Hype fuels the Subway Series

NEW YORK – Countless individuals, both in and out of uniform, have referred to this weekend's Mets – Yankees showdown as just another three games out of 162, a blip on the overall radar of the schedule.

Those individuals, of course, are right … until they actually step into the pageantry that surrounds the Subway Series hype. With the flashbulbs burning bright and the energy pumping, it's easy to get swirled away in the excitement of intracity baseball.

"I've been to playoff games, All-Star Games," said Mets manager Willie Randolph. "This feels like that to me."

As a sea of reporters swarmed Shea Stadium and battled a chill in the air, you could be forgiven in allowing your mind to flip the calendar from May to October.

Even the media setup seemed to scream all things 'postseason': Saturday's starter for the Mets, Kris Benson, was ushered into the tiny auxiliary locker room for a pre-start press conference.

It was the first time the long-time Pirates ace – for whom, prior to this year, 'rivalry' meant matchups with the Cleveland Indians – could ever remember being cajoled to speak before a start, even dating back to his service for the U.S. Olympic team.

"It just shows the interest in this weekend," Benson said. "This may be common for everyone who's gone through this before. As far as I'm concerned, it's a new experience for me."

In fact, this weekend's pitching performances figure to be 6-for-6 with Subway Series neophytes: Victor Zambrano and Kevin Brown Friday, Benson and Randy Johnson Saturday, and Pedro Martinez and Carl Pavano on Sunday.

None are strangers to big games, but they're all strangers to big games in the third week of May.

"I consider this a pre-playoff warmup," Benson said.

So did Randolph, who spoke for much of the week trying to downplay the upcoming meeting with the Yankees and with Joe Torre, for whom he served as a coach for Torre's entire managerial tenure until this season.

Once gameday rolled around, however, and it was the Yankees dragging their West Coast-postmarked luggage through Shea's inner corridors, Randolph reversed field.

He dialed over to the dank visiting manager's office at Shea, exchanged a brief telephone hello with his former field boss, and finally allowed his excitement for the weekend to crack through.

This is more than just another three games, Randolph admitted. For his upstart Mets, competitive foes in this series for the first time in recent memory, it's an opportunity.

"We're trying to build something close to where they are," Randolph said. "This town is, to me, big enough for both of us."

Sights and sounds: IF Miguel Cairo – who said in January he'd hoped to return to the Yankees – standing at the batting cage alongside coach Don Mattingly, long after the rest of Cairo's Mets teammates had departed the playing field … Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera chatting amicably in the tunnel outside the Mets clubhouse, both dressed in leather jackets. ... The Oak Ridge Boys performed Friday's National Anthem. Cyndi Lauper is on deck for Saturday, while Jerry Seinfeld will throw the first pitch Sunday.

On the 7: Reporters continue to whisper that RHP Pedro Martinez, who had a cortisone shot in his inflamed right hip on Tuesday, may not be able to pitch as scheduled on Sunday. Martinez threw a side session on Thursday and insists he will be ready to take the mound, but if he falters, RHP Aaron Heilman is the likely choice. … Randolph may consider benching LF Cliff Floyd against LHP Randy Johnson Saturday. ... The Yankees activated OF Ruben Sierra (torn biceps) from the disabled list before Friday's contest and optioned 1B/OF Andy Phillips to Triple-A Columbus.

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