The Florida Marlins signed an important member of the 2000 National League champion Mets yesterday.

Armando Benitez.

This is not a joke. It's foreshadowing, because the Marlins have bigger fish to fry when it comes to adding important members of the Mets' last World Series team.

And this next one actually could prompt Mets fans to cringe, not chuckle.

Bobby Valentine is expected to meet with the Marlins Friday and could be in the dugout by the time the Mets face Florida on Monday in San Juan, according to various reports.

If he takes the job, Valentine - who managed the Mets from 1996-2002 - also could agree to allow interim manager Edwin Rodriguez to skipper the team in Puerto Rico and take over later. Rodriguez is the first Puerto Rican to manage a big-league team, and it could be a bit awkward if he is removed before the San Juan series.

Did we say awkward? In some ways, Valentine lives for awkward. Remember the news conference in which he mimicked what it's like to be high on pot? Remember his relationship with then-Mets general manager Steve Phillips?

Valentine, who is working for ESPN, was in an awkward situation early this season when commenting on the Mets, who looked for a time as if they might fire Jerry Manuel.

Valentine didn't lobby to replace Manuel; there's little chance the Wilpons would go down that road again, though ownership has a cordial relationship with him. But Valentine didn't exactly say "no way, no how" when the idea was broached.

Perhaps that's why Manuel was a little frosty last night when asked about the possibility that Valentine will manage in the same division.

"I don't know him well enough," Manuel said. "I know he's somewhat of a favorite here. I'll just wish him the best."

Even Mets general manager Omar Minaya, who called Valentine "a friend," wasn't sure how to respond to the idea of Valentine showing up in the opposing dugout at Citi Field (Aug. 24-26, if he's hired, and then three times a year after that).

"Would it be fun?" Minaya said, repeating a question. "Listen, I have a great relationship with Bobby. I think the world of Bobby. He's a very good baseball man. But that's going to be the decision of the Florida Marlins. I've got to take care and make sure the Mets get the job done."

The Mets have been getting the job done of late, so Manuel is pretty much assured of finishing the season. The Marlins, at 35-36 going into last night, are not a big player in the NL East. That could change the minute Valentine signs.

Remember the talent - or lack thereof - of the 2000 Mets? The Marlins might be able to match it, even if their bullpen is wretched enough that they signed Benitez, who was pitching for the Atlantic League's Newark Bears, to a minor-league contract.

Valentine is a proven turnaround artist both here and in Japan. His penchant for stoking controversy and attracting attention could be seen as positives, at first, for the underfunded and underattended Marlins.

Would it be fun, Omar? How could it not be?

"It would definitely make it more interesting, especially when he came up here," Mets rightfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "He did a lot of good things up here. It might be more of a distraction, you know?"

We know! Even if Valentine is on his best behavior, the guy once wore a fake mustache and glasses into the Mets' dugout after being ejected from a game. That kind of guy should be back in baseball, even if it does make some people around the Mets a bit uncomfortable.

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