really haven't changed my approach to the game or to life away from the game,'' he said. ``Just stay relaxed and take things as they come. There is no reason to talk about MVP right now, so I won't. The season still has a long way to go.''

Beginning tonight, the Mets (72-49) are 2 1/2 games behind the Braves in the East with 41 to play. Six of their last 14 games are against the Braves.

Despite the demands of his position, Piazza has carried the offense. Earlier this season, he had a 21-game hitting streak. He also recorded an RBI in 15 consecutive games, two short of the major-league record.

Earlier this year, Piazza provided one of the season's greatest snapshots when his three-run homer beat the Braves after New York had fallen behind 8-0.

And after missing three games with a sore knee earlier this month, Piazza returned to bat .539 with two homers and nine RBI in the next four games. There were many who feared Piazza might be lost for the season. He was back by the weekend.

Perhaps the most lingering image of his season came in early June against the Dodgers when he was struck in the head on a backswing by Sheffield. Blood gushed from beneath his catcher's mask, providing sensational pictures for sports sections and TV around the country.

He missed a few games and later missed his first All-Star Game in seven years when he was beaned by Yankees right-hander Roger Clemens.

But Piazza always seemed to return better and kept the Mets' momentum intact.

``He seems a little more driven this year,'' Valentine said ``Every game he has played in has been special.''

Piazza admits he pressed when he first joined the Mets just one week after the Dodgers and Florida Marlins completed a blockbuster trade on May 12, 1998, that included Sheffield.

Piazza was a pending free agent when he and the Mets agreed to a seven-year, $91 million contract. Last season, he had 40 homers and 124 RBI, but struggled in the playoffs until hitting a game-winning homer against the Braves that forced a Game 7 in the National League Championship Series.

During the winter, he moved out to suburban New Jersey but kept a place in Manhattan. Piazza enjoyed the club scene and occasionally rode the subway but did not travel with an entourage.

``He's an East Coast guy,'' said Piazza's agent, Dan Lozano. ``New York can be a crazy place, but Mike feels very comfortable there. With all he's been through, he is very happy now, very at peace with himself.''

It didn't hurt that he met and began dating Darlene Bernaola, who with sister Carol posed for the January issue of Playboy.

Already a paparazzi target and the subject of more than 100 fan Web sites, Piazza's new romance could have been crushing. Instead, he says New Yorkers have given them some space.

``Everyone has been great,'' he said. ``You just have to realize the attention comes with the territory. You're a public figure and people are going to be curious, especially when the person you are dating is a public figure.

``I have found people usually very respectful. They want to meet you and you can't prevent them. If I need a break, I hang out at home or go out to familiar places that people know you and don't bother you.''

One place he hasn't been is the World Series. The buzz created by the thought of a matchup between the Mets and two-time defending Series champion Yankees started back in spring training.

During his time with the Dodgers, Piazza played on one division championship and one wild-card winner. The Dodgers have not won a playoff game since 1988.

Even if the Mets do not overtake the Braves in the East, they are well ahead in the wild-card race. New York was the wild-card representative last year and defeated West-champion Arizona in the divisional series.

``We've been playing great, but now is not the time to sit back and think about it,'' Piazza said. ``If I do what I'm supposed to do and we play like we're capable of playing, we can get to where we want to go.''

MVP RACE

Piazza

.346 avg., 31 HR, 97 RBI

Sheffield

.324 avg., 37 HR, 91 RBI

Edmonds

.313 avg., 32 HR, 80 RBI

Kent

.340 avg., 27 HR, 103 RBI

Helton

.396 avg., 30 HR, 104 RBI

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box

Photo: (1 -- color) Mets catcher Mike Piazza has turned into MVP material since coming from the Dodgers, hitting .346, with 31 homers and 97 RBI this season.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

(2) Piazza has taken more of an active role as team leader with the Mets.

Todd Reeves/Associated Press

(3 -- color) SHEFFIELD

(4 -- color) PIAZZA

(5 -- color) KENT

(6 -- color) HELTON

(7 -- color) EDMONDS

Box: MVP race (see text)
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 18, 2000
Words:1294
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