- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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In the days before the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium, Mariano Rivera asked Yankees clubhouse employees for a small but important favor: keep Francisco Rodriguez's temporary locker as far away from his as possible.
It was a stunning request from the mild-mannered Yankee, but given how different the two closers are, perhaps not so surprising. By signing with the Mets, K-Rod will bring to Citi Field all the qualities that Rivera finds distasteful, not the least of which are Rodriguez's self-congratulations after each of his saves.
If Rivera took exception to K-Rod's two-handed point to the skies, imagine how the rest of the National League will feel about it in 2009. The Mets already have an image problem with the Phillies, and their new bullpen savior isn't likely to improve matters.
In fact, K-Rod has been a Met for a little more than a week, and is already immersed in the division's war of words. He declared the Mets, not the Phillies, were the team to beat. The world champs have other ideas: Cole Hamels made the back pages of the New York tabloids recently after calling the Mets "choke artists" on a local radio show.
Of course, K-Rod was lured to Flushing to heal that very wound. The Mets' bullpen blew 29 saves last season, which is why K-Rod's lack of restraint made no difference to Omar Minaya during negotiations with the free agent. The Mets' general manager reckons that, if Rodriguez can secure the ninth inning, he's free to act as if he's brought down the Berlin Wall.
The Mets certainly are beyond caring what the National League -- and, specifically, the Phillies -- think of them. And Rodriguez isn't about to temper his behavior now that he believes he's been validated by a three-year, $37 million contract.
"Of course, I'm never going to change the way I do my job. Never going to change," Rodriguez told reporters. "There might be a little more adrenaline the New York fans, they make a lot of noise. I try to rob that energy from the crowd. For me, all the noise they're going to make excites me more."
K-Rod's celebrating profile will be layered atop Jose Reyes' customized high-fiving after scoring an important run in a big game -- outside the dugout. Such gloating, which has been part of the Mets' legacy since the '80s, has been steadily irritating opponents for the past four years.
But unlike the 1986 club, as arrogant as it was successful, the latter-day Mets have collapsed in the past two Septembers -- choked, just as Hamels says. They've yet to win a pennant since the miniature renaissance began in 2006, despite an influx of marquee talent and the ballooning of the payroll over $130 million.
That's the fine line Jerry Manuel must navigate in his first full season as the Mets' manager: He wants his players to emote, but without looking foolish.
Without citing Reyes in particular, Manuel copped to the Mets' immaturity. Indeed, one baseball executive said, "If you don't think [the celebrating] has any consequence, then why does a team like the Marlins always love to stick it to the Mets?"
The implied answer, of course, is that the Marlins -- who, despite being out of the playoff race, denied the Mets a playoff berth in the final weekends of the 2007 and 2008 seasons -- were paying the Mets back for their showboating sins.
"I think there were times when we were out of rhythm with what was going on," Manuel admitted, before adding, "if you can back it up, that's fine with me. And you have to do it in a way that's somewhat respectful to the game."
Manuel will certainly clamp down on open-air celebrating in a one-sided blowout. No argument there. But it's those one-run games with the Phillies that will test the manager's authority.
What happens, say, the first time K-Rod strikes out Ryan Howard to nail down a Mets victory at Citizens Bank Park? You don't have to ask -- Rodriguez will have his guns (OK, index fingers) blazing toward the heavens. It'll certainly light the fuse, which, sooner or later in the summer, figures to ignite a fire.
Hamels' remark was one of the topics of conversation during the Mets' annual Christmas party for children Wednesday.
"Words aren't going to do anything in December," pitcher Mike Pelfrey told The New York Times. "I could not care less about what Cole Hamels said or anybody else on that team said. We've gotten a lot better this offseason, and we need to continue to make some more moves."
Of course, I'm never going to change the way I do my job. Never going to change.
-- Francisco Rodriguez
For now, the Mets are focusing on finding at least two more starting pitchers; they're hopeful of re-signing free agent Oliver Perez, and they have an eye on Randy Wolf. And it's not impossible for Pedro Martinez to return on a one-year contract.
But whoever takes the mound for the Mets will eventually hand the ball to J.J. Putz in the eighth inning, followed by K-Rod in the ninth.
Love him or loathe him, Rodriguez has made this much clear: He refuses to be ignored. The world (and the Phillies) will be watching.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
Expect the addition of closer Francisco Rodriguez to make the Mets a team that opponents love to loathe.