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TODAY: Friday, May 12
No love for Bobby V.

In any other season, the pronouncement from Mets general manager Steve Phillips would've been the starting gun for a summer of love at Shea -- where the Mets have a realistic chance to win their first NL East title since 1988.

Bobby Valentine
Bobby Valentine's disputes appear to be expanding beyond umpires.

"I like this team," Phillips said, which is what a GM is supposed to say about his flock. But the political and personal gulf between Phillips and manager Bobby Valentine has become so wide, even in the last few weeks, some Mets people believe Phillips' assessment was closer to a warning -- a win-or-else threat that will hang over Valentine throughout the year.

In fact, even though the Mets and Yankees are on a possible collision course for an October showdown, the differences between the two clubs couldn't be more apparent. It's the Mets, not the Yankees, who are in a semi-permanent state of crisis, and even though George Steinbrenner consumes managers and GMs like breakfast in his search for the 162-win season, Brian Cashman and Joe Torre aren't in any danger of losing their jobs in 2000.

The same can't be said about Valentine, who's working with a contract that ends after the 2000 season and has been at odds with club ownership all winter, ever since it became apparent he wasn't getting an extension to his current three-year deal.

The Mets have flourished under Valentine, winning 88, 88 and 97 games since 1997 and qualifying for the postseason last year for the first time in 12 years. That wasn't enough for co-owner Fred Wilpon, however, who says Valentine will have to wait for a new deal, just like Phillips, whose contract also expires after 2000.

But is there a secret agreement between Phillips and Wilpon? Some baseball executives already believe that, and Wilpon's insistence that Phillips and Valentine are on equal footing is a mere charade.

The thinly-veiled antagonism between Valentine and Wilpon manifested itself in a tense one-on-one discussion last December, when the manager flatly told the owner he was entitled to job security.

Wilpon said no to the extension request, even though, as he put, "I know you want one."

But this is where the similarity ends between the two teams, because unlike the Mets, the Yankees whole-heartedly support their manager.

"Don't say 'want,' " Valentine reportedly shot back. "Say, 'deserve.' "

Instead of rewarding Valentine, Wilpon and Phillips set out to redesign the Mets, although it's debatable whether they're any better than the team that nearly upset the Braves in the NLCS last October.

John Olerud and Roger Cedeno are gone and succeeded by Todd Zeile and Derek Bell. The result? Besides the obvious downgrade in defensive skill, Olerud's .427 on-base percentage in 1999 has been replaced by Zeile's .354. Cedeno's absence will hurt, too, since his .396 on-base percentage has been replaced by Bell's .306.

Olerud and Cedeno struck out 166 times last year; Zeile and Bell fanned 223 times. Olerud's 125 walks were more than Zeile's (56) and Bell's (50) combined.

Throw all the stats in the blender, and the Mets have a slower, less creative offense that is far more reliant on home runs than walks, stolen bases and hit-and-run plays. True, they have 22-game winner Mike Hampton on board, but it's also a fact that Orel Hershiser, Kenny Rogers and Octavio Dotel are all gone. The three combined for 26 wins last season.

Yet, Phillips is so convinced of the Mets' improved karma, he passed over a chance to acquire Bobby Higginson in exchange for Rickey Henderson last week, saying, "I don't feel like I have to do anything."

Valentine has been far more cautious, saying the current edition of Mets needs time to gel. Time, however, is not the manager's ally, not this year, and if anyone needs to be reminded how impatient Phillips is, remember he fired three of Valentine's most trusted coaches after only 55 games last year.

By contrast, the Yankees are living in a more tranquil universe, if such a thing is possible with Steinbrenner still signing the checks. But the Bombers quieted the Boss' early spring panic attack by winning their last seven games in Florida and answering key questions about the older corps of players, including Roger Clemens, David Cone and Paul O'Neill.

Make no mistake: the Yankees, like the Mets, are probably weaker in 2000 than in 1999. They don't have a home run-hitting DH, and there's no true No. 5 starter after rookie Ed Yarnall failed his March audition.

But this is where the similarity ends between the two teams, because unlike the Mets, the Yankees whole-heartedly support their manager. Torre has gone four years without a snide remark from Steinbrenner -- partly because the Boss recognizes Torre's maturity and respects Torre's battle with cancer.

Mostly, however, Torre has been bullet-proof since he's engineered a renaissance in the Bronx that could turn the Yankees into baseball's first three-peat World Series champions since the 1972-74 A's. That'd put a nice finishing touch on Torre's managerial career and, after he retires in 2001, will almost certainly get him into Cooperstown.

But even if the law of averages prevail, and the Yankees are caught and passed by the Red Sox, it's no stretch to assume the Bombers will handle themselves with dignity, first day to last.

The Mets? Get ready for a summer of hot-blooded in-fighting and one controversy rolling into the next. We won't be able to look away.

Bob Klapisch of the Bergen (N.J.) Record will write his "Baseball in the Big Apple" columns periodically throughout the season.

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