"I think we are the team to beat -- finally."
-- Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins
Jan. 23, 2007
"This year, tell Jimmy Rollins WE'RE the team to beat."
-- Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran
Feb. 16, 2008
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For those of us who cover spring training for a living, there's only one thing better than a little mid-February trash talking.
And no, it's not being told that our tans look marvelous.
No, sirree. Here's the one thing we were referring to that -- oops, hold on a second while we wipe that sunscreen out of our eyes -- is way better than trash talk:
And that's the rivalries that inspire the trash talk.
Well, we've got one, friends. We've got ourselves a good one.
There we all were this weekend, minding our business, agonizing over that critical choice between SPF 15 or 30, when one of the best rivalries in baseball officially erupted before our sun-drenched eyeballs.
All it took was Carlos Beltran announcing Saturday in Port St. Lucie that his team was the team to beat. And presto -- Phillies-Mets had instantly zoomed right to the top of the National League rivalry charts.
We acknowledge that the Dodgers-Giants and Cubs-Cardinals rivalries have more history. So hold those e-mails. But this is about 2008, not 1951. And in 2008, we challenge you to find two teams in the NL that are more closely matched -- and more obsessed with each other -- than these two.
Oh, the Mets have long been on the Phillies' radar screens. That's nothing new. But now it's the year after Rollins' stunning team-to-beat prediction came true. The year after an epic Mets September collapse and a rousing Phillies charge to the finish line.
So when a guy like Beltran -- who normally doesn't raise his voice much above a murmur -- is sending carefully calculated messages to the Phillies through the media, that's a sign we're now in a different realm.
We're now in a realm where the Phillies have actually infiltrated the Mets' radar screen, too. And that tells us we're in for a fun summer in the old NL East.
"It's amazing how fast this has become such a great rivalry," said Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino on Sunday. "First, Jimmy makes his statement. Now Carlos is making his statement. It's becoming like, `Who's going to say something next?'"
"Well," we observed, "if you'd like to volunteer ..."
"Noooooo," Victorino laughed. "No comments out of this guy."
But fortunately for you trash-talk fans, we didn't quit there. Across the room, we found Phillies pitcher Brett Myers, a man who wasn't quite so reticent to wander into this fray.
Myers, it turned out, was well aware of Beltran's comments -- possibly because he'd been asked approximately 9,758 questions about them already. And it wasn't even lunch time yet.
"If that's his way of learning from the MVP how to fire up his team, that's fine," Myers quipped, eyes twinkling. "I hope it works for him -- just not against us."
As a guy who once aspired to be a boxer growing up, Myers never met a battle he thought was worth backing away from. So he dropped a reference to Rollins' most famous pronouncement from this winter -- that the Phillies were going to win 100 games.
Then Brett Myers essentially accused Beltran of a truly heinous crime -- trash-talk plagiarism.
"Sequels are terrible," Myers deadpanned. "You can't predict it twice. That's why Jimmy went with his sequel, of 100 wins. The plot has changed for us. I guess their favorite movie was us last year, or something. I don't know.
"But if they're trying to shake us up, they're not going to, because we're too strong-minded and strong-willed to do what we want to do."
What they want to do, of course, is exactly what the Mets want to do. (And the Braves, too, by the way -- but they keep forgetting to trash-talk about it.) These are teams dreaming very big dreams.
Dreams that involve champagne, ticker tape and a tee-time-free October.
Dreams that, hopefully, will not be narrated by Dane Cook.
But to achieve those dreams, the Phillies and Mets need to vanquish the team on the other end of that rivalry. So let the war of words begin -- all in good fun, of course.
"You know what? We're the team to beat," said Phillies reliever Tom Gordon. "That's what I think. I think we're good. This is a tough team. So don't say I'm coming back with talk because that's not what I'm doing. All I'm saying is, I believe that we're a good team that can win a championship."
But to win a championship, a team needs to be tested. And that's where those rivalries come in. Gordon should know. He has pitched for the Red Sox. He has pitched for the Yankees. He has pitched in the glow of the most fiery rivalry in baseball.
So while he understands the Phillies and Mets aren't quite in that league, they now have a chance to live out something special.
"I played with the Royals first," Gordon said. "When I played with the Royals, I don't remember a rivalry. I remember us going to play and trying to win every game we could win. But I don't remember games like that, where you'd come to the stadium and there's people everywhere, screaming and excited about their team.
"I'd never seen anything like it till I got to Boston and New York. And now I see it with Philadelphia and the Mets. It's great for the game. Nothing wrong with a little trash talking. It's all in good humor. Guys have fun with it."
Now perhaps you worry that not everyone will understand the nature of all that fun. Perhaps you worry that somewhere along the line, if this talk keeps up, this rivalry could turn messy. Ugly even.
Well, fortunately, these two teams play in mellow, laid-back markets where fans believe in showering their opponents with respect and admiration. Where the folks in the seats can be counted on to take this stuff in the light-hearted spirit in which it's all intended.
OK, so maybe not.
So we probably have to allow for the slight possibility that fans in Philadelphia could be moved to remind Beltran that they beg to differ with his assessment of the NL East. And if so, we know they'll do that in only the most high-class, dignified manner imaginable.
Right. Sure they will.
"One thing I've noticed about our fans," Myers said. "They're pretty much on top of everything. So I imagine they'll have something to say."
Yeah, we imagine, too. But that's only fair, since Mets fans had something to say last year about Rollins' prediction, too. At least, if Rollins' visits to Shea were any indication, the entertainment possibilities this year are pretty much endless.
But several Phillies made the point Sunday that Mets fans -- and about 99 percent of the rest of the planet -- had a huge misconception about Rollins' intentions last year. What he said may have sounded like trash talk. But what he intended, in reality, was just to raise the bar of expectations for his own team.
It's gonna be fun. Put it that way. It's going to be an interesting season. New York Mets 1, Philadelphia Phillies 1. Let's get it on.
"I think he said it because he believed it," Myers said. "We all believed it in our minds, but we're not the outspoken types to come out and say it in the media. He's the type of guy who can do that.
"It's fun that somebody finally said it to where it got out. And it was good for us, because we needed it. We needed it for us, to show we weren't just going to fall back and let everybody run over top of us. It woke everybody up a little bit."
Yep. Sure did. And now we have a new wake-up call -- for both teams -- courtesy of Carlos Beltran.
We don't know quite where it's all leading yet. How could we? It's the third week of February.
But we do know that rivalries are the greatest thing in sports. And any time a spectacular new addition to the rivalry annals busts out, that's something to be thankful for -- even if you're not someone who's wandering around spring training, trying to capture the magic of pitchers and catchers in a way that, hopefully, justifies the size of your expense account.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.