Piazza pizazz

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The Independent Online

Mike Piazza felt positively sluggish, not slugger-ish. Until he stepped back into the batter's box, that is.

The New York Mets returned to the field Monday for the first time since their trip to Japan. And it took a bit more traveling to reach the park - a two-hour bus trip, actually.

"We're all kind of sluggish," Piazza admitted during batting practice. "But something happens when you get between the lines."

So it does. Piazza hit a pair of RBI singles and Rickey Henderson had three hits as the Mets beat the Seibu Lions 8-1.

"I'm just trying to get the season started and also to have fun, have a good time here," Henderson said.

The exhibition game at the Seibu Dome gave the Mets a chance to work out the kinks and see some old friends. Tony Fernandez and Reggie Jefferson signed with Seibu in the offseason.

Later in the day, the Chicago Cubs lost to the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants 6-0. Sammy Sosa was 0-for-4.

"Good pitching going to stop good hitters," Sosa said.

By Wednesday night, the Mets and Chicago Cubs figure to be fine when they open the major league season.

Especially the sluggers.

Piazza took one look at the left-field wall at Tokyo Dome and took aim. At a cozy 317 feet (95 meters) from home plate, it made for an easy target for him and Sammy Sosa.

"The ball flies, at least when Mike hits it," Mets teammate Todd Zeile said.

Most players got their first peek at the 50,000-seat ballpark during workouts Sunday. To some, the place playfully nicknamed the "Big Egg" seemed pretty foreign.

Two rows of benches in the dugout. Black dirt on the pitcher's mound, brown dirt around the bases. A chain-link fence for a backstop. No warning track.

And that was before Seibu and the Tokyo Giants claimed the field for an exhibition game. They set up side-by-side cages for batting practice, and inside them catchers sat on wooden benches. Later, a rookie wearing No. 122 walked past.

"You don't see that very often," observed Joe McEwing of the Mets.

Others found the park more familiar.

"You look up at that puffy, white roof and see those blue seats and it looks just like the Metrodome," said Cubs pitcher Rick Aguilera, who spent most of his career in Minnesota.

"The only thing missing were the homer hankies," he said.

And, like the Metrodome, it's loud. A few thousand fans, most of them kids, watched the workouts and screamed - "Sign, please" - for autographs.

The decibel level was doubled by an announcer standing on the dugout roof with a hand-held microphone, commenting on the festivities. Most Japanese games feature lively cheerleaders, too.

"There is a noise factor here," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine, who managed Chiba Lotte in the Japanese league in 1995.

Piazza created a huge stir when he strolled over to the third-base stands to oblige the children.

Japanese players traditionally do not sign autographs. The chance to get a souvenir from Piazza, extremely popular in this country since his days of catching Hideo Nomo with the Dodgers, made him a bigger hit.

Piazza took part in an all-star tour to Japan after the 1996 season and hit .429 with two home runs in seven games. Before this trip, he assured his teammates they'd enjoy the experience.

"Everyone was kind of apprehensive at first because they didn't know how it was going to turn out," he said. "But it's been great."

"It's fun for us," he said. "It's a different kind of spring training."

Said Mets third baseman Robin Ventura: "I think everyone is pleasantly surprised."

The Mets and Cubs finish their exhibition season today and Tuesday, taking turns playing Seibu and the Tokyo Giants. Then they start a two-game series against each other.

Sosa is still the most popular player on this visit, and fans Sunday cheered his every swing, catch and throw during the workout. The Cubs star responded by throwing them packs of wristbands.

Sosa was the MVP of an all-star tour to Japan after the 1998 season, hitting .481 with three homers and 10 RBIs. He did not hit many balls over the wall during Sunday's practice - then again, the Cubs had arrived from their 18-hour trip the previous night.

"I'm ready to go," he said.

While Sosa and most players headed back to their hotel, five Mets and five Cubs boarded a Blackhawk helicopter for a 15-minute ride to a U.S. Army base.

At Camp Zama, John Franco, Mark Grace and others talked to a couple of hundred kids and signed autographs. Mets reliever Dennis Cook took along a pocket camera and answered lots of questions.

An eager child wondered whether Ken Griffey Jr. would homer against Cook.

"He won't take me downtown," he assured the child. "He'll make his money off other pitchers, not me."