NEW YORK - In the realm of the nauseating, this was even worse than Eli Manning and the fellas parading the Lombardi Trophy through the Canyon of Heroes (because the Giants earned it, after all). You really had to see the way they welcomed Johan Santana to the New York Mets to believe it.

The news conference seemed to have seating for about 200 or so, and plenty of people were standing. The luncheon menu featured chicken and beef satay, rice pilaf, pasta, green salad and gourmet sandwiches. The festivities were broadcast live on two television stations, one radio station and two Web sites (mets.com and losmets.com).

First, a video was shown that featured all manner of New Yorkers, from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to Chris Rock to Jerry Seinfeld, proclaiming their city as the greatest place in the history of places. It was all very understated, as per the local custom.

Then Santana arrived and was introduced by general manager Omar Minaya. Then they lined up for pictures - ownership, manager Willie Randolph, everybody smile now. A public-relations functionary had them turn to the dozens of exploding still cameras, and then to the other cameras over there, and then, could the still cameras please kneel down so the television cameras in the back could get a clear shot? Turn this way, turn that way; the guy had the group pose for everybody with a camera except Google Earth.

And then the PR guy attempted to shut down the last shutterbugs and begin the news conference by announcing, "Johan, your public awaits."

At which point, I gagged on some vomit.

The Mets themselves said all of the right things - third baseman David Wright said the Phillies were still the team to beat in the National League East, as did Randolph - but this was quite the welcome for Santana, the two-time Cy Young winner. And listening to the radio on the way home, you could tell it was clear that all of the pomp and circumstance has led Mets fans to the inescapable conclusion that they already have won the World Series, before the first golf club has been shipped to spring training.

And, in that spirit, Santana raised his hands at one point and showed off all the World Series rings he won in Minnesota.

Oh, wait.

"It takes 25 players," Santana said, more than once, in response to more than one question in more than one language. He seems a sincere sort, and he has been a great and durable pitcher (although only 15-13 last season). He arrives in New York with a new contract that could be worth $150 million by the time it expires, advertised as nothing short of the savior of a franchise that choked away the division title last season to the Phillies, blowing a seven-game lead with 17 games to play.

Santana will wear No. 57, not 7/17, but everybody knows the truth - even as the savior himself pretty much fled from every question about the train wreck that was last September for the Mets.

"I'm happy to be here," Santana said, at one point. "What happened last year stays in the past. I'm looking forward to '08 . . . We're going to start a new season, '08, and make it very special from now on."

But do not kid yourself. Yes, Santana was about bringing a top-of-the-rotation pitcher to the staff. But, just as much, he was about bringing a way to change the conversation. As Wright said, "It allows us to move forward."

Randolph, the classy manager, is one person who doesn't pretend the collapse didn't happen. He said, "Our core players just struggled and lost their confidence at the wrong time." And, "It's still going to be there." And, "We won't let it consume us . . . but every four-game losing streak, we're going to hear about it . . . We're going to have to take our medicine."

Randolph insisted that the Phillies remain the team to beat. He said, "I still respect the fact that they beat us last year. [The Santana signing] reinforces our chances to knock them off."

Still, with everything, it is hard to believe that last season will be so easily forgotten. Maybe Santana will be great and Pedro Martinez will be unusually healthy and Jose Reyes will mature a couple of years in a couple of months and Carlos Delgado will find himself again, and nobody will notice that Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are all better than the corresponding guys in the New York uniforms. Maybe all of that will happen and the Mets will get off to a hot start and never look back. It is a clear possibility.

But if it doesn't go like that . . . if it is a summerlong gut fight with the Phillies and Braves . . . if Martinez grabs his (insert body part here), as has become routine . . . if Santana joins the long list of free agents who come to New York and struggle at the beginning . . .

The Mets do not want to find out, especially the Santana part. Because they just spent up to $150 million on one of those green Christmas-tree things you hang from the rearview mirror. They would hate to find out that it failed to mask the stench of 7/17. *

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