BASEBALL: $91m Piazza enters the pay stratosphere

MIKE PIAZZA, the catcher for the New York Mets, is to become baseball's highest paid player after signing a seven-year deal for $91m (pounds 56m). The Mets, who have become very much New York's other team as the Yankees have soared into the stratosphere, will keep one of their best talents on board.

The package, expected to be announced today, gives him an annual salary of $13m, a vast sum until you consider the other Michael, Jordan. The Chicago Bulls star and mini-economic miracle, earns an average of $33m a year.

The deal gives Piazza salaries of $6m next year, $11m in 2000, $12.5m in 2001, $9.5m in 2002, $14.5m in 2003 and $15m in 2004 and 2005. A signing bonus of $7.5m will be paid in two tranches, next year and in 2002. He will have a suite when the team is on the road, and a luxury box at Shea Stadium.

Piazza had a bizarre year, being traded from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Florida Marlins after the Marlins sold off most of their World Series-winning team. From the Marlins he went to New York, and was booed for his first few games after a poor batting performance. But at the end of the season the team pitched him a deal he could not refuse.

Significantly, the contract includes restrictions on the teams to which he can be traded. The Marlins' decision to break up their World Series team showed that players are increasingly regarded as financial securities, to be traded for profit.

The Yankees team which came through the season with one of the strongest records ever will also be subject to tensions as players and managers alike consider the best trading formulas.

Though the owner, George Steinbrenner, is unlikely to follow the Marlins' chief, Wayne Huizenga, into the wholesale market, they may lose their top hitter, Bernie Williams, and perhaps the first baseman, Tino Martinez. The Yankees each earned a third of a million dollars from their shares in the World Series victory, over and above their salaries.

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