The New York Mets open spring training camp for the 36th year in Port St. Lucie and there’s no doubt the vibe is at an unprecedented level.
Here are three among many reasons for the optimism of a third World Series championship that springs eternal:
For the first time in four years, there’s no COVID pandemic or MLB lockout interfering with the Grapefruit League schedule or limiting stadium capacities to 20% like it did in 2021.
Highly popular Mets owner Steve Cohen continued his spending spree in free agency by committing more than $475 million in contracts for nine players, including three-time Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, left-hander Jose Quintana, Japanese star right-hander Kodai Senga and right-handed reliever David Robertson. The Mets also retained All-Star closer Edwin Diaz and outfielder Brandon Nimmo with mega-agreements, as well as a new four-year deal for second baseman Jeff McNeil, the 2022 National League batting champion.
The Mets are determined to bounce back from last season’s swoon — losing the NL East lead to the Atlanta Braves in the final weekend of the regular season — despite a 101-61 second-best franchise record — and then getting beaten by the San Diego Padres in the three-game Wild Card Series at Citi Field.
Another unfulfilled quest to win a World Series crown since 1986 is in the rearview mirror for the Mets and Manager Buck Showalter. Here’s what’s ahead for the Mets during this year’s spring training:
The team opens its 30-game Grapefruit League schedule on Saturday, Feb. 25, with split-squad games — hosting the Miami Marlins at Clover Park and visiting the Houston Astros in West Palm Beach.
The Mets play division rivals Atlanta, Miami and Washington in a 16-game home schedule that includes six weekend games and two weeknight games against World Baseball Classic teams from Nicaragua and Venezuela.
St. Lucie Mets General Manager Traer Van Allen and his staff of 12 are more than ready.
“Everything is trending the right way,’’ said Van Allen, starting his 23rd year with the Mets organization and 10th as general manager. “We’re eager to get things started here; I can’t wait to start.
“There seems to be a general buzz and interest in tickets and I attribute a lot of that to the idea that this is going to be a normal spring training more so than any of the others,’’ Van Allen said. “Yes, the team’s good. Yes, there’s a lot of buzz around the team, which is great, but mostly, it’s people are just excited to be able to come to spring training again and see the Mets.’’
Van Allen, a native Southern Californian who grew up a Los Angeles Angels fan, likes the Mets’ off-season moves.
“That’s where you put your fan cap on and just be excited for what it can be,’’ Van Allen said. “And that’s the excitement about spring training, too. I always tell people whatever team you’re a fan of, you owe it to yourself to go see spring training and witness it firsthand because of the looseness that you see from the players.
“Obviously, you can’t get any closer than you can during spring training; you can’t do that in the regular season, no matter what city you’re in,’’ Van Allen said. “This is where you’re gonna be able to see these guys up close. You’re gonna see them almost more as humans vs. ballplayers. It’s just fun.’’
Fans entering the stadium on game day will fully appreciate the amenities of the 7,160-seat stadium, which received a $57 million renovation prior to the 2020 season. Enhancements continued this off-season with the installation of a new playing surface — it’s actually 18 inches higher — and relocation of the two bullpens behind left field.
“I think the biggest thing, especially for our regular fans, is that they’re going to be able to see this place at 100 percent, full-operational capacity,’’ Van Allen said. “That includes approximately 5,500 blue [seatback] seats. But then you have all the additional standing room, the berm area and the GA [general admission] tickets that you can populate.
“You’ll have all the concession stands open; all the portable carts,’’ Van Allen continued. “The last time you saw this was, what, 2020 when the stadium had just opened up, so we were still at that point ironing out kinks on our end and kind of still realizing what we had here in this new facility.’’
Unfortunately, Major League Baseball shut down spring training on March 12 of that year because of the coronavirus outbreak. The Mets were only able to play 20 games in Florida, going 5-5 at home.
However, a full schedule is on tap in 2023 and Rick Hatcher, meanwhile, can feel the palpable vibe in the business community.
“Oh, yeah, they’re excited,’’ said Hatcher, who just wrapped up his eighth year as president and CEO of Play Treasure Coast Sports Tourism. “Again, everybody understands the impact of what the last couple of years has been to the businesses with limited games, with limited capacity, a player lockout.
“So, like everybody else, I’m excited from the tourism element; I know the hotels are excited,’’ Hatcher said. “Having the fans in here and being a baseball guy myself [a star pitcher for FSU who started in the 1980 College World Series], you watch and see the Northeast come down to the east coast [of Florida] and the Midwest come to the west coast. So having those kinds of fans being loyal to the area, they’re coming back and they’re chomping at the bit to get to the games.’’
To Hatcher’s point, the orange-jersey-clad 7 Line Army fan club will return to Clover Park for the first time since 2020 for the Mets opener against the Marlins, buying 1,000 tickets for the grassy berm in the right field and an additional 200 tickets in the nearby grandstands. The group is named after the 7 train of the New York City subway system, which stops near Citi Field at Mets–Willets Point.
Spring training plays a vital role in his commission achieving its goal of promoting sports tourism, Hatcher said.
“It’s important in so many ways,’’ said Hatcher, who’s also in his second year serving as president of the Port St. Lucie-based Florida Sports Hall of Fame. “It helps identify the destination as Port St. Lucie, St. Lucie County, being the spring training home for the New York Mets.
“It’s very similar to what Dodgertown was for Vero Beach for so long as its spring training home [60 years before moving to Camelback Ranch-Glendale, Arizona, in 2009]. It allows people to understand where they are and it’s really given some additional exposure for the area having the Mets here, no doubt.’’
Jim Fertitta’s fervent love for the Mets has been well documented by area media outlets over the years.
He and wife, Susan, moved from Brentwood, Long Island, to Port St. Lucie in 1989 for two reasons: “90 percent Mets, 10 percent weather.’’
The Fertittas immediately joined the New York & St. Lucie Mets Booster Club. And, today, he is in his 22nd year as president of the nonprofit organization that has approximately 325 members split evenly between the Treasure Coast and the New York metropolitan area. The booster club conducts social events as well as fundraisers to support organizations that help indigent and abused children.
“I tell people every year when it’s elections, that I don’t know if they like me or they don’t want to do the job,’’ Fertitta said with a laugh. “It’s like any other organization — you have to be into it, you know what I mean.’’
Fertitta is usually one of the first in line each year when the ticket office opens for business. Invariably, he’ll get asked by friends if he could get tickets for a certain game. To make it easier on himself, Fertitta purchases 50 season tickets in section 15 next to the Mets dugout on the third base side, where you can find many of the boosters, and sells them at face value.
As for the off-season moves by the Mets, Fertitta is all in.
“I don’t want to knock anybody like the old owners [the Wilpons], but the new owner spends money,’’ said Fertitta, referring to Cohen. “I hate the Yankees, being a Mets fan, but [deceased Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner used to spend the money to get the players. With Cohen spending the money, they all have to stay healthy and they have to produce.’’
And, how does he feel about the Mets’ chances in 2023?
“To tell you the truth, as Gil Hodges always said, ‘You know, the team with less injuries could win it,’” Fertitta said. “And, what I’ve seen in this past year’s playoffs is that if you get hot and with the extra Wild Card team, you could make it right to the World Series [referring to the Phillies].’’
Meanwhile, for Van Allen, he’s looking forward to his St. Lucie Mets getting a lift from a full spring training when they begin their defense of the Single-A Florida State League championship on April 7.
“It’s awesome, it really is,’’ Van Allen said. “There are so many people coming into St. Lucie County and our area continues to grow. Our goal is to let them know that, ‘Hey, you’re in Mets country now,’ and whether it be New York Mets spring training or St. Lucie Mets during the summer, this is Mets country — blue and orange. We’re trying to get them when they first get here, you know.
“We’ll have the flag up in back of the stadium and the signs are already up on the wall,’’ Van Allen said. “People will know, when you win, as everyone knows in any sport, it’s fun.
“During the minor league season, people come out to the games almost more so for the promotions, for the community aspect,’’ he said. “It’s something fun, safe and affordable to do with friends and family. But when you win, that’s the cherry on top. It’s, ‘Hey, we’re watching a good team actually, too; this is great.’ ’’
Clover Park: 31 Piazza Drive, Port St. Lucie
Phone: 871.2100 [office]; 871.2115 [tickets]
Tickets: Single-game tickets are available for purchase exclusively online at mlb.com/mets/spring-training.
Directions: Take Interstate I-95 to Exit 121 [St. Lucie West Boulevard] and go east for about a half-mile to the first traffic light. Turn left onto NW Peacock Boulevard. The stadium is about a mile up on the right.
President: Jim Fertitta
Tickets: Check with Fertitta for any available tickets remaining for six spring training games, bus trips to Mets-Nationals in West Palm Beach on March 11 and a regular-season game at Miami Marlins on April 1.
Major League Baseball announced on Sept. 9 three rule changes that have been approved by a majority vote of the joint Competition Committee for play during 2023 spring training, regular season and postseason.
The changes, which were tested extensively at the minor league level for the past several years, include adjustments based on feedback from Major League player and umpire representatives.
Pitch timer: A pitch timer will improve pace of play and reduce dead time. Its regulations are the following:
• A pitcher must begin his motion before the expiration of the timer. Pitchers will have up to 15 seconds between pitches when the bases are empty and up to 20 seconds between pitches with at least one runner on base.
• A pitcher may disengage the rubber [timer resets] twice per plate appearance without penalty. Subsequent disengagements result in a balk, unless an out is recorded on a runner.
• The disengagement count resets if the runner advances; testing in the minors had no reset until the following plate appearance.
• A hitter must be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with at least 8 seconds remaining.
• A hitter receives one timeout per plate appearance.
• Umpires will have authority to provide additional time if warranted by special circumstances [e.g. the catcher makes the last out of the inning and needs additional time to get into defensive position].
Defensive shift restrictions:
• Lateral positioning: Two infielders must be positioned on each side of second base when the pitch is released.
• Depth: All four infielders must have both feet within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber.
• No switching sides: Infielders may not switch sides unless there is a substitution.
Bigger bases: With the goal of improving player safety, the size of first, second and third base will increase from the standard 15-inch square to an 18-inch square.
• Bigger bases will reduce the distance between first and second and between second and third base by 4.5 inches, thereby encouraging offensive clubs to attempt to steal bases more frequently and generally to be more aggressive on the basepaths.