Meeting the new Mets

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PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — The sight at first is a bit strange.

Something just doesn’t look right about Brian Schneider and Ryan Church jogging around the practice fields at Mets camp with interlocking NY’s on their caps instead of curly W’s, joking around with David Wright and Johan Santana instead of Ryan Zimmerman and John Patterson.

It took them a while to get used to it, too. Church had spent the last four years in the Washington Nationals’ organization. Schneider had been with the franchise 13 years, since the summer day in 1995 when he was drafted out of high school by the Montreal Expos.

But after arriving for spring training earlier this month and realizing they are a part of a Mets team that should make a serious run at the World Series, any lingering emotions from Washington were quickly swept up by visions of grandeur.

“You look around this clubhouse and you see MVP candidates, All-Stars, Cy Youngs,” Schneider said yesterday morning. “Sometimes you wake up and you’re like: ‘Am I really here right now?’ This is awesome. I’m having a blast here.”

Indeed, Schneider and Church both look like they’re having a great time. Don’t get them wrong; they miss Washington and the friends they left behind there. But they’ve fully embraced their new surroundings. These days, they’ve got wide smiles on their faces, knowing they’ve been given a chance to be a part of something special.

“Washington’s a great city, and [the Na[JUMP]tionals] have got something good going on,” Church said. “But now I’m in a better place. We’ve got something better going on.”

When Schneider and Church left RFK Stadium in September, they knew they would have a new home this season. They just figured it would be located along the Anacostia River, not in Flushing Meadows. Both players fully expected to be in lineup when Nationals Park opened and a new era of baseball in Washington kicked off.

So imagine their surprise Nov. 30, when both received phone calls from Nationals general manager Jim Bowden informing them they had been traded to the Mets for outfielder Lastings Milledge.

Schneider was on vacation in Napa Valley, Calif., touring wineries with his wife, Jordan. Some vacation — his cell phone began ringing constantly, with dozens of messages clogging up his voice mail before he could return all the calls.

“I was shocked,” he said.

Church, who had grown used to his name surfacing in trade rumors for several years, was initially disappointed … until Bowden told him he was headed to the Mets.

“I got off the phone, and I wanted to do cartwheels,” he said.

Schneider and Church were no strangers to New York general manager Omar Minaya, who had both players in Montreal and always fancied them. After his Mets suffered a monumental September collapse and handed the National League East title to the Philadelphia Phillies, Minaya knew he needed to make some bold moves in an attempt to win it all in 2008.

Thus, he parted ways with the talented-but-immature Milledge in exchange for what he feels is one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, plus an up-and-coming slugger who can play right field on a daily basis.

“It’s one of those trades that I think both teams did well,” Minaya said yesterday. “With Lastings, they got themselves a really good young player. We got something that’s going to impact us right away.”

Minaya is banking on Schneider and Church to hold up their end of the bargain. Church, who hit .272 with 15 homers and 70 RBI last season, enters spring training as the Mets’ only real option in right field. Schneider, who hit only .235 in his final season in Washington, is being counted on to get the most out of a star-studded pitching staff that now includes two starters who have won a combined five Cy Young Awards: Santana and Pedro Martinez.

The situation seems like a positive one for Schneider and Church, who won’t be asked to carry the Mets’ potent lineup but rather serve as complementary players. Church figures to hit seventh and Schneider eighth, a spot from which he can focus more on defense than offense.

“They want me to concentrate on that,” Schneider said. “It makes me feel real good to know that what they want me to do is probably what I do best.”

There have been adjustments to make already this spring. Church is getting used to the constant attention New York ballplayers get from rabid fans and oppressive media members, a far cry from the relatively timid public glare of playing in the District.

Schneider is getting used to hearing fans scream out his name every time he jogs from one practice field to another, not to mention the steady stream of celebrities and baseball dignitaries who stroll through Mets camp on a daily basis. To wit: He spent part of Saturday schmoozing with Sandy Koufax and was floored when the Hall of Famer knew plenty about him.

All of it can be a bit overwhelming for a couple of ballplayers who were anonymous in Montreal and then only marginally well known in Washington. Neither has played for a true playoff contender, and neither has been surrounded by the kind of talent found in the Mets’ clubhouse.

Which may explain why no one can wipe those ever-present smiles off their faces these days.

“I couldn’t ask right now to be in a better situation,” Schneider said.

Added Church: “This, this is the real deal. We’ve got superstars here. The sky’s the limit. It feels good to be a part of that.”

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