HoJo offers food for thought on Sunday

HoJo offers food for thought on Sunday

NEW YORK -- David Wright is well compensated and well off. He can afford to eat at exclusive, upscale restaurants regularly. That's not his way, though. Indeed, Wright intends to watch the Super Bowl and dine Sunday night in a place most folks wouldn't think of.

He's eating at HoJo's.

Cardinals and Steelers provided by NBC, steaks and burgers supplied by Allen Brothers, high-end retailer, and prepared by, well ... Howard Johnson himself, the Mets' batting coach.

"I'm cooking," HoJo said proudly. "I'm David's favorite restaurant."

Wright has had plans for HoJo's. And now, two younger Mets teammates -- Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans -- are to join him at Johnson's.

The host will be serving more than beef on the last real football Sunday before baseball takes its place on the horizon. Hitting will be more than a side-dish conversation. As casual as this get-together at Johnson's home in Stuart, Fla., is likely to be, work will be discussed.

"They'll probably be the ones who bring it up," Johnson said. "They're the ones who can't wait to get started and get to work."

Johnson spoke from his cellular phone from Jacksonville, Fla., home of the university his son, Glen, attends, and home of Murphy, who is likely to be the greater part of the left-field platoon the Mets have proposed for 2009. HoJo had made plans to visit his son "one more time before we get started [with training camp]," and he knew, from his regular contact with the Mets' position players, Murphy would be in town. Father, son and student were to use a local batting cage.

Wright, Johnson's unofficially adopted son, is flying down this weekend, and Evans, unaware of the others' plans for Sunday, is flying in from Arizona that day. It seems like a Head Start program, but Johnson says it's not.

"These guys have been hitting already," he said. "The three of them are very dedicated."

Wright has been using the facilities at Citi Field. His colleagues, both rookies last season, have been getting their swings since recovering from leg injuries that undermined their offseason plans. Murphy suffered a Grade 2 strain -- Grade 4 is the most serious -- of his right hamstring in November while playing in the Arizona Fall League. Evans, likely to be one of the relatively few right-handed hitters among Mets reserves, strained his right quadriceps while playing in the Puerto Rican winter league. Each is expected to be at full strength when Spring Training begins.

Chances are, Sunday night will pass without any swings. It is just as likely that hitting will be discussed over beef and bottles. Part of Johnson's lesson plan for camp is emphasizing a more enlightened approach to situational hitting. The Mets didn't prosper in critical situations last season, and manager Jerry Manuel began last summer discussing the need for an improved approach.

"We had meetings in New York after the season," Johnson said. "We've discussed and tried to work out plans of how to present what we want from them. We need to refine the process."

Johnson spoke of dealing with anxiety of situational hitting.

"The idea is not to try to do everything yourself," he said. "Relaxing is part of it, but understanding what's needed in a big situation is part of it too. And what to expect from the pitcher you're facing. The more you understand it, the better prepared you are. The better prepared, the more confident and relaxed you should be.

"There are ways to practice hitting in those situations and get accustomed to what you have to do."

Johnson always was impressed by how Keith Hernandez handled those situations when they played together with the Mets in the '80s.

"Keith was as good as anyone in big moments," he said.

Johnson recalls the opposite-field single Hernandez dropped over the head of Red Sox shortstop Spike Owen in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the 1986 World Series. It produced the Mets' first two runs of the game.

Years later, Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer told Hernandez, "We knew if we got you there, we were going to win the World Series."

The Mets tied the score at 3 in the sixth and scored three times in the seventh with Hernandez driving in a run with a sacrifice fly.

"Keith was at his best late in the game. He always gave us just what we needed," Johnson said in 2007, shortly after he was appointed. "He knew how to put pressure on the pitcher by talking what the pitcher gave him. He had it figured out. He didn't need to hit one out. [In that Game 7], he knew two runs would get us going. And that sacrifice fly gave us a three-run lead.

"You have to understand what the circumstances call for and adjust."

As far as Johnson knows, Hernandez hasn't been asked to work with the players. Hernandez had served as special, first-base tutor for Todd Zeile in Spring Training 2000.

"But I watched Keith for a long time," Johnson said. "I tried to learn how he went about it.

"I think I know the mind-set, and I have an idea how to practice it. We'll have to work around the [World Baseball Classic], but we'll have some opportunities for dry runs. We'll be talking about it a lot in Spring Training and probably Sunday, too. It's football, but we're getting close to baseball again."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.