NEW YORK -- The Mets' uniform No. 15 became available in early August 1986, when the club released George Foster.

At the time, the Mets' starting pitchers wanted their uniform numbers to be between 10 and 20, so Rick Aguilera asked for No. 15, alarming teammate Ron Darling (No. 12), who had witnessed many of the travails Foster had endured after leaving the Reds. So Darling cautioned Aguilera, an accomplished batsman.

"You sure you want to wear 15?" Darling said. "You might stop hitting, too."

Now, the number belongs to Carlos Beltran. The Mets' new center fielder modeled it Tuesday at Shea Stadium at the news conference announcing his signing. Beltran said he has worn the number since he played in Class A in 1996, and that he had requested it then because the birthday of his girlfriend (and now wife), Jessica, was on December 15.

"It's been a good number for me," he said.

Players wearing No. 15 have been moderately successful with the Mets. Jerry Grote was the catcher for the Mets teams that won and lost the World Series in 1969 and 1973, respectively. Foster had his moments, as did Claudell Washington, Matt Franco, Jose Vizcaino and, most recently, Richard Hidalgo, who preceded Beltran in moving from the Astros to the Mets outfield.

The first to wear No. 15 for the Mets was Al Jackson, who lost 20 games with the 1962 Mets. "I think I messed it up for everybody after me," Jackson says.

FIRST IN CENTER
The best single-season performances from Mets center fielders.
Stat Player Number Year
Runs Lance Johnson 117 1996
Hits Lance Johnson 227 1996
Doubles Lenny Dykstra 37 1987
Triples Lance Johnson 21 1996
Home runs Mike Cameron 30 2004
Extra-base hits Brian McRae 62 1998
RBIs Lee Mazzilli/Brian McRae 79 1979/1998
Walks Lee Mazzilli 93 1979
Stolen bases Mookie Wilson 58 1982
Average Lance Johnson .333 1996
Slugging percentage Lance Johnson .479 1996
On-base percentage Richie Ashburn .424 1962

Center of attention: Center field is New York's most celebrated position. Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider -- Hall of Famers all -- and Beltran's hero, Bernie Williams, made their marks in center field.

Where would the 1986 World Series champion Mets have been without center fielder Lenny Dykstra? And would the Miracle Mets of 1969 have beaten the Orioles so handily without the two stunning catches by center fielder Tommie Agee?

Beltran is aware of the position's history in New York. He mentioned Mays, Mantle and, of course, Williams on Tuesday. "I'd like to be part of it," Beltran said.

Beltran takes his defense seriously. And although he is a five-tool player with obvious offensive skills, he says defense is what he does best.

While Agee probably was the best all-around center fielder in the club's 43-year history, Del Unser and, arguably, Jay Payton -- for a brief time -- were the best defensive center fielders the club has had. When Mike Cameron joined the Mets last year, he was widely regarded as comparable to Torii Hunter of the Twins and Andruw Jones of the Braves, the game's elite defensive center fielders.

But he didn't fare too well in the Shea Stadium center field that the great Mays once called "the toughest to play in the National League."

Cameron graciously agreed to move to right to accommodate Beltran. "You wait and see," Beltran said. "We're going to be very good in the outfield. Pedro [Martinez] is going to like us out there."

Beltran joins the Mets

Hey, good lookin': Early in his Mets career, Lee Mazzilli was a matinee idol -- the centerfold center fielder, tight pants and all. Lenny Dykstra had his share of female admirers. And now there is Beltran, 27, and, according to two female members of the Mets staff, cute.

"He has cute dimples," one of them said. But neither she nor her colleague was sure whether Beltran qualified as "hot." They deferred to New York radio station Z-100. The stations callers had confirmed it. Yes, Beltran is "hot."

Investment in the future: One Mets executive Thursday said that the club anticipated losing money this year with the payroll additions of Beltran ($11 million signing bonus as part of his $119 million package) and Pedro Martinez ($53 million contract). But he indicated the investment in the two is money the Mets consider well spent because of their presence, and whatever improvement the two foster will make the Mets a more appealing attraction starting in 2006, when the club's television network is to be launched.

The club's advanced sale of season tickets and ticket plans accelerated dramatically to a level several times greater them the average for last week on Monday and Tuesday because of the Beltran signing.

Charitable Carlos: Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, said his client automatically directs 10 percent of his salary to his own foundation, based in Puerto Rico.

According to Boras, Beltran intends to fund construction of an after-school shelter for children and baseball field complex for children.

Travelin' man: Mets owner Fred Wilpon intends to join Beltran in a news conference in Puerto Rico next week.