NEW YORK -- New York baseball fans with a dearth of closer trivia knowledge must have noticed something odd when Billy Wagner jogged onto the Shea Stadium outfield grass Monday. Wagner leaves the bullpen to the sound of "Enter Sandman," the same heavy metal anthem that accompanies Yankees closer Mariano Rivera to the mound.
To which Wagner replies: So what? Rivera might have the history, the World Series rings and the love of a town forged through years of sustained excellence. But he doesn't have dibs on Metallica. Wagner has been doing the Sandman thing since Jeff Bagwell picked out the song for him in Houston, and he's not about to ditch it now.
"I play for the Mets. Mariano plays for the Yankees. I never have to face him and he never has to face me, so there's no big competition there," Wagner said. "The earth isn't going to crumble just because two guys have it."
With a new $43 million contract and 285 career saves, Wagner has earned the right to pick his background music. If New York is big enough for a pair of Sandmen, it should be able to accommodate two teams with postseason aspirations.
Wagner made his Mets debut by pitching a scoreless ninth inning in a 3-2 victory over the Washington Nationals on Monday. A crowd of 54,371, the largest ever for a Mets season opener, showed up at a dreary Shea Stadium and saw general manager Omar Minaya's revamped team rely on strong bullpen work, exceptional defense, a little David Wright and enough esprit de corps to fill a St. Patrick's Day parade.
"What happened in the past doesn't matter," said Tom Glavine, who earned the win for the Mets. "This is a different year and a new team that's constructed in a different way. Today you saw what it is that we're excited about, and that every Mets fan is excited about with this team."
For sake of comparison, the Mets couldn't help but recall last year's season opener in Cincinnati, when Pedro Martinez struck out 12 batters in six innings only to miss out on a victory when closer Braden Looper gave up ninth-inning homers to Adam Dunn and Joe Randa. The Mets proceeded to start 0-5 in Willie Randolph's first year as manager.
Now they're perfect, at least for a day, and they could attend Monday night's team function with no regrets.
"To go to the Welcome Home Dinner at 0-1 wouldn't have been any fun," Wright said.
After spending mega-millions to bring in Wagner and Carlos Delgado over the winter, the Mets kicked off Opening Day by paying tribute to the 1986 world championship club. Gary Carter caught the ceremonial first pitch from Jesse Orosco, but couldn't muster up the energy to leap into Orosco's arms.
In the end, this Opening Day was about redemption. Carlos Beltran, who so disappointed Mets fans with his production last year after signing a $119 million contract, was booed by the crowd when he popped to shortstop with a runner in scoring position in the fifth inning. But Beltran sent the fans home happy when he cut down Jose Vidro trying to stretch a single into a double for the final out of the game.
It was about fresh starts. Xavier Nady, who came over from San Diego in the Mike Cameron trade in December, joined Richie Hebner as the second player in Mets history to collect four hits in his debut.
It was about lofty expectations. Wright, who has been anointed the face of the franchise for the next decade, hit a solo homer off Livan Hernandez in the sixth and was serenaded with cries of "MVP! MVP!" -- much to his embarrassment.
"It's way too early for that," Wright said.
It was about positive omens. By all rights, the Nationals should have tied the game in the eighth inning. Alfonso Soriano singled and came all the way around on a Ryan Zimmerman double into the left field corner. But a Cliff Floyd-to-Jose Reyes relay made for a close play at the plate, and umpire Rick Reed failed to notice that catcher Paul Lo Duca dropped the ball after Soriano's left hand touched the plate. "We got a break," Lo Duca said.
Finally, Opening Day was about a reliable old trooper gearing up to make a run at baseball history. Since Glavine came to New York as a free agent in December 2002, the experience hasn't been entirely positive. He lost two teeth in a taxi cab accident, and he's posted a 33-41 record in a New York uniform. A lack of run support and a shaky bullpen haven't helped his pursuit of 300 career victories; he's currently 24 wins short.
Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz recently revealed in his book that Glavine actually had second thoughts about coming to New York in the first place. The revelation upset Glavine, who thought their conversation never should have been made public.
A great deal has been made of Glavine's age -- he turned 40 a week ago -- but he's never been on the disabled list and he's never shied away from competition. Given a chance to start against Washington because of Martinez's toe injury, Glavine was on his game.
He set down the Nationals in order in the first inning while never cracking 83 on the radar gun, and the tone was set for the day. Glavine had a worthy adversary in Hernandez, who worked in, out, up and down while mixing in the occasional 61 mph curve.
"Some guys are throwers and some guys are pitchers," Floyd said. "We had two pitchers starting the game today."
Said Wagner: "Honestly, I know that I couldn't pitch with the stuff they have. It takes a special person and a mentally tough man to be able to do what they do."
It's a long season, and maybe Atlanta will exert its influence as usual and relegate the Mets to the role of wild-card threat. Maybe Martinez's toe becomes an ongoing issue, or Beltran never adapts to the big city, or Reyes' lack of patience at the plate becomes a drag on the offense at the top of the order.
Maybe all of that occurs. But a day into the season, the Mets are talking like a team that believes it can justify the hype. When Floyd says, "We know we can win," try telling him he's wrong.
The background noise at America's loudest ballpark sure wasn't enough to obscure the pounding of all those Mets hearts on Opening Day. The celebrants ranged from rookie pitcher Brian Bannister, making his first appearance in a Mets uniform, to Julio Franco, who played alongside Bert Blyleven, Mike Hargrove and Manny Trillo in his first full season with the 1983 Indians.
Then there's Wright, the reluctant MVP candidate. He needed a visit from the Sandman on Monday night just to quell the adrenaline rush.
"I'll be sitting in bed tonight thinking about the crowd and the energy today," Wright said. "That's what New York baseball is all about. This is what I want to experience in October."