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Joy Ride
July 17, 2006
Fueled by putdowns and cutups, the slaphappy Mets-a franchise whose revival is way ahead of schedule-are dominating the National League
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July 17, 2006

Joy Ride

Fueled by putdowns and cutups, the slaphappy Mets-a franchise whose revival is way ahead of schedule-are dominating the National League

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Through the doors to the New York Mets' clubhouse enter the young and the ancient, the slow and the swift, the homegrown and the mercenary, the charitable and the thrifty, the beautiful and (by official team balloting) the ugly, but never, for goodness' sake, the easily insulted. � "Welcome," catcher Paul Lo Duca says, "to Rip City, where we get on each other all the time." � True to their home city's heritage, the Mets are a melting pot of cultures, customs, languages and, yes, occasional off-color salutations that somehow works. Backed by owner Fred Wilpon's money, shaped by a childhood dream of general manager Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic and reared in Queens, and ably guided by second-year manager Willie Randolph, the Mets are the rare sports team that has found instant success after a nearly complete overhaul. � Of the 29 players on the active roster and disabled list at week's end, 16 joined the major league club since the end of last season. Only eight played for the Mets before Minaya was named G.M. 22 months ago. And yet, in a veritable New York minute, the Mets have become the best team (53-36 through Sunday) in the weakest league in years, with by far the biggest lead in baseball (12 games in the otherwise loser-filled NL East) and the thickest skins this side of a Friars' Club roast.

"Look at the personalities they brought in here," says closer Billy Wagner, an 11-year veteran who signed as a free agent last winter. "We're all extroverts. Me, Lo Duca, [Carlos] Delgado, Pedro [ Martinez].... It's not like guys came here and were afraid to say something. I think that's why we clicked right away. This is the best clubhouse I've ever been involved in. And the secret is that guys can say anything they want to anyone at any time."

That's not to say that communication is always clear. There was the time, for instance, when backup catcher Ramon Castro ("the class clown," as Lo Duca calls him) visited Wagner on the mound in a crucial situation against the Blue Jays.

"How about a coo-ba here?" is what Wagner, born in the rural mountains of Virginia, heard his Puerto Rican catcher say.

"A what?" Wagner asked.

"Coo-ba," Castro said.

"Curveball?" Wagner finally deciphered. "I don't have a curveball!"

"Well, O.K.," Castro said. "We're not throwing that anyway."

Castro is even better known for his portrayal of ample-bottomed lefthander Darren Oliver, a vaudevillian impersonation that he performs on charter flights-with the help of two airline pillows stuffed into the seat of his pants.

Not even Martinez, the three-time Cy Young winner, is immune from catching grief. After Martinez overslept for a game in Toronto this year, he was greeted in the clubhouse by Wagner, who took one look at Martinez's garish-colored outfit and bellowed, "I sure hope you're not late because you were out shopping for that."

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