NEW YORK (AP) – In what is almost certainly the final weekend of Mike Piazza’s New York Mets career, the catcher is at peace with himself, satisfied that both sides have benefited from the seven-year, $91 million contract he signed in 1998.

The last four games at Shea Stadium is a friends-and-family series against the Colorado Rockies, a team like the Mets, finishing an also-ran season. The buzz in New York is over the Yankees and their AL East showdown against the Boston Red Sox. Shea is mostly empty for the Rockies series but the fans who came to Thursday night’s opener were aware of the significance of these games for Piazza.

They gave him a standing ovation on every at-bat and Piazza gave them one more memory with a 450-foot shot into the back of the left field bleachers, the 397th home run of his career and 220th with the Mets.

After that, the crowd chanted “One More Year!” at the 37-year-old catcher.

“They’re making it hard,” Piazza said. “It’s good. I’m excited. I’m happy they feel that way. It’s nice to know you’re wanted.”

This has been an emotional going-away party at Shea with Piazza soaking in plenty of affection from the stands.

“The fans have been great,” he said. “It’s been a good ride. Some ups and downs. But the people have been great. The whole thing is very flattering and emotional and very much appreciated. Sometimes, it’s a little embarrassing.”

This has been going on for a month. Piazza is routinely called out of the dugout for curtain calls after home runs. The Shea scoreboard has flashed his career highlights between innings.

No one has said so but just about everybody recognizes that after enduring the rigors of catching for a dozen big league seasons, Piazza almost certainly will be moving on, probably to the American League as a designated hitter. He’s comfortable with that if that’s what happens.

“It’s a funny game,” Piazza said. “I don’t know. Now is not the time to think about that. In the future, we’ll sit down and think about it. First things first. I’m not ruling anything out.”

The response of the fans has been a dramatic turnaround for Piazza. At first, they did not know quite what to make of him. He seemed aloof and reluctant to commit to the Mets during the half-season he spent with the team in 1998. Free agency was beckoning and it seemed his stay in New York would be short.

That changed when he signed the long-term deal. He became the face of the franchise, much as Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden had been before him. There were memorable home runs, game winners. He would lead the Mets into the 2000 World Series and for that, he became beloved.

There was an awkward, ill-fated attempt to turn him into a first baseman with the thought that it might prolong his career and as he grew older, his injuries mounted. But he was always a threat at the plate and he broke the home run record for catchers while playing with the Mets.

Going into the last weekend of the season, Piazza was three homers away from 400, an impressive milestone. He has hit 374 homers as a catcher, more than any other player in history. But he understands that the position has taken its toll. So he looks ahead to a less grueling finish to his career.

“I have a real sense of satisfaction about my time here,” he said. “I appreciate the way the fans are reacting.”

He does not rule out fulfilling the fans’ chant for one more year, putting the onus for that on the Mets.

“It depends what their future plans are.” Piazza said. “We’ll see.”

AP-ES-09-30-05 1730EDT


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