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Dodgers' Piazza, Free Agent?

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza has moved one step closer to becoming a free agent after this season.

Dan Lozano, the agent for Piazza, said several months ago his client would test the market next fall if he wasn't signed to a long-term contract by Feb. 15.

The deadline came and went Sunday.

Dodgers general manager Fred Claire declined to comment on the deadline and contract negotiations, while Piazza - following his first day at Dodgertown - expressed his frustration.

"Obviously, I'm a little disappointed," Piazza said. "But I've dealt with it. I'm fine as far as my state of mind. I'm ready to play this year. That's it."

The pending sale of the Dodgers to Rupert Murdoch may have hindered Claire's ability to meet Piazza's deadline. But it didn't slow Claire down during his negotiations with right fielder Raul Mondesi, who was given a four-year $36 million contract on Jan. 23.

The contract could be worth $60 million over six years, with the Dodgers holding an option for the final two years.

Piazza is likely to get a contract worth $12 to $15 million a year and could sign baseball's first $100 million contract. He is in the final year of a two-year, $15 million contract.

"We set the deadline and obviously it didn't work out," said Piazza, who could eventually become baseball's highest-paid player. "I'm a little disappointed. But I owe it to my teammates, the fans and to myself - I'm not going to let this be any sort of distraction."

But the fact that he didn't show up for the first day of camp Saturday might tell another story. The official word was that Piazza was taking care of personal matters.

"To tell you the God's honest truth, it's completely out of my hands," Piazza said when asked if he and his agent were waiting to see what Murdoch was willing to pay. "That's how I look at it. As I maintained before, I definitely would like to stay in Los Angeles. I enjoy playing here. I'm very happy here. But you have to be prepared for anything in this game. That's just the way it is."

Piazza said he's never taken an active role during his negotiations. So it would not be surprising if Lozano works something out with Claire when the ownership issue is finally settled.

"It wasn't like I had a tremendous amount of input before," Piazza said. "I just told (Lozano) to tell me when it's time to make a decision."

But by not making Piazza's deadline, the Dodgers risk exposing a player on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats to free agency.

Piazza, 29, enjoyed his best year in 1997, hitting .362 with 40 homers and 124 RBIs. He has a career average of .334 and has hit 168 home runs in five full years along with 21 games in a sixth season.

©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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