Carp prepared for challenges

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Mike Carp is a little bigger and slightly quicker this spring, two qualities that should help his offensive game as he prepares for the 2006 season.

But it may be the Mets' February STEP Camp that winds up having the greatest impact on Carp's progression as a professional player.

If nothing else, no longer will Carp and his teammates have to turn their hungry eyes to the Golden Arches.

"This year, we focused a lot more on life skills," Carp said. "We learned how to cook and had an iron-chef Mets contest, where players competed to cook better meals. That was pretty cool. It was a good learning experience."

The annual STEP camp on the back fields of the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie is an invitation-only event, normally reserved for the organization's top prospects.

A 19-year-old first baseman who slugged 19 home runs last season at Low-A Hagerstown in the South Atlantic League, Carp fit right into the mix of players who reported to camp a full two weeks before other minor leaguers.

In past years, a main focus of the STEP camp appeared to be early workouts and preparation for the grind of spring training, with early afternoon exits.

This year, Carp said he arrived to find a totally different curriculum in place -- instead of being schooled on hitting and fielding, Carp and his fellow minor leaguers stayed much later and settled in for classes taught by instructors on subjects like money management, security, travel, nutrition and even Latin culture.

"I learned a lot about where [Latin players] come from and what they had to do to get here," Carp said.

Carp and his English-speaking teammates even had to undergo basic training in Spanish, while Spanish-speaking players were taught English -- further evidence of what appears to be a diminishing language gap in professional baseball.

"I can pick up some things," Carp said. "I hung out a lot last year with [Ambiorix] Concepcion and [Carlos] Gomez and they help us out a little bit, and we help them out. I can understand a little bit of what they're saying, but I couldn't translate."

But the highlight of the STEP camp, Carp said, was the showdown between minor leaguers in the kitchen. Applying what they learned in the nutrition courses, Mets players were challenged to create healthy and tasty dishes as possible alternates to a late-night stop at McDonald's and Burger King.

"When we're on the road, all we could get is fast food," Carp said. "Now, we have a little more variety in what we can make. I know what to look out for and what to look for. It's good."

Carp and his group borrowed a recipe from coach Rick Patterson, creating a cheese-and-spaghetti dish. The Italian cuisine worked, Carp said, but it didn't stand up in the final judging to dishes created by Leivi Ventura, Sean Henry and Emmanuel Garcia -- the competition's finalists.

"I never knew how to cook before this," Carp said. "I thought it was good enough. Even though we made it, I thought it was still pretty good to eat."

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