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NEW YORK ( -- Mike Piazza added new energy to the New York Mets when he joined the team in 1998. Now, Schering-Plough is hoping for the same from the future Hall of Fame catcher.

The drug company, which has been stung by the government's refusal to clear a promising new drug for market, launches a campaign tonight for its blockbuster Claritin allergy drug featuring Mr. Piazza.

Last-minute decision
Schering was not planning on launching a new Claritin campaign at all this year, and the decision to use Mr. Piazza was somewhat last-minute. The company had planned on shifting its marketing focus to Claritin's successor drug, Clarinex, and hoped for an aggressive launch just before spring.

But on Feb. 15, the company said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration would not clear Clarinex for market until Schering proved it had fixed manufacturing quality-control issues at several facilities.

It is still unlcear when Clarinex will be launched. Schering wants to switch as many Claritin users to the new drug before the Claritin patent expires in 2002, ushering in generic, low-priced competition.

The company's earnings and stock price have taken a hit with the FDA's decision, and the company hopes Mr. Piazza will generate more favorable publicity in the months ahead.

A promotional first
The 30-second TV spot mentions that the handsome catcher has been a Claritin user since 1998 and shows him going about his business on the field -- stretching, taking batting practice, hobnobbing with a fan -- without the inhibitions of allergy symptoms. "Mike Piazza doesn't worry about sneezing," the voice-over says. The spot culminates with Mr. Piazza tagging a runner out at home plate and speaking the words "Just a walk in the park."

The spot and accompanying print work from longtime Claritin agency WPP Group's CommonHealth Quantum Group, Parsippany, N.J., is expected to run throughout the baseball season and builds off Schering's sponsorship of Major League Baseball. Since 1999, Schering has run general Claritin spots linking it with the pageantry of baseball, but it has never used a player as pitchman before.

"This takes it to a more personal and, I think, more relevant place for most allergy sufferers," said Stu Klein, executive vice president-general manager of the Quantum Group.

Schering advertised Claritin during the 1999 World Series, though not last year. If Mr. Piazza's New York Mets make a return trip to the Fall Classic as they did last year, the company, which spends heavily behind Claritin, might be hard-pressed to pass up the opportunity to run spots with Mr. Piazza during those Series games. The Mets currently have an 11-16 record and are in last place in their division.

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