CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The National League could have its version of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.
Ever since Jimmy Rollins proclaimed in January the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East, the vitriol between Philadelphia and the New York Mets has grown more intense. The three-time All-Star shortstop never meant any disrespect with his comments but he isn't backing off now.
"It was the truth. It's the way I felt," Rollins told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "People don't expect you to express yourself. They think you sound cocky. It depends on how you say it. If you say it straightforward, you say it straightforward. People can take your words and try to twist them in any form they want."
One locker away, reigning NL MVP Ryan Howard chimed in on Rollins' prediction.
"It was shocking because other people weren't expecting him to say it," Howard said. "He's basically saying what everyone feels. Everybody in this locker room feels we have a great team this year. We got a chance to do a lot of good stuff. Jimmy was the one who came out and said it. When he said it, it opened up a lot of people's eyes."
The Mets won the division last year, and the Atlanta Braves finished first the previous 11 seasons. The Phillies? They haven't been to the playoffs since 1993.
"If you can't walk around with swag, don't walk around. I'm not here to play second fiddle or bow down to anybody, and neither are the Mets."
-- Jimmy Rollins
Still, expectations are high in Philadelphia after the Phillies fell short of a wild-card spot in the final weekend the last two years. General manager Pat Gillick added Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton to a deep rotation, and Howard, Rollins and All-Star second baseman Chase Utley anchor a potent offense. Anything less than a trip to the playoffs would be considered a failure.
"If you can't walk around with swag, don't walk around," Rollins said. "I'm not here to play second fiddle or bow down to anybody, and neither are the Mets."
The outspoken Rollins first made his bold statement at an offseason media luncheon. He reiterated it when he arrived at spring training last month.
That's when the tabloids ran with it.
The back page of the New York Daily News on Feb. 22 read: "Silly Phillie." Inside, Mets All-Star third baseman David Wright and others responded.
"The Phillies, they can come out and talk as much as they want," Wright said. "Until they prove it on the field, then it's just talk. As far as throwing out predictions and talking about it, talk is very, very cheap."
Rollins said the reaction to his comment was "mind-blowing." He wasn't trying to insult the Mets or the other teams in the division.
"I like them," he said. "It has nothing to do with them personally. I like those dudes over there. It's good for baseball."
Just wait until the Phillies visit Shea Stadium for the Mets' home opener April 9. The teams play each other five times in the first 14 games.
"I like it because everybody is getting stirred up and it's building this new rivalry," Howard said. "Everybody wants to be in that one rivalry, that knock-em-down-drag-it-out rivalry."