Padres officially sign, introduce Piazza

SAN DIEGO -- Mike Piazza has a new home on the West Coast, where he began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1992.

At a news conference Monday to introduce him as a member of the San Diego Padres, the All-Star catcher also received a new number. The Padres retired Hall of Famer Dave Winfield's No. 31, which Piazza had worn since breaking into the major leagues.

So when he slipped on his white Padres jersey for the first time, it came adorned with a fresh number: 33.

"I've always had 3s in my number, [but] this is something new for me," Piazza said. "I don't have crazy superstitions about my number."

The number might be different, but Piazza will be at a familiar position this season, his 15th in the majors. The Padres last week signed the 37-year-old to a $2 million, one-year contract to be their starting catcher, and they have said he can catch as many games as he's able to. The deal includes a mutual option for 2007 at $8 million, with a $750,000 buyout.

Piazza chose the Padres in part because of the promise of a broad role. His second choice, the Philadelphia Phillies, wanted him to be a part-time catcher and first baseman.

"We just thought this was the best opportunity to contribute," said Piazza, joined at the news conference by his agent, Dan Lozano, and his wife, Alicia. "I've never been in a situation as a true backup, and at this point in my life I thought [San Diego] was probably a natural fit.

"I'm not very mechanical about these decisions," Piazza said. "I just think it was meant to be. [Padres general manager] Kevin [Towers], from the start, showed a lot of interest. He said, 'We'll be here if you're interested.' When it came down to it, they were the best situation, without question."

Piazza, a 12-time All-Star whose 374 home runs as a catcher are the most in baseball history, will be the Padres' designated hitter in interleague games and fill in at first base against some left-handed pitchers. He is expected to bat cleanup between Brian Giles and Vinny Castilla.

"I'm excited about having Mike here," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "This guy is an impact player. We have to be careful not to abuse him, but I think this was a big signing for us."

The Padres won the NL West last year with an 82-80 record before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by the St. Louis Cardinals. They will try to help Piazza attain the one glaring omission on his Hall of Fame résumé: a World Series ring.

Piazza reached the World Series with the New York Mets in 2000, but they lost to the New York Yankees in five games.

"That's pretty much the one thing that I'm chasing now," Piazza said. "I've had great personal success in this game. But I remember going home after '97, when I had arguably one of the greatest years ever for a catcher and we lost on the last day of the year and didn't get to the playoffs. I remember what an empty feeling that was."