Step Right Up, And Greet The New Mets

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 29, 2008

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- In a year's time, Brian Schneider went from catching retreads such as Jerome Williams and Billy Traber -- no offense intended to either -- to catching legends such as Johan Santana and Pedro Martínez. Ryan Church went from being asked to compete for a roster spot on a $38 million reconstruction job -- again, no offense intended -- to being handed the starting right field job on a $142 million juggernaut. So how do they feel now about the December trade that sent them from the Washington Nationals to the New York Mets?

"How would you feel?" Church said with a laugh one recent morning, sitting at his locker in the Mets' star-studded clubhouse. "It was like an early Christmas present, like a weight was lifted off my shoulders."

Schneider, typically, was a bit more diplomatic: "I didn't know how to take the trade at first, but obviously this is a great place to be right now. I'm lucky to be here."

As Schneider spoke from his locker, Martínez sauntered by, having just pulled into the players' lot in his Aston Martin -- the one with the "45" (Martínez's uniform number) on each tire rim. "Hey, Petey," Schneider called out to the three-time Cy Young Award winner, receiving a huge smile and a pointed finger back.

Speaking of sleek sports cars, just the day before, Schneider had taken Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner, for a test drive in the bullpen. The day before that? Not much happened -- just Sandy Koufax showing up to talk to the Mets' pitchers. No need to construct a rotation out of scrap wood here: The Mets' rotation alone will earn more in 2008 than the entire Nationals' roster did in 2007. The only question is whether veteran big-game specialist Orlando "El Duque" Hernández or talented prospect Mike Pelfrey gets the fifth spot.

"I'm soaking up so much information every day," said Schneider, who will bat at the back of a lineup anchored by David Wright, Carlos Beltrán and José Reyes. "I'm learning a lot from guys like Pedro and Johan. You look around the room and see the guys who are on your team, and it's pretty incredible."

That's not to say the emotions since the trade have always been pure, unadulterated joy. There are touches of regret, or something close to it, that creep into Schneider's words even now. He spent 13 years with the Montreal/Washington franchise -- compared with just four for Church -- and withstood the unprecedented, uncomfortable stewardship of the franchise by Major League Baseball, the relocation to Washington, the three up-and-down seasons at homer-miser RFK Stadium.

Then, just when the Nationals are preparing to move into their sparkling new stadium in Southeast, they trade Schneider and Church to a division rival for a young and still-unproven center fielder, Lastings Milledge.

"I was definitely looking forward to it," Schneider said of inaugurating the new stadium. "But you give up a chance to play in new stadium for a chance to win a World Series -- and next year, [the Mets] open a new stadium, too -- I'll take that trade-off."

Schneider said he doesn't exactly regret the way he went out of D.C. -- with a .235 batting average in 2007, his lowest in five years -- but wishes he had "made people think differently about me."

"I still feel like I had three great years there," Schneider said. "I played hard all the time, and the fans know that. I loved D.C., and they have a lot going for them now, but when it comes down to it, [the Nationals] are going younger, and that's great. Both teams got what they wanted out of the deal."

For Church, the situation has fewer layers of complexity. He was rarely happy in Washington, where he felt he was always expected to prove himself but rarely was given a fair and complete chance to do so.

"They'd play me, sit me, play me, make a trade, sit me," Church said of the Nationals. The trade he is referring to is the one that brought Wily Mo Peña to Washington in mid-August, after which Church started just 13 games.

"It's a business, and I totally understand that, and not everybody is going to like it," Church said. "But I think I lost about 100-something at-bats, and there was a reason for that. People who were there know [what that reason was]. You could see it. There's a business side."

Church paused briefly. "There's arbitration," he continued. "There's this . . . "

Church holds up his hand and rubs his fingers and thumb together, the universal sign for "money." The implication is clear: The Nationals, Church believes, benched him to hold down the salary he could earn via arbitration for 2008 -- a notion Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden strongly denied.

"That is absolutely not true," Bowden said. Church "was benched because we traded for Wily Mo Peña and then started scoring one more run a game. I promise you that is not true."

Church makes little attempt to conceal his contempt for the Nationals' front office, and his praise of Mets GM Omar Minaya is loaded with hidden jabs.

"Omar told me he's always looked at me as the kind of guy who, if I could just go out and play and if people would leave me alone, I'll produce," Church said. "People have confidence in me here. It makes me feel like they believe in me."

As strange as it is to get traded within the same division, this one was made even more awkward by what happened down the stretch last September, when the Nationals torpedoed the Mets' season by beating them five times in six games, including a crushing three-game sweep at Shea Stadium, as the Mets handed the NL East title to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Schneider drove in six runs in those six games against the Mets, while Church homered twice and drove in eight runs in just three games. Schneider said he expected to catch some ribbing, good-natured or not, from his new teammates when he arrived this spring. But not only has it gone unmentioned, so, too, has the entire collapse.

"For the most part, no one here talks about it, which is a good thing," Schneider said. "You don't want to harp on the past. Everyone's just focused on this year. And besides, everyone knows we weren't worried about [the Mets'] situation [last year]. We were trying to avoid last place. We were battling the Marlins. We were worried about ourselves."

Being traded within the division also means Schneider and Church will be facing their former teammates 18 times this season -- plenty of opportunities to visit with old friends, regard what was left behind and settle old scores.

"I hold no grudges against them," Church said of the Nationals, "but I'm looking forward to taking it out on them."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company