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WASHINGTON -- A team-sponsored visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Tuesday during a series against the Washington Nationals ended up in controversy for the New York Mets because of who did not attend.
Dillon Gee, the pitcher who was making his major league debut that night against the Washington Nationals, was excused. Only three other players from the 33-man squad did not attend: Carlos Beltran, Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez.
Sources told ESPNNewYork.com that Mets ownership is fuming about the no-shows. One of Fred Wilpon's favorite charitable endeavors is Welcome Back Veterans, a group he co-founded that addresses the mental health needs of veterans and their families.
Third baseman David Wright noted it would have been nice to have better turnout for Tuesday's visit. And since so few players blew it off, it was obvious about whom the third baseman was speaking.
"I have not spoken to anyone who didn't go, but I do have feelings about it. Sure," right-hander R.A. Dickey said when asked about the no-shows. "In our own way, it's a way we can pay personal tribute to people who we take so for granted every day.
"To have the empathy and to be in the moment enough to know that there are people in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting for the freedom that I'm able to enjoy ... To be able to look a guy in the eye who doesn't have arms or legs and say, 'Thank you,' that's a big deal. I take it personally."
Beltran responded after Wednesday's 3-2 rubber-game win against the Nationals that he had a conflict with planning for a high school in Puerto Rico he has pushed to build. Castillo suggested he was too squeamish. Perez declined to discuss the matter at all.
"You see people with no legs and with no arms, being in a hospital like that, I don't like to see that," Castillo said.
Said Perez: "I don't answer anything about outside the stadium."
Beltran added: "I don't know who is creating this issue. This offseason I went to visit the veteran hospital in New York. It's not that I'm against it. I actually went with [Mets principal owner] Fred Wilpon. ... And I wanted to go, but I had my own things to do."
The Mets had a team meeting Monday to implore the players to participate in the team visit the following day. Chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon even flew down from New York for that specific purpose.
Regardless of the reason, blowing off a team function that involved visiting wounded servicemen, many of whom had lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq, hardly was a savvy public-relations move for a player, particularly when it became so conspicuous.
When reporters entered the clubhouse at 3:40 p.m. Tuesday, Gee was the lone player in the clubhouse. Fifteen minutes later, Beltran, Castillo and Perez arrived together. The rest of the team arrived later en masse, some still wearing name tags from the visit.
Beltran, Castillo and Perez all have shaky relationships with the Mets organization, although Castillo insisted that wasn't the reason behind the no-shows.
"No, man. No, no, no," Castillo said. "That's not what it is. We didn't go because we didn't like to see that."
Jeff Wilpon, via e-mail, declined to comment.
In reality, all three players would be gone in a second from the Mets -- and probably happy for it -- if they did not have a combined $36.5 million owed to them next season. (All three may be jettisoned this offseason anyway.) Furthermore, while Castillo has been buried on the bench but largely devoid of publicly sniping with the organization, Beltran and Perez have openly clashed with the Mets.
In January, the Mets made public a fight with Beltran and agent Scott Boras, alleging the center fielder did not have team consent to have arthroscopic surgery on his arthritic right knee. Regardless of the merits, that the Mets openly voiced their concern speaks to the friction.
In the case of Perez, another Boras client, there had been an open, months-long feud this season about the southpaw's refusal to accept a minor league assignment, which technically is his right.
And now there's this sticky situation, which threatens to boil over. One incensed attendee openly called for a reporter to quiz Beltran about the snub. With nearly six full seasons complete in a seven-year, $119 million marriage that looks like it's going to end particularly badly, skipping an ownership-fueled visit to veterans -- valid excuse or not -- adds another layer of friction.
There's more potential messiness on the way, too -- the kind that too often has found this organization.
Beltran is owed $18.5 million next season, making him untradeable unless the Mets subsidize a substantial portion for him to play elsewhere in 2011. Will they? It hasn't been the franchise's track record to pay players to perform elsewhere, but maybe the Walter Reed issue will nudge it along.
If Beltran is back next season, that could lead to even more uncomfortable feuding. Unless Beltran is prepared to shed the clunky brace that protects his right knee, potentially increasing his mobility, Angel Pagan is a now superior center fielder to Beltran. Is another fight forthcoming over whether Beltran moves to right field? (Even if Beltran sheds the brace, his arthritic knee may continue to hinder him and Pagan may be a better choice in center field.)
Position change alone is a sticky enough issue. It becomes more so with a player of Beltran's stature, as the distaste Mike Cameron had when the organization once moved him from center field to right field demonstrated.
Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.