NEW YORK -- The largely Dominican crowd at Shea Stadium's Diamond Club on Tuesday exchanged boisterous greetings, caught up on conversation and dined to the staccato sounds of live merengue music -- a prelude to the Mets' ninth annual Merengue Night, which will take place Friday at Shea.

Merengue Night, one of a series of Heritage Nights put on by the Mets to celebrate the diversity of New York City, will include a postgame concert by Fernando Villalona, Sergio Vargas and El Jeffrey.

Though the Mets put on 12 Heritage Night events, Merengue Night is regarded as the most successful.

"It's the spirit of Dominicans coming out and the pride that we have in our music and our baseball players," Assemblyman Jose Peralta said. "Dominicans love two things: politics and baseball. When we're not talking politics, we're talking baseball.

"When we come here to watch a game, and on top of that have a concert with some of our most famous celebrities and singers, that's icing on the cake."

Tuesday's lunch reception and press conference -- hosted by the Mets' Spanish radio team of Juan Alicea and Billy Berroa -- showcased the performers, as well as the Mets' organizational commitment to the Dominican community. General manager Omar Minaya accepted, on behalf of the team, a citation from the New York State Assembly recognizing the success of Merengue Night and other outreach efforts.

Minaya himself will be recognized Friday as "Sportsman of the Year" by The Economic Development Center of Corona and Elmhurst.

"He's going to receive a plaque ... not only because he made history by becoming the first Hispanic general manager in baseball, but because he is someone who has not forgotten about his community," Peralta said. "He's a hometown boy done good.

"He's someone who came up from the ranks, did what he had to do, worked hard to live that American dream, and now he's living that American dream where many, many people admire him and look up to him."

"I'm not an awards guy," Minaya said. "But the fact that it's an award by an assemblyman and it's coming from a local area -- Jackson Heights, Corona, Queens -- a local area that I grew up in, it means a lot to me."

The award presentation will be part of the festivities, most of which are centered around the musical performances. There was audible disappointment in the crowd when it was announced Pedro Martinez wouldn't be pitching Friday.

In his office before Tuesday's game, manager Willie Randolph joked about swapping the Dominican starter's spot in the rotation to align the event and pitching order. But everyone is aware that the music is the real reason Friday's game and concert are expected to be packed.

And El Jeffrey knows why.

"Because it's merengue."