As expected, Rick Down was named the new hitting coach of the New York Mets today. What wasn’t expected was that said hiring would be announced prior to January. The New York Times’ Lee Jenkins explains in tomorrow’s paper.

George Steinbrenner and the Yankees fired Rick Down twice in the past 10 years, but they balked at the notion of giving him up when their crosstown rivals came calling earlier this month.

After a tug of war between New York’s baseball neighbors, the Mets announced yesterday that they had hired Down to be their hitting coach. Willie Randolph, the Mets’ first-year manager, completed his staff by adding Tom Nieto as the major league catching instructor.

The other coaches were introduced earlier in the week, but the Mets had to wait for permission from the Yankees to announce an agreement with Down. Although Randolph spoke with Down in early November, Steinbrenner did not believe Randolph had gone through the proper channels and refused to give permission for a formal interview.

Mets General Manager Omar Minaya and Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman cleared up the disagreement and said it was the result of miscommunication. With Down and Randolph, the Mets now have the Yankees’ former hitting coach and third-base coach, who became friends while on the same staff.

“Beyond a professional relationship, Willie and I are friends,” Down said in a telephone interview yesterday. “It’s nice to have somebody who wants you.”