ST. LOUIS -- Nobody in baseball does tradition like the St. Louis Cardinals. An hour before the 2007 season opener, they ran out Clydesdales and a Dalmatian, Stan Musial in a golf cart, a fleet of players waving from convertibles and manager Tony La Russa perched in the back of a Ford behind a designated driver (insert obligatory sarcastic remark here).
The Cardinals capped the festivities by running the 2006 World Series flag up a pole, to raucous cheers from a sellout crowd and scripted comments by actor and diehard fan Billy Bob Thornton.
From a New York Mets perspective, the viewing experience was about as enjoyable as a date with a sling blade. Or as some folks call it, a Kaiser blade.
But when you pride yourself on competing with class, you take your lumps in silence. David Wright and Paul Lo Duca stretched in shallow left field as the Cardinals hoisted the flag, and Carlos Delgado ran sprints, and they dutifully watched the team that dispatched them in the National League Championship Series celebrate its October achievement.
"It's a respect thing and a good sportsmanship thing, and you can use it for some motivation,'' Wright said. "In the back of your mind, you want to be a part of that at some point. And it's kind of cool to see a World Series banner raised. That's my first time seeing it in person.''
A single victory in April can't change history or quell the nagging doubts from all those might-have-beens. But it sure beats the alternative. At least the Mets don't have to sit and chafe while feeling like props in anticipation of Tuesday night's ring ceremony at Busch Stadium.
Score one for the NLCS victims. The Mets parlayed some fine pitching by Tom Glavine, exceptional defense and clutch hitting to a 6-1 victory before 45,429 true believers at Busch. Best of all, they officially put spring training in the rear-view mirror.
While the Mets posted a 12-21 record in the Grapefruit League and hit a mere .246 as a team, no one on the New York roster was overly concerned for two reasons: 1) Veteran teams are self-assured enough to proceed at their own pace in spring training; and 2) the only Mets player who suffered a significant health setback in Florida was reliever Duaner Sanchez.
And at the risk of offending the Port St. Lucie Chamber of Commerce, you try maintaining a fresh mental outlook after six weeks in that stretch of Florida.
"Spring training is spring training, believe me,'' Lo Duca said. "This is my 13th, and I can only imagine how the guys who've been through 20 must feel. You count the days like a little boy at Christmastime.''
After winning 97 games and capturing the NL East title last year, the Mets have reason to think they'll be around for the long haul. But with a staff that includes a fragile Orlando Hernandez and three starters (John Maine, Oliver Perez and Mike Pelfrey) who are works in progress, they're going to have to sell people on the rotation's ability to keep the bullpen workload reasonably manageable.
Enter Glavine, who pitched well enough to make his 10th career All-Star Game last year at age 40. He spent the first three innings putting the ball precisely where he wanted it, then found a way to get by with a little help from his friends. Moises Alou made a fine sliding catch in left field, and Carlos Beltran cut down David Eckstein at the plate to put a crimp in a potential St. Louis uprising in the sixth.
And in the eighth, Jose Valentin snagged a Scott Rolen shot and turned it into a double play to help Aaron Heilman escape a big jam. "He hit that ball so hard, I could feel it in my fingers when I caught it,'' Valentin said.
At this stage of his career, Glavine simply finds a way to get outs. Hitters know the changeup is coming, and they still can't put a good swing on it. In the first inning Sunday, Glavine fell behind Albert Pujols 3-0, threw consecutive strikes with an 81 mph fastball and a 74 mph changeup, then retired Pujols on a weak flyball on a pitch clocked at 77.
"He doesn't have a pattern, and maybe that's why he gets away with not having electric stuff,'' said Cardinals second baseman Adam Kennedy. "He doesn't find the barrel of the bat a lot.''
In truth, the lineup that La Russa ran out Sunday night doesn't exactly scream "championship repeat.'' Preston Wilson, who amassed a .307 on-base percentage in 501 at-bats last year, hit second in the order behind Eckstein, and catcher Yadier Molina batted fifth. Although Molina hit well in the postseason and batted .400 in spring training, he entered this season with a lower career slugging percentage (.342) than Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano (.355).
Things will change for St. Louis, in time. Center fielder Jim Edmonds is still rounding into shape after a tough spring training, and when a right-hander is pitching, La Russa most likely will use Chris Duncan and Scott Spiezio in the corner outfield spots rather than Wilson and So Taguchi.
At the moment, the only thing that matters is that the Mets are 1-0 and Glavine is at 291 career victories -- a step closer to becoming the first pitcher to reach 300 since his old buddy, Greg Maddux, did it in 2004.
"[The number 300] is there because I get asked about it a lot,'' Glavine said. "But it's not the kind of thing I'm consumed with, and I don't think I will be -- at least until I get to 299.''
Before making his eighth career Opening Day start Sunday night, Glavine watched the festivities at Busch Stadium on the television in the trainer's room. Like his fellow Mets, he was perfectly content to give the Cardinals their due. Heaven knows, he sure reveled in winning a championship in Atlanta in 1995.
"I've been through it and it's a lot of fun,'' Glavine said. "If it's something guys can watch and it motivates them, fine. If you just think, 'I'd like to be a part of it,' that's fine, too.''