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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Are 'U' ready for some baseball?

Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner running around the field

Mets pitcher Jeremy Hefner running around the field wearing their new "underdog" T- shirt. (Feb. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

If the shirt fits, wear it. That's what the Mets eventually came to realize in the days after Jeff Wilpon, the club's chief operating officer, handed out bright orange T-shirts with a giant blue U stamped on the front.

The letter, of course, stands for Underdog, but not everyone agreed with Wilpon's fashion sense. David Wright, for one, publicly bristled at the label, almost to the point of being offended by the suggestion.

Slowly but surely, however, the Mets began wearing the shirts, and not because it was the only clean thing left hanging in their lockers. Seen in a different light, the U could be mistaken for Unity. If the Mets are indeed going down this season, at least they will go down together.

The six weeks of spring training is not a very long stretch compared to the relentless grind of the six-month regular season. But it is plenty of time to figure out what kind of baseball team you might be -- even if the record is inconsequential.

The Mets, to no one's surprise, have problems. Bruised bullpen, suspect defense, Jason Bay. Entrenched in a much-improved National League East, they are the popular pick for last place.

Playoffs? Respectability is the goal in Flushing. Or better yet, financial solvency. No one has ever looked as happy to pay out a $162-million settlement as principal owner Fred Wilpon when he agreed on that sum last month with Madoff trustee Irving Picard. With expectations low, that could turn out to be the Mets' biggest victory of the season.

As for the Yankees, any measure of success must wait for October, a month that ended all too soon last season for the American League East champs.

When the Yankees need to patch holes or fix problems, neither cost nor casualties is much of a concern.

Annoyed by A.J. Burnett, the Yankees shipped the erratic No. 2 starter to Pittsburgh in February and happily paid $20 million in salary to do so. They also sent top offensive prospect Jesus Montero -- a DH in waiting -- to Seattle for Michael Pineda, a hard-throwing righthander who, on the cross-country flight, apparently lost his fastball somewhere over North Dakota.

But aside from new additions Hiroki Kuroda, the $10-million replacement for Burnett, and lefty DH Raul Ibañez, the core Yankees still are the Yankees you remember -- just as they have been for the last decade. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera return for a shot at a sixth World Series ring; even Andy Pettitte, in a stunner, came out of retirement during spring training for another run to glory.

At age 39 (soon to be 40), there are no guarantees with Pettitte, just as the regular season stopped being a layup line for the Yankees a while back. As if the Red Sox weren't troublesome enough, they now have Bobby Valentine as the Joker to Joe Girardi's stoic Batman. The young Rays remain the upstart darling of the division, with the retooled Blue Jays a rising threat.

The Yankees are who they are -- perennial World Series favorites, financial juggernauts. In other words, the exact opposite of the team on the other side of the RFK Bridge. The last time the Mets had the chance to change that, or at least close the gap, was 2006. That's when Joe Torre batted Alex Rodriguez eighth in a flameout to the Tigers and the Mets' dreams of the Fall Classic were ended by an Adam Wainwright curveball.

How much has the world changed? Wainwright and Carlos Beltran now are teammates on the Cardinals, who watched Albert Pujols defect to the Angels during the offseason. Jose Reyes now plays for the Marlins.

All this we already know. The mystery is what twists and turns this season will take in the next six months. Will we even remember talking about Valley Fever and trampolines by then?

One thing is for sure. The U on those Mets shirts won't stand for Undefeated. Beyond that, buckle up. It's going to be an interesting ride.

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