PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- For the Mets it begins on Monday, Monday evening at 6:10 ET, to be precise. It is the time of the season for mixed motivations. There is the 22-year-old pitcher who wants to win a position on the Opening Day roster, the 32-year-old veteran with two objectives -- preparing for games of real consequence and avoiding debilitating injury. And in between are the young veterans, works in progress who have brief resumés but some job security, who hope to develop or polish a pitch or hone the ability to take a pitch the other way.
And all the time, their manager is checking things off his lengthy to-do list, hoping that the cutoffs, relays and pickoff stuff actually stuck with his players.
Such is the Spring Training schedule -- fun for a while, instructive, enlightening, unregimented (except in Tampa) somewhat casual and always tedious at the end. The games are musts. Pitchers need the work -- the innings. Hitters need the at-bats, infielders need to see the hops -- good and bad -- and the managers need to see which veterans have reserve in their tanks and which don't, and which rookies need more seasoning. Please pass the paprika.
The Mets have all those scenarios and others. The late arrival in camp of shortstop Ruben Tejada already has reduced the time he can spend with his double-play partner Daniel Murphy. Manager Terry Collins had planned on more "getting to know you" days. The exhibition season might serve the Mets better if it included 35 games, not merely 30. And no one wearing one of those "U" T-shirts so prevalent in the clubhouse -- "U" standing for "underdog" -- would be upset if Johan Santana had a few additional opportunities to prepare for his Opening Day assignment on April 5.
But no matter the Mets' needs and preferences, their Spring Training schedule begins this evening on MLB.TV after the Nationals travel to this burg where the Mets set up shop 24 years ago.
Dillon Gee, a bit of a pleasant surprise last summer, is to start for the Mets, pitch three innings and then ice his right arm. John Lannan, the Nationals' starter, will follow a similar schedule but wear the ice pack on his left shoulder when he's done. By the third inning, all of it will seem so natural. It'll seem like June 5, July 7 or whenever.
Rookie Matt Harvey, the powerful-looking right-hander, is to follow Gee. Harvey looks like one-time Met Mark Clark -- when he throws, his future looks brighter. Frank Francisco is to be the Mets' final pitcher on Monday and their closer come April 5. The impatient will want to know Santana starts on Tuesday against the Cardinals in Jupiter.
The first game always is a refresher course -- Got to remember to note that 3-1 groundout. The rest of the spring is about the sense of renewal, the one the late Commissioner Bart Giamatti spoke about so eloquently: "The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone."
Also from Giamatti: "The largest thing I've learned is the enormous grip that this game has on people, the extent to which it really is very important. It goes way down deep. It really does bind together. It's a cliche and sounds sentimental, but I have now seen it from the inside."
Not all of that will happen immediately when Gee and Lannan confront each other and groups of batters not likely to make contact with anything that curves, drops, wiggles or hisses. Even a 14-10 score shouldn't suggest that the hitters are ahead of the pitchers. They're not.
But the starter's pistol or "Play Ball" will sound genuine and good when it happens. The Nationals are not likely to bring many of their regulars. Washington manager Davey Johnson, making a return to where he directed his last three Mets Spring Training camps (1988-90), believes his everyday guys don't benefit from long bus rides. Morever, the Mets will play without their face-of-the-franchise figure, David Wright. Stiffness in Wrights' left side and the Mets' sensible caution will deny the patrons a player they clamor to see.
There'll be other nights, though.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.