Steve Phillips discusses the Mike Piazza trade: 5/29/98

My first steady freelancing gig in New York was with New York Mets Inside Pitch, the official newspaper of the Mets. I found out pretty quickly that then-general manager Steve Phillips had time for everyone, no matter how big or small the affiliation. He was an old-school front office type who believed constant accessibility to the news media helped sell tickets, while also allowing him to help shape the narrative on a daily basis. This of course was before teams figured out they could cut out the traditional gatekeeper, but that’s a tale for another time.

Anyway, I had an idea to do a “day-by-day” chronicling of the blockbuster trade for Mike Piazza, and Phillips ended up calling me on his way home from the office late on a Friday afternoon. He ended up providing a remarkably detailed account of how the trade went down. Hope you enjoy reading this–and thanks, all these years later, to Phillips for his time.

On the Piazza trade from the Dodgers:

He wasn’t really on the block. I think, from my understanding, it was a deal made at the ownership level. More ‘How are they going to swap money’ and if the Dodgers are going to take money. My read on it is if the Dodgers were going to take on money, they wanted Charles Johnson in the deal because they knew beyond this year they weren’t going to be able to re-sign Mike.

I heard rumors of the trade and actually had tracked down Dave Dombrowski, who said they were more than rumors, it was just pending Sheffield’s approval.

I could understand the trade from both sides’ perspectives. It was clear the Marlins just took Mike with the idea of turning him around and moving him somewhere else. I had talked to Dave that Friday morning and he had indicated that if it was appropriate, he would talk about moving Mike. He didn’t feel pressured to do it and rushed to do it because they were at the payroll they needed to get to for the year. They were going to get back, catch their breath, start considering things. A little surprised it moved as quick as it did within the next week.

On Piazza being dealt by the Marlins:

Really thought that it might go into July, towards the trading deadline. Heard rumbles it was going to be a little quicker. Teams started to move. I called Dave that following Wednesday night. Didn’t know how many teams were going to get in, had only heard or read what was out there. I don’t know what’s accurate and what’s not. With that, once we had made the decision that it was something we’d pursue, I called David late on Wednesday night to make a proposal.

On the Mets’ interest:

My initial reaction was not to pursue it because we had Todd (Hundley). We hoped and expected Todd to be back at some point and we are one of the few teams that can brag about having an offensive catcher. But we also weren’t quite sure when Todd would be back. He hasn’t had any setback. We still hope and expect he’ll be back. Initial reaction was not to trade prospects, which i knew was what the Marlins wanted. They weren’t going to take guys making any money. The initial reaction was not to do it. As I got through Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, my talks and discussions with teams surrounding some of the other areas on our club, trying to improving upon, evolved in such a way that made me realize I might be able to improve our team without having to use the prospects that we had, that I was going to be able to swap out major league talent for major league talent and reconfigure our talent to another team and bring back some offense to help our club. As that became more apparent, it made a little easier to consider using prospects to duplicate a strength and give ourselves protection. It became more practical to use the prospects, even if you were duplicating strengths, because you were at least giving yourself protection and options for later.

We were out of town on the west coast, so it didn’t really reach a fevered pitch until Tuesday when we were back in New York. Off on Monday, it was my birthday, got in about five, six o’clock in the morning. I was home and still hadn’t changed my mind that it wasn’t the right thing for us to pursue. And even into Tuesday, went on the radio with the fellas Mike and the Mad Dog (pauses, chuckles). And even at that point, I had to defend the position about not pursuing it because you only have a limited number of resources and if you use those to duplicate strengths, how do you improve the rest of the club?

I can’t obviously describe all those internal meetings and discuss some of these other trades. I became a little more confident we’d be able to get something done. Pulled together a meeting of our baseball department on Wednesday, spoke with ownership, met again Wednesday afternoon with a little larger group, bringing in more of the baseball people and some of the business people to get their opinion about things Made the decision Wednesday night to move forward with it and called Dave Dombrowski to make that proposal.

I made my proposal Wednesday night. Dave told me he’d call me back Thursday morning. He had a day game Thursday. No call in the morning, I thought. well, all right, maybe he’s hung up by the game. I wasn’t hopeful that things were going to progress if I hadn’t gotten the call. Then I did get the call about mid-afternoon during their game. Dave said he hadn’t had enough time to sort through all the different things he needed to look at and that he would get back to me, one way or the other, Friday. And he did call back Friday, early afternoon.

Thursday night, I knew that the names I had proposed to him, he had some interest in in the past. I wasn’t sure whether they were appropriate for this deal, but you never know what to expect. When you don’t hear things, typically, no news is not good news in trade discussions. If you’re not getting feedback or back and forth discussion, it tends not to be a good sign. I was a little concerned, but didn’t know. But when he said they hadn’t sorted through things, that was a pretty good idea he had a lot of work to do. My sense was five or six different teams were involved and it would make sense he would have to sort through players and names and reports.

On the urgency to save the season with the trade (the Mets were 24-20 and ranked 28th in the majors in runs scored at the time of the deal):

Not really. I don’t know that the season would have slipped away. We had just gotten back Alfonzo and Gilkey in the lineup and I think, certainly, we felt we were going to get the offense going as it had been prior to their going out.

More on the timeline for the completion of the deal:

Friday, morning, early afternoon, (he was asked) have you heard anything, have you heard anything? But then he did call back Friday afternoon and made a proposal to me. He said he’d made a proposal and said if I was willing to accept it, we’d have a deal. We went back and forth about a number of things then made a proposal that closed the deal.

I would say it was about 2, 2:15 it got done and then we agreed on trying to set up a press conference for 4:30. Then started to track down players.

Jim Duquette, our minor league director, tracked down Preston (Wilson) and (Ed) Yarnell. I reached out to ownership to inform them we got the deal done. So Dave got ahold of Mike.

Was excited about it. Feel we immediately became a much better team and understood it would give the franchise and the owners the appropriate credibility in the fans’ eyes and in the team’s eyes.

Tried tracking down Todd, had some difficulty on his way to the ballpark. Did finally reach him in his car, I think I probably got him around 3:15. and 3:30, then the press conference I didn’t talk to Mike until 4:25, after the press conference.

On his post-trade feelings:

Obviously very excited about it. Very obvious questions to be asked, considering my previous statements about what I felt was the appropriate thing to do at the time  going back to Tuesday and my conversation with Todd previously So I knew there were some appropriate questions, and obvious questions.

Friday night was nice. It was a rewarding afternoon and obviously as well as the acquisition was received made it that much more rewarding.


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