Back Page up for grabs

NEW YORK -- They were separated by three hours and eight miles. But in a sprint for New York's headlines, it's a dead-heat between Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran. That's just fine with the Mets, who love the idea of being neck-and-neck with the Yankees any time, anywhere -- even in mid-winter news conferences.

So began this interborough public relations war. At 11 a.m., the Mets unveiled Beltran at Shea Stadium. At 2 p.m., Randy Johnson faced dozens of cameras in the Bronx, presumably better prepared for the symphony of flashbulbs going off in his face than he was on Monday, when he grabbed the lens of a photographer while walking in Manhattan.

It was an embarrassing start to Johnson's career in New York, and perhaps a sign of future culture shock. The pitcher insisted he was provoked, that his path repeatedly blocked. But Johnson's bizarre over-reaction to a big city ritual caught the Yankees off guard. One official went so far as to note that Johnson was on his way for a physical -- the last detail required to complete the trade with Arizona -- and therefore said, "technically, Randy (was) still a member of the Diamondbacks. We can't comment on another team's player."

Of course, the Yankees didn't acquire Johnson to make friends with anyone, perhaps not even his own teammates. He's wearing pinstripes for the sole purpose of slaying the Red Sox in October. The Big Unit is the Bombers' offseason prize, and his news conference was more like a coronation. But the Mets have their own celebration going, having scooped up Beltran while the Yankees remained strangely dormant.

After Beltran severed his ties to the Astros Saturday night, Mets' GM Omar Minaya worked until dawn to wrap up the deal with agent Scott Boras. There's a reason why Minaya pulled an all-nighter: he didn't want George Steinbrenner to wake up Sunday morning and realize Beltran was still available.

No matter how many times the Yankees insisted they wouldn't chase Beltran, the Mets feared Steinbrenner's cash and long-standing desire to keep the Little Blue Engine shackled to its mediocrity.

"(He's) just too unpredictable. We didn't want to take a chance," is how one Met executive explained the frenzy.

Indeed, people close to Steinbrenner insist he was just playing rope-a-dope with Boras, and, luxury tax concerns aside, was nevertheless planning to out-bid the planet in the coming days. The Boss never got the chance. No one envisioned the Mets taking advantage of the after-hours window of opportunity.

No wonder the Mets were so ready for Tuesday's TV orgy. The Mets have the player the Yankees needed most -- a young center fielder ready to phase out Bernie Williams. But no one dares gloat in public. The Mets insist they're not going one-on-one with Johnson and the Yankees, and that Beltran was actually available for one day in New York -- Tuesday. In fact, executives from both teams conferred several times Monday, just to make sure no one offended the other's air space and/or air time.

Still, the Mets are curious to see how Wednesday's headlines will capture this two-borough battle -- specifically, who'll get the back page. It's a fair question and good barometer of the winter's performance rating. The Yankees are still New York's No. 1 team, but the Mets have had the more successful offseason. They snared the market best-available pitcher in Pedro Martinez, then snared the best five-tool, under-30 player in Beltran.

Granted, the Mets overpaid in both instances, but check-writing is in fashion in Flushing. The Mets' payroll now stands at $110 million, and they're still toying with the idea of signing Carlos Delgado. If the Mets can take on the free agent first baseman, their overheard will zoom beyond $120 million. That figure could put them second only to, you guessed it, the Yankees.

After committing just $82 million to the 2004 team, just how did the Mets start spending like the Bombers? It's no coincidence they're launching their own cable network in 2006 (ready to rival the Yankees' YES Network), which makes it easy to assume Comcast and Time Warner are helping owner Fred Wilpon pay for Martinez and Beltran and maybe Delgado, too.

After all, the Mets want to put a viewable product on the field in 2005 as a run-up to the network's debut. What better way to generate buzz than to out-perform the Yankees? Of course, the Bombers still have the superior roster, likely headed for a 100-win season. But their winter acquisitions are laced with questions: is Carl Pavano the 18-8 star from last year's Marlins, or a career 57-58 pitcher? With one good season in his last six, can Jaret Wright be counted on? Is Tony Womack really any better than Miguel Cairo?

Of course, the Mets have holes, too. They still need bullpen help and the reliance on Mike Piazza is a risk. Until Delgado chooses a new boss, the Mets lack a run-producer at first base. Without him, the Mets are an 88-90 win team with a reasonable shot at the wild card.

But for one winter, it's the Mets who've pulled in better ratings. Even the Yankees acknowledge the Mets' growing presence in the market.

"The Mets reached for the stars twice, and they got what they wanted twice. It's great for them, and it's great for their fans," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said on Monday. He's quick to add the Mets "don't really matter" in the Yankees' universe since the two teams coexist without competing.

Cashman is right, of course, but only after Opening Day. In January it's all about buzz. And Tuesday was pick 'em.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.