Are You Ready? / Mets / Those Amazin' New Mets

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Play Ball!

That may be the sweetest sound of all for baseball fans - in other

parts of the country. Around here the sweet sound is someting that

starts like a wave breaking in the Atlantic, picks up momentum and

becomes a roar. It's Shea Stadium in full voice.

And there should be plenty to roar about this year. You'll her the

first sounds of what should be an action-packed sumer when the season

opens a week from now - Monday, April 12 against the Florida Marlins.

On the field at Shea now, Manager Bobby Valentine has a roster of

star athletes -- past and present, some returning Mets, some viatal

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newcomers.

Donning a Met uniform for the first time is Robin Ventura, five-time

Gold Glove winner at third base, perennial 90-plus RBI man and former

American League All-Star. On the basepaths, keep a close eye on that

all-time king of stolen bases Rickey Henderson. (He slides almost faster

than the eye can follow.) Other players to watch: -- fireballing

right-hander Armando Benitez, outstanding pitchers Orel Hershiser and

Allen Watson, talented outfielder Roger Cedena, and switch-hitting

slugger Bobby Bonilla. Different men, differnt backgrounds, same goal:

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They're all playing to win.

For your own scorecard, here's a quick, early-season look at just

what might become known as "The Amazin" Mets of '99"

HE HAS a sizzling fast ball that approaches 100 miles an hour. And

it's not all flash either. HIt helped him build a record of 22 saves in

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26 outings last year with the Baltimore Orioles, giving him a .846 save

percentage that ranked up there in the Top Ten of the American League.

He is Armando Benitez, Met number 29, and action is the word ofor fans

tuned into the moves of this great, Dominican-born athlete.

This old game of baseball can be even more riveting than usual

when this youngster is on the mound. In three outings in a row last year

-- all within seven days and all against different teams -- Benitez

calmly struck out nine straight batters while the crowds went wild.

Sometimes he may give the impression of being a young, emotional

ballplayer. Yet when the chips are down and there are runners on base or

in scoring position, Benitez has cooly chalked up one of the best

records in all of the majors for consistently denying hits.

Armando knows what it'slike to work for his bread. Last year he had

to pitch oon consectuvie days some 14 times during the season . . . and

he worked three straight days five times that year.

As Manager Bobby Valentine points out: Benitez struck out 87 batters

in just 68 1/3 innings last season.

And there are other pluses. Over the last two seasons, he has

converted 31 of 36 save opportunities, holding opposing batters to a

.199 (48-241) average, the fifth best in the American League.

FOR HIGH SCHOOL sweethearts Bobby Bonilla and his wife Millie, this

is a happy homecoming. The Bronx-born outfielder, has always felt

comfortable living in the New York suburbs. And now that he's a Met

again, at age 36, he's donning number 25 for a run for the money with

a bunch of guys Manager Bobby Valentine believes can go the distance.

It'll be a good place for the efficient Bonilla to work. Long Island

is familiar territory for Bonilla who, after graduating from Lehman High

School in the Bronx, spent a semester at the New York Institute of

Technology in Old Westbury.

With Bonilla in the field and up at bat, fans can expect some

interesitng things to happen.

And there are some records to break.

Bonilla who already has 1,106 RBI needs just 138 more to tie Frankie

Frisch (1,244) for seventh place on the All-Time switchhitters list.

(Last year, the new Met passed Ken Singleton and Reggie Smith.)

Off the baseball diamond, Bobby and his wife Millie -- parents of

Danielle and Brandon -- devote a good portion of time investing in the

tomorrows of children. Recently,they hosted the sixth annual Bobby

Bonilla / Budweiser Bowling Classic in New York which so far has raised

more than a million for the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund.

In addition, the Millie and Bobby Bonilla Public School Fund

benefits area kids. The ballplayer launched that with $35,000 in 1992 --

or a $500 shot every time he made another RBI.

Last year, Bobby spent three separate stints on the Disabled List

yet he still managed end the season with a .294 average for his last 33

games with the Dodgers.

FOR YOUNG ROGER CEDENO, becoming a Met at age 24 really was the

answer to the kid's dream he had while still playing for a Latin Little

League back in Venezuela. Even then his idol was a guy named Rickey

Henderson. Now they're teammates, working for the same goal, becoming

champions of the world. A natural outfielder, a switchitter, he

patterned his technique after the ballplayer he most respected --

Henderson.

And over his Major League career, which dates back four years, he

has successfully stolen 23 of 27 bases.

He played 77 games last year for the Dodgers and in 92 chances, he

committed just two errors for a .978 fielding record -- which means the

opposition batters better keep a wary eye on Number 19. He's

multifaceted too: Last year his of the 49 games he started he played 25

in center, 20 in left and four in right.

From April 30th to May 7th last year, Cedeno had a season-high,

eight-game hitting streak, batting at .394 (13-33) with a double, three

RBIs and four runs. The switchhitter also scores as a pinchhitter --

with a .276 batting average in 1998.

FOR FANS of New York baseball, it's deja vu all over again. Rickey

Henderson, who played for the Yankees over a decade ago, will be

bringing his record-breaking talents back to the Big Apple this season

to play for the Mets.

For Henderson, it will be a thrill to return to the fun and

excitement that typify the sports scene in New York.

Henderson was born in Chicago. He is a 1976 graduate of Oakland's

Technical High School, where he played baseball, basketball and

football. In the latter sport he rushed for more than 1,100 yards in his

senior year and reportedly received two dozen scholarship offers to play

college football.

Henderson found success in professional baseball instead, and these

days he is aptly being called a 40-year-old wonder. At an age when many

ballplayers have long ago hung up their uniforms, the veteran outfielder

has continued to set records.

Last year, Henderson's 20th year in the major leagues, was a season

of milestones. As a result of his performance last year, Henderson now

has scored 2,014 runs. He is only the sixth player in major league

history ever to break the 2,000 mark.

At the age of 39 he became the oldest player to lead the league in

steals (66), which made him a champ in this area for the 12th time, and

the holder of an on-going major-league record.

SO WHAT if Met fans like to chant his name (not always lovingly)

and hold up signs asking "Orel Who?" Orel Hershiser believes the Mets

and Shea and New York are the only places to be this season so he's

moving here.

Love it or leave it, it sounds like the veteran Cy Young Award

winner has found a home. And it also sounds as if he won't miss LaLa

Land all that much. There's not a palm tree in sight at the edge of the

outfield but it doesn't bother Hershiser much: "I love the ambiance at

Shea," he says.

And at age 40 he's no dreamy kid intrigued by the bright lights over

Flushing Bay.

"I've always respected the organization, with all the battles I've

had with them. And I love the city," Hershiser says candidly, and "I

enjoy the pressure, I enjoy the spotlight, I enjoy the competition.

In fact, he adds, "I can't wait to get there in front of all those

people who are very, very intense about their baseball and about the way

the team performs."

Now -- at the age of 40 -- he's finally made it to the Big Apple --

and he sounds as if he's looking forward to it.

Let's face it Hershiser still looks pretty much the same as he did

in '88 -- thin frame, wide smile -- and they say his sinker still is

sharp enough to have drawn attention from a number of teams this spring.

He liked the Mets because they offered a chance to win the World Series,

and a place to play where everybody knows how to spell his name.

He literally couldn't wait to get going as a Met. A few nights ago

he volunteered to start in an exhibition game against the Expos (and

ended up pitching two scoreless innings: One hit, one walk, three

strikeouts and one hit batter).

What will be intriguing is to see how a veteran handles his owns

personal records. He'spitched two one-hitters (the last time in '85) and

his longest winning steak was bakc then too at 11 games. As a startd the

most innings he ever pitched were 11 in '88 and the most as reliever 7

in '89.

Among active pitchers, the only ones with more than Hershiser's 190

career victories are Roger Clemens (233) and Greg Maddux (202).

"I've been an underdog since I put on a uniform. I was the nerd, I

was the kid who got punched around. I got cut from my high school

baseball team my freshman and sophomore year. I got cut my freshman and

sophomore years in college. I got drafted in the 17th round, and I took

four and a half years to get to the big leagues."

WHEN ROBIN VENTURA says New York's a wonderful town, he's not just

talking baseball. New York's now a town the best of the pros want to

come to.

For ventura that means setting up his surehanded shop in Shea

Stadium after an entire decade spent with one club, the White Sox. But

the man with the golden hands is esstatic about moving from the Second

City to play for the Mets. So happy, in fact, that he's decided to

immediately bring his wife and four small children along with him for

the season.

He's a former Olympian (a gold medalist in fact) and an

All-American who was named "College Player of the Decade" by Baseball

America. But it was the past decade that really put the Ventura touch on

the map of baseball. In 10 seasons with the Sox he won five Rawlings

Gold Gloves for his performance at third base.

And his fielding percentage was an astounding .966, which,

translated, meant that he only made 15 errors in 447 chances. Those 447,

by the way, topped all AL third basemen.

He established career highs with 161 games played and four triples,

and hit two home runs on June 10th vs. St. Louis, his 15th career

multi-home-run game. Also last year, he belted his tenth career grand

slam and tied a season-high tour RBI on August 24th at Seattle. Ventura

is a career .285 batter with 29 home runs -- 10 of them grand slams --

and 139 RBIs when hitting second.

WHEN IT COMES to local boys making good, you can't get much more

homegrown than Allen Watson. The left-handed pitcher was born in New

York, grew up in Queens, and still lives in the borough in Douglaston.

It was while attending Christ the King High School in Middle Village

that Watson had his first chance go out for his favorite sport.

No, not baseball.

Basketball was his first love, both in the local Catholic Youth

Organization and at Christ the King. In his senior year, Watson was a

starting guard for the nationally-ranked team.

But Watson's true talents lay elsewhere, in baseball, which he

played at Christ the King only during his senior year. The team won the

New York City Catholic High School Championship, and Watson was named

the New York City Player of the Year. He went on to earn All-American

honors playing baseball while attending the New York Institute of

Technology.

That certainly pleased his dad, Allen Watson Sr., who is a Yankees

fan and holds a special place in his heart for Mickey Mantle.

This will be Watson's seventh season in the majors. In portions of

six major-league seasons, Watson has started 133 games, and he has

relieved in 18 others. Fourteen of those appearances occurred last year.

As a reliever last year he was 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 14 games. In 21.0

innings, he permitted 25 hits, seven runs (all earned), and four walks.

For the pitcher, who reportedly smoothed out his delivery this

spring with the help of Tom Seaver, the coach-athlete relationship is

vital to the sport. In fact, someday Watson hopes to return to his roots

-- which he really never left -- and be a coach at his alma mater. But

not in the sport that made his name. Watson wants to be a basketball

coach.

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