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Mets Think They Hit a Home Run / Wilpon, Phillips gush over Howe: 'The right guy'

Listening to the Mets gush about Art Howe at yesterday's

news conference, it was as if the struggling franchise had just hired

baseball's version of Abraham Lincoln, only with a shinier scalp.

"When I met him," Mets owner Fred Wilpon said, "I'm telling you, he blew me

away. He reminded me so much of some great leaders - quiet leaders, dignified

leaders - guys that are in and out of baseball."

Say this much for Howe: Without even managing a single game for the Mets,

he had members of the front office behaving like smitten teenagers at an *NSYNC

concert during yesterday's introduction at Shea Stadium.

In their eyes, Howe apparently can do no wrong. They say no one is better

suited to repair the fractured clubhouse, to lift the players out of the

malaise that engulfed the team in the second half of the season. Or at least no

one is better suited among those available at the precise moment last week

that he was offered the job.

"I truly believe that he is exactly the type of person and personality to

lead this organization right now," general manager Steve Phillips said.

Or as Howe put it: "I may not have been the first choice, but I'm the right

choice."

Howe delivered a low-key, straightforward address that opened with a nice

crack directed at the assembled media. After it was learned last week that he

had been hired, Howe was vilified both on the back pages and talk-show air

waves, so he couldn't resist taking a good-natured swipe at his critics.

"I wanted to thank you all for the nice articles about me," Howe said,

barely containing a smile. When everyone in the room burst out laughing, Howe

showed nice comic timing by waiting for the chuckling to subside before

continuing. "I guess this means I'll never get a roast. But seriously, I'm just

ecstatic about being here."

It was a conversation between Phillips and Athletics general manager Billy

Beane that first put Howe on the Mets' radar, and Phillips responded quickly by

flying down to Houston to interview Howe on Oct. 12.

Phillips was impressed by the meeting, but two days later, the Mets jumped

into the Lou Piniella sweepstakes. Then, when the Mets couldn't get permission

from the Mariners to talk to Piniella, Phillips went back to Howe and set up a

summit at a Manhattan hotel last Wednesday with Fred and Jeff Wilpon. Fred

Wilpon already had heard Phillips' glowing reports, and it didn't take very

long to make up his mind.

"A half-hour into this, it struck me," Wilpon said. "There was no question.

This was the guy I want. I said, 'Art, this interview is over. You are not

being interviewed anymore. You're a New York Met. Now, let's talk as partners.'"

Later, the group was joined by Howe's agent, Alan Nero, and the Mets agreed

to the four-year, $9.4-million deal. Just like that, Howe had more money and

more security than he had ever been offered in Oakland.

From the outside, it was a risky move, investing so much in a manager who

was allowed to leave Oakland despite three straight years in the postseason and

back-to-back 100-win seasons.

"I think that it shows how strongly we felt about what we thought Art Howe

could do for us," Phillips said. "He was that compelling to me and to Fred and

to Jeff. They bought into the fact that he's the right guy."

And Howe, unlike the ousted Bobby Valentine, seems to be Phillips' new best

friend. Phillips said yesterday that choosing the coaching staff will be a

joint decision, and if Howe's schedule allows it, he wants his manager to join

him at the December winter meetings, something Valentine was not allowed to do

the previous three years.

"We hit it off immediately," Howe said of Phillips. "It was just a sense

that this was going to be a good fit. I knew it was going to be a good working

relationship."

Reading between the lines, Howe seems very much the anti-Valentine,

highlighting the Mets' desire to go in a completely different direction.

Instead of the strained relationship that existed between him and Valentine,

Phillips has aligned himself fully with Howe, realizing how crucial the

manager's success is to his survival as he enters the final year of his

contract.

"I think he has a maturity and a stability to him that I think is a big

part of what we need right now," Phillips said. "I know everybody keeps saying

that we need somebody to confront players; to go after them, to attack them. I

think my sense is, with our veteran players, we're better served for them to be

treated with the kind of maturity and respect that Art Howe can give."

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