2003-02-01 / Sports

Mets: Orange You Glad It’s Almost Time?

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch

Baseball Columnist

Art Howe wears the new orange warm up jersey at the event held at Madison Square Garden (AP/Richard Drew)Art Howe wears the new orange warm up jersey at the event held at Madison Square Garden (AP/Richard Drew)

One by one, seventeen members of the 2003 Mets strode to the podium of the Theatre at Madison Square Garden Tuesday, each looking vaguely embarrassed by their appearance.

No, this wasn’t a revisit of last season at Shea Stadium, when the Mets were unable to win a single home game in the month of August and was routinely booed by their own fans.

Instead, this time, the uneasy feeling came from their shocking neon orange mesh batting practice jerseys, which the club will be outfitted in for the duration of spring training. Don’t race to your calendar, but the reporting date for pitchers and catchers is just two short weeks away.

Mike Piazza tugged at his jersey with a look of anguish and commented that he looked like a Creamsicle, before quickly reverting field and adding that he liked Creamsicles. Right.

"On our days off, if anyone goes hunting and wears these, you probably won’t get shot," he said. "But you might scare off the animals."

Mets general manager Steve Phillips, admirably quick to put a positive spin on any impending crisis, had a different view. "They’re bright, fresh and what we have is a bright fresh start for the New York Mets," he said with a smirk.

In that regard, Phillips is most certainly right. After adding manager Art Howe, longtime nemesis Tom Glavine and slugger Cliff Floyd to the mix for the upcoming season – and subtracting manager Bobby Valentine and clubhouse malcontent Rey Ordonez – the Mets seem to have a refreshing air of confidence about them.

"I truly think that we’re the team to beat," Piazza said. "If we don't feel we're the team to beat, we might as well go home. I don't think that's boastful or bragging. I truly believe that if we play the way we're capable of playing, we're going to win some ballgames."

After the Mets acquired stars Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeno and Mo Vaughn, expectations ran similarly high at this point last winter. While the Mets did eventually win some ballgames – 75 – that wasn’t nearly enough of a performance for them to avoid a last place finish in the National League East.

With a shocking number of players putting up statistics that seemed to be withered ghosts of their baseball pasts, New York quickly soured on the Mets, a team that was picked by many baseball pundits to seriously contend for a division crown.

"I remember that," said new hitting coach Don Baylor, who opened last season as the manager of the rival Cubs. "Alomar, I know in his estimation, didn’t have a good year, but he’s not going to have two years like that.

"We just need to jump out of the gate and play well, and then the confidence is there. There are a lot of guys who weren’t here. They’re going around saying, ‘I wasn’t here last year. This doesn’t apply to me.’"

Baylor paused for a moment, then softly intoned, "But you know, Mo is gonna bounce back and have a great year."

Vaughn’s re-emergence is one of the biggest keys - and one of the biggest question marks - surrounding the Mets’ upcoming season.

After missing all of the 2001 season following surgery on his left bicep, Vaughn made a valiant effort to come back, but was held back by his hefty physique – well over his listed weight of 275 and, according to one source, over the 300-marker by season’s end.

Absent for Tuesday’s media day due to a prior commitment, Vaughn has worked extremely hard at his Ohio home this offseason to shed the excess weight that held back his productivity, hiring a strength and conditioning coach and even a personal chef.

"Mo is pumped," said Howe, who had a chance to size Vaughn up at a team dinner in Manhattan this week. "He realizes he’s a very important ingredient in this club. If he does everything he’s supposed to – look out."

"He's tapered down significantly," Phillips chimed in. "He is rock-solid hard now. He's in baseball shape. He looks much better than when the season ended. I mean, Mo's not ever going to look like a ballerina, but he's more mobile."

Good vibes like that permeated the air Tuesday in midtown Manhattan, and even as the thermometer registered 16 degrees, it was hard not to get a little bit excited about baseball’s imminent arrival.

Why the change in attitude? Perhaps it really was the change in leadership at the helm of the club. Glavine, Floyd and reliever Mike Stanton all said that they wouldn’t have come to the Mets if Valentine was still in charge, and the assemblage of players in attendance Tuesday had nothing but ringing praise for Howe and his coaching staff.

"When you change faces, it’s almost like bringing in new hope to a ballclub," said rookie Ty Wigginton, who should be the favorite to win the Mets’ third base job this spring. "You saw the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they got (Jon) Gruden and they go on to win the Super Bowl. I guess it’s kind of the same atmosphere here."

Just with orange jerseys.

Bryan Hoch appears regularly in the Wave. He can be contacted at bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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