Been quite a while since I referenced my time working at "The McLaughlin Group," but today feels like the kind of day to revive the format. Plenty to discuss

An anecdote? I'm running low, but I'll never forget my farewell to Dr. McLaughlin. In my final week (so far) as a political reporter, I arranged to cover the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, helping out both "TMG" and the Los Angeles Times. We taped an episode of "TMG" at a studio very close to the Astrodome, and afterward, held a brunch for sponsors - at which point Dr. McLaughlin, Fred Barnes, Eleanor Clift, Jack Germond and Mort Kondracke put on a special "TMG" just for the live audience. It wasn't until that point that I fully appreciated how much the "talking heads" component of journalism was just a big show.

By that point, I had worked for "TMG" for about 14 weeks, and had received virtually no compensation. No pay, no college credits for working probably 45-50 hour weeks. Just lunch and dinner on Thursdays, and donuts on Friday morning, as we usually arrived at about 6:30 in the morning to prepare for tapings.

So on this last day in Houston, I managed to pull aside Dr. McLaughlin for a moment, told him that I was heading back to college and thanked him for the opportunity to work for him.

"Good luck," he told me, sincerely, at which point he took about a $50 bill from his wallet and handed it to me, as a token of appreciation. By my math, that amounted to roughly two cents an hour pay for the whole summer, not counting the eats.

But I wasn't doing any math then. All I cared about was getting approval from Dr. McLaughlin, and receiving a $50 bill from a famous person. I'd like to say I still have that bill, but I'm pretty sure I spent it that night.

If you don't know the rules to this format, it goes like this:

1. I state my opinion on the issue.

2. You respond with insults, whether you agree or not.

3. Agreeing or disagreeing is optional. If you want, you can just throw out another insult, instead.

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Issue One: Should Carlos Beltran regain his everyday centerfield job? 

As long as he's capable, of course he should. Angel Pagan has done a terrific job, and he underlined his efforts with a great performance last night, after learning that Beltran is supposed to start his rehabilitation clock tomorrow.

I wrote last night, in my column for Newsday's first edition, that the Mets have an interesting challenge on their hands. And they do. But really, if anything is going to bring down the Mets this season, what are the odds that it's going to be the return of Beltran - as opposed to, say, the lack of starting pitching depth?

What bothers me most of all is the Beltran-hating. Kevin Kernan of the Post told me last night that he was writing an anti-Beltran column, and I told him he was nuts, so I don't mind writing it here.

When exactly has Beltran been "selfish" in his Mets career? Was it when he returned from the Mike Cameron collision without even going on the disabled list? Was it when he played through right knee discomfort last year because he knew the team - missing Carlos Delgado and Jose Reyes - needed him, and wound up making the injury worse?

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No, Beltran will never be as shiny and happy as Jeff Francoeur, or as good a quote as Jason Bay. But the guy is a ridiculously good player. A bad teammate? Total baloney. And even if he were a bad teammate, his skills would more than compensate for it, as well as for the two times he didn't slide into home.

If he's not as good as he was, pre-surgery? Then he's still very likely going to be better than Pagan. And if he needs to rest twice a week, then great - all the more playing time for Pagan.

Issue Two: Should Jon Niese have re-entered the game after last night's rain delay?

Of course not. Ninety-two minutes between pitches for Niese, a rookie coming off a hamstring injury playing on a wet field. Good Lord.

Following the game, Jerry Manuel said that, had Niese thrown 50 pitches prior to the rain delay, then he wouldn't have come back out. I don't quite follow the biophysics of his pitch coount in this equation, but regardless, Niese threw 46 pitches before the delay.

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So a difference of four pitches prompted the Mets to use their extremely valuable, young, cheap starting pitcher in a high-risk situation. I don't want to hear, "Who else would've pitched?" They were up 10-0. They could've figured something out, then made a roster move today if they burned out their bullpen.

You hope that Niese will be fine. But you have to know that the Mets' decision-making last night was simply awful. You don't put a guy back out there just so he can get a win, which Niese didn't even get because he had nothing post-delay.

Issue Three: Should the Astros trade Roy Oswalt?

Oswalt clocked a typical 2010 game for him last night - pitched great, got the loss. The Houston ace has enjoyed a spectacular, bounceback 2010 season. The difference? Look at how much more he's throwing his changeup this year.

Astros owner Drayton McLane, speaking in general terms, told the Houston Chronicle yesterday that he'd be willing to absorb part of a player's salary if it meant getting better prospects in a deal. He obviously was referring to Oswalt and Lance Berkman.

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But McLane is ultra-competitive and eternally optimistic, and my sense is it would just crush him to pay Oswalt _ with whom he enjoys a close relationship _ to play for another team. Therefore, I'm still skeptical that Oswalt winds up elsewhere, all the more so with the Rangers' immediate future still a mess.

Oswalt still is optimistic that he'll wind up elsewhere, according to someone in the loop, and for that matter, Berkman is said to be miserable in Houston. Yet Oswalt was optimistic last year, too, that he'd be traded. If the Astros hold onto both with the thought of making an underdog run next year, then it's going to be in Oswalt's and Berkman's best interests to play at their best, to boost their value in the 2011-2012 free-agent market.

So to answer the original question: In a vacuum, yes, the Astros should trade Oswalt. But given that McLane is who he is, then no. McLane should let his fans enjoy Oswalt every fifth day through next year and, in the meantime, come up with a way to make a better team in the long haul. One easy step: Draft better.

Issue Four: How bad is the current interleague schedule?

Very bad. I admit to monitoring the Dodgers extra carefully, since I predicted them to win the NL West. But look at the Dodgers' interleague opponents, with their current records: Boston (43-29), Detroit (38-31), Angels (40-33) and Yankees (44-27) . Counting the Angels twice, since the two "LA" teams play two "rivalry series against one another, that's an aggregate record of 205-153, a .576 winning percentage.

Now here's San Diego's slate: Baltimore (19-51), Seattle (29-41), Tampa Bay (43-28) and Toronto (38-33). Counting Seattle twice, in honor of the historic Padres-Mariners rivalry, that's an aggregate record of 158-194, a .449 winning percentage.

If that disparity resulted from a structure - from, say, the notion that the Dodgers should have a tougher schedule because they won the NL West last year and the Padres finished fourth - then I'd say, go for it. But there's no structure. There is only chaos.

So the answer to the original quesion is, "Epically bad."

--Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez led the way in the Yankees' victory over Arizona, and get this: Pettitte now leads all AL pitchers in WAR. It appears that Pettitte's final start of the first half would be July 8 in Seattle, which would put him in optimal position to serve as the AL's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game on July 13.

Given that Joe Girardi is the AL manager, and how much respect Pettitte has around the game (yes, despite this. The baseball community is forgiving), this would seem to be a slam dunk.

--Good piece by Jim Baumbach on R.A. Dickey, who has been a lifesaver for the Mets.

--Bobby Parnell replaced Jenrry Mejia last night, and he looked good in his one inning of work.

--Dave Eiland's absence cannot be blamed for A.J. Burnett's struggles, Brian Cashman told Erik Boland. I don't know. Can't it one of a handful of reasons? Burnett, after all, is the guy so fragile that the Yankees decided last postseason that he shouldn't pitch to Jorge Posada.

--Speaking of Posada, he continues to improve.

--Johnny Damon praised Austin Jackson, who didn't show off any of that great defense last night. Anyway, if you've noticed, both Damon and Hideki Matsui, so far, have experienced significant dropoffs from last year.

--Finally, just as I'm about to post comes word (via Twitter, of course) that the Marlins have fired Fredi Gonzalez and replaced him with Triple-A New Orleans manager Edwin Rodriguez. Not a surprise, as Florida owner Jeffrey Loria's dissatisfaction with Gonzalez has been known for a while.

We'll see how this season unfolds, but once again, Loria has a close relationship with Bobby Valentine. I think the Marlins and Valentine would be a great fit.

--Have a great day.