Amid all the chaos is some hope

The Mets' Angel Pagan takes batting practice before The Mets' Angel Pagan takes batting practice before a spring training baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Kissimmee, Fla. (March 19, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.

It took the better part of six weeks, but the Mets accomplished what few believed was possible at the start of spring training. They actually turned the conversation back to baseball.

That seems like a challenge every season for the Mets, a team frequently derailed by off-field shenanigans. But this year, the fallout from the Bernie Madoff fiasco took that to unimagined extremes, and also infiltrated the clubhouse.

How many other teams began spring training with their owners holding court on the field, defiantly promising vindication from beneath the cloud of a $1-billion lawsuit? Only the Mets, who, despite their financial uncertainty, actually did a decent job preparing for the upcoming season.

"I think it's been nice because after that first week of the Madoff stuff, we've been able to focus on baseball," David Wright said. "And 99 percent of the questions that we've been asked have had to do with baseball and not stuff that's going on away from the field that we have no control over. That's a good thing."

Another rarity for the Mets: They also escaped any colossal injuries. With the exception of Carlos Beltran, whose arthritic knees figured to be a problem anyway, the roster stayed mostly intact, giving new manager Terry Collins the opportunity to work with the core players.

Collins established himself as a hands-on manager as soon as players began arriving in Port St. Lucie. And once the workouts began, he strolled the clubhouse every morning and often inserted himself into drills to make sure everyone knew who was in charge.

As a result, the response to Collins seemed positive. The six weeks cruised by without much drama, other than the occasional ripples caused by Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez before each was released.

"I couldn't have asked things to run better," Collins said. "I guess if Carlos would have come in 100 percent, but we kind of anticipated him taking some time, obviously. Our pitchers are throwing the ball great, our players are seeing the ball great. They're not too tired, they're not overused. I think we're on a great path for the start of the season."

A big part of that is the health of the Mets' starting rotation. Mike Pelfrey, R.A. Dickey and Jon Niese were givens in the first three spots. But Chris Young and Chris Capuano, with their injury history, were not exactly locks. Both made it through the Grapefruit League schedule without so much as a hiccup, and that is a huge boost to the confidence of the staff as a whole.

"There's no real question marks as far as who you're going to give the ball to next," Dickey said. "Those guys are both capable of some fantastic things. Like last year, I might have been an X-factor of some sort -- both could be that. They've done it before. They've both been All-Stars. If they regain that form, or even close to that form, then we could be right there in the mix."

It's probably a long shot, but that optimism is to be expected at the start of a season. If Beltran can stay on the field, the Mets' lineup could be formidable with Jose Reyes, Angel Pagan, Wright, Beltran, Jason Bay and Ike Davis. If Collins can cobble together a bridge to closer Francisco Rodriguez, the Mets have a chance to minimize one of their biggest weaknesses.

"I really think that we feel pretty confident going into the season," Wright said. "The good thing is we got a lot of guys with something to prove. Guys that are going out there and playing with a chip on their shoulder, whether it's because they have been hurt the last couple years or have underperformed."

Winning may not guarantee that the Mets have heard the last of Madoff, but it's one way to make everyone care about that name a lot less.

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