Plus, it is the best time all season to find out interesting quirks about the players on the team. Who cares about hearing more about the stars and the stalwarts? Spring training is a time for the newbies, the has-beens, and the never-wases.
Here are some of my favorite stories from this spring training.
David Newhan: Utiltyman
Then, Newhan said, it all started going wrong. He batted .140 in 32 games. The next year he hit .150. He was traded to Philadelphia and made the team out of spring training in 2001, but he injured his shoulder crashing into a left-field wall and missed most of that season and all of 2002 after having his second shoulder operation.
It was about this time that Newhan started reading the Bible for guidance, and soon, he said, ''a different train pulled into the station.'' He still held fast to his Jewish beliefs -- he had his bar mitzvah at a Conservative synagogue -- but he said that accepting Jesus Christ helped guide him through this rocky period. He observes Passover and Hanukkah and considers himself a Messianic Jew.
''I was a Jewish kid at Pepperdine -- God must have been working on me then,'' Newhan said of his alma mater, which is affiliated with the Churches of Christ.
Even his faith could not provide answers about what happened next. For the Rockies' Class AAA team in 2003, Newhan batted .348 but was never called up. For the Rangers' Class AAA team in 2004, he batted .328 and was never recalled.
Jorge Sosa: Now healthy but recently sent to the minors.
He said he felt strong and healthy, not like his condition last season, when pitching in winter ball, the Caribbean Series and the World Baseball Classic tired his arm.
Lino Urdaneta: No longer has the flu but didn't make the team.
Urdaneta, a 27-year-old right-hander who has a 98-mile-an-hour fastball, spent eight seasons in the minor leagues before he was called up to the Tigers in September 2004. He lasted 12 days in the majors. Since then, he has had visa problems, spent time in the Mexican League, where he was spotted by a Mets scout, and had reconstructive elbow surgery. He said his arm felt strong and that his velocity had returned. But he is not in the Mets’ immediate plans and may never get the chance to transform the way history views him.
“I’m pretty sure he’s hoping to get an out,” General Manager Omar Minaya said.
Urdaneta says he never thinks about that day. It is in the past, behind him, never to be thought about again — not even, he said, if he never gets that second chance.
But he did say that he was battling the flu then and had not pitched in about 12 days. He did not feel strong and, as a rookie, he said he did not feel comfortable telling anyone that he was not well enough to pitch.
Chan Ho Park: Got his visa but was sent to the minors.
The only thing right about the scene was the uniform he wore. Chan Ho Park took the mound for the Mets on Friday morning 33 miles from where he expected to be, throwing to a catcher who doubled as the umpire, facing hitters he would not recognize even if he had a roster in his hand.
Because his work visa has not arrived, Park, who is South Korean, cannot pitch anyplace in the United States where an admission is charged. The Mets applied for the visa on Park's behalf after they signed him Feb. 9 and expected to have it by now.
When it failed to arrive in Thursday's mail, the Mets scratched Park from Friday's start in Jupiter against the St. Louis Cardinals and arranged a simulated game for him against a lineup of Mets minor leaguers.
But the 33-year-old Park cannot show much if he cannot pitch against major leaguers. The Minnesota Twins face a similar problem with Sidney Ponson, an Aruban who has been held out of exhibition games because he arrived in camp with the wrong work visa. Normally, Park said, he would fly to South Korea and obtain the visa. But because he signed only six days before the reporting date for pitchers and catchers, Park said he did not have enough time to do that. So the Mets took up that task, and General Manager Omar Minaya said the Mets paid a fee to expedite the paperwork.
Minaya said he was not sure when the visa would arrive, but he expressed hope that Park could pitch Wednesday against the Boston Red Sox.
''That's in the hands of the immigration department,'' Minaya said.
Internal bleeding and an intestinal disorder that required surgery limited Park to 136 2/3 innings last year. He finished 7-7, but his 4.81 earned run average was the lowest since his final season with the Dodgers. Park switched agents, to Jeff Borris, before agreeing to a one-year, $600,000 deal with the Mets that includes incentives that could push the value to $3 million.
"I wasn't sure, two or three years ago, if I was going to pitch another four or five years,'' Park said. ''Now I feel very confident I can do it.
“The surgery helped. I feel a lot better. I’m not saying I’m going to win a Cy Young award, but I can be a better pitcher than I was the last four or five years.”
That is what the Mets are hoping for.
Ambiorix Burgos: Crazy name! Last pitcher to make the team.
Ambiorix Burgos's transition to the Mets began with a change in hairstyle. Gone is the clean-cut look he fashioned last season in Kansas City, ditched in favor of straggly curls that resemble fireworks exploding from his head.
Burgos is capable of blowing the ball past batters with staggering frequency, and at 6 feet 3 inches and 235 pounds, he possesses the husky build and overwhelming array of pitches reminiscent of another wildly talented but unpredictable Dominican closer, Armando Benítez. The trick now is to harness that ability.
Juan Padilla: Good but injured magician.
As Juan Padilla closed his eyes and turned away, Jorge Sosa showed a crowd of onlookers his card -- the two of diamonds -- before he shoved it into the bottom of the deck. Padilla shuffled the cards with a little too much force, and most of them crashed to the ground. No problem. He picked them up, reshuffled them to his satisfaction and put them back into their box. Then he grabbed a manila envelope from a nearby locker and placed it on the floor.
''One, two, three,'' Padilla said, bouncing the box off the envelope.
One card remained in his hand: the two of diamonds.
Sosa shook his head, shrugged and said, in Spanish, ''That was incredible.''
For his next trick, the 30-year-old Padilla will attempt to perform something even more impressive: win back his spot in the Mets' bullpen. Nearly a year after having reconstructive elbow surgery, Padilla, a valuable member of the Mets' bullpen in 2005, said he was in top shape, and he reported no pain after throwing his first bullpen session of the spring Tuesday morning.
''I'm right where I want to be,'' Padilla said. ''You have your ups and downs, but I feel healthy, and on April 1, I feel like I'll be ready to help the team.''
Even before the injury, Padilla shied away from entertaining during the season. Spring training is a time, he says, to forge new relationships and loosen up the clubhouse, so he stuffs 162 games' worth of illusion into his down time.
An admirer of the magicians David Blaine and Criss Angel, Padilla became interested in card tricks on a whim. As a student at Jacksonville University about 10 years ago, he saw someone performing a trick on television. Padilla tried doing it, too, and he was hooked.
He began showing off at parties and was soon scouring the Internet and magic magazines for tricks. Most, he said, are variations on a few basic themes, but he trades ideas with other would-be magicians. He said that he could perform about 17 tricks.
The brand of card does not matter, as long as it does not belong to him. He got the deck in his locker from the office of the Mets' equipment manager, Charlie Samuels.
''If I had my own deck, people would say that I tricked it up,'' Padilla said. ''And I would never do that.''
Instead, he relies on deception. After fooling Sosa with the trick that he said was so easy that ''my 2-year-old daughter could do it,'' Padilla moved on to his final victim of the morning. Oliver Pérez plucked a card from the stack, put it back, and then watched as Padilla threw all the cards in the air. Well, 51 of them, at least. Padilla was holding the ace of clubs, Pérez's card.
Asked how he did it, Padilla winked.
''A magician never reveals his tricks,'' he said. ''Never.''
Joe Smith: Made the team.
The Mets, on the lookout for a college reliever, selected him in the third round of the draft in 2006. He said he was unaware of the Mets’ hallowed tradition of sidearm pitchers — Jeff Innis, Terry Leach — but was excited to meet Bradford one afternoon at Shea Stadium last summer. They talked about the challenges of facing left-handed batters, who are able to see the ball much better than right-handed batters. He also met Paul Lo Duca, who told him, “You’re like Bradford, but totally opposite.”
“I thought that was good,” Smith said.
Shawn Green: One of the two "real" Jews on the Mets, one of the worst hitters on the Mets.
Shawn Green compared videotape of his swing during his prime with the Los Angeles Dodgers, when he hit 91 homers from 2001-2, to that from the past few seasons, and said he had noticed a mechanical flaw that hindered his power. ''I'm anxious to show everyone that I could play the way I did in Los Angeles,'' said Green, who hit 15 home runs for Arizona and the Mets last season. ''When my approach is right, my swing is right, and the power will come.''Duaner Sanchez - in trouble for showing up late and now out until the summer.
Sánchez said he overslept, nothing else. The deeper issue is his commitment to rehabilitating his surgically repaired right shoulder, which he acknowledged was not as strong as it should be. He reported to camp heavier than his listed weight of 210 pounds. “I came in a little bit out of shape,” Sánchez said. “I was supposed to come in more ready than I was. But now I’m feeling great and should be 100 percent in a couple weeks.”
Ben Johnson - Sent to the minors because Delgado's wife gave birth too early.
But Johnson could still make the opening day roster. If Carlos Delgado’s wife gives birth on or near her due date, April 1, which coincides with the Mets’ opener in St. Louis, Manager Willie Randolph may shift Shawn Green to first base and, for a day or two, fill the open roster spot with someone like Johnson.
Scott Schoeneweis: A Real Jew
After signing with the Mets, Scott Schoeneweis figured he had his big chance. Finally, after all these years, he could stop being No. 60. But when he walked into the clubhouse Wednesday evening and saw his new jersey, he recoiled. His last name was spelled correctly. But the new number, a very mainstream 36, suddenly seemed strange.
To his surprise, Schoeneweis found himself asking the equipment manager, Charlie Samuels, if he could switch back to No. 60, a number he had often tried to shed in each of his eight major league seasons.
''My first five minutes, and I'm already high maintenance,'' Schoeneweis said. ''I told them that they won't hear from me again.''
Schoeneweis is not superstitious. He does not believe that No. 60 has any magical powers. It is not cool, like No. 99, which Turk Wendell and Mitch Williams wore. And, as he said, ''It's not like I'm going to have to give a guy a Rolex'' to get the number back.
But No. 60 reminds him of his past, and the 33-year-old Schoeneweis (pronounced SHOWN-wice) has decided that he cannot toss it away, that the quirky number helps him remember who he is and what he has overcome: the testicular cancer that he defeated as a sophomore at Duke University; reconstructive elbow surgery that came within the same year; and a somewhat transient career that has led him to the Mets, after he signed a three-year, $10.7 million contract.
''It's part of my life,'' Schoeneweis said of the number he will probably keep for the rest of his career. ''It gives me motivation. It's almost like a chip. Like I'm not good enough to be given a real number.''
Lastings Milledge: Made the team
Willie Randolph eyed the 20 or so reporters encircling him in the dugout and, with a sigh, prepared for what he considered inevitable.The first pitch of the 2007 season is less than 24 hours away!
''Come on, give me the first Milledge negative question,'' Randolph said. ''Come on, throw it at me. I know you can't wait.''
On everyone's mind was the sour end to his first season in the major leagues: A note that read ''Know Your Place, Rook!'' hung from his locker in Washington; his swagger alienated some teammates; and there was a lingering notion that he was too arrogant for someone who still had much to learn about being a pro.
Milledge showed up Monday looking great. He had packed on 13 pounds of muscle after lifting weights and giving up red meat, and he said all the right things. The Mets had asked Milledge to play winter ball, but they eventually reached an understanding that it might be better if he rested. He seems committed to work hard and challenge Shawn Green for the right fielder's job. He resolved to take more responsibility for his actions.
''When you're young, you don't know what's out there,'' Milledge said. ''You don't know how to handle certain things. I learned about being a man.''
For better or worse, that image became as much a part of his persona as his braided hair or bat twirling before every at-bat. For the rest of his first month in the majors, Milledge was in the thick of things in nearly every city. In Philadelphia, his coaches and teammates scolded him for showing up only 70 minutes before an afternoon game. In Boston, the Green Monster got the better of him. In Toronto, he was ordered to dress in women's clothing as part of rookie hazing. After he was sent down for a month, Milledge returned Aug. 1 and was briefly considered for the postseason roster.
With an impressive spring, Milledge could make the Mets consider keeping him on the roster, although he appears destined to start every day for Class AAA New Orleans. The Mets are not inclined to bring him north as a fifth outfielder. ''People who have paid attention to my career, they know what I can do,'' said Milledge, who will turn 22 on April 5. ''I'm not trying to impress anybody. Everybody knows me. I don't have to put on a front for anybody.''
The Lastings Milledge who dashed around Tradition Field on Monday seemed to be a good start. Before batting practice, he went out of his way to hug the new first-base coach, Howard Johnson.
''HoJo!'' Milledge yelled.
Johnson shouted back, ''Lasto!''