NEW YORK -- For one day, Mets pitcher Kris Benson had the chance to find out how a more famous namesake goes about his daily business: Kris Kringle.

Outfitted with a thick white beard, golden glasses and a jolly, protruding belly, Benson filled the shoes of Santa Claus during the Mets' annual holiday party Wednesday at Shea Stadium, greeting 110 students from every borough of New York City.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought I would play Santa Claus," Benson said. "I don't know if some of the kids even know who I am underneath all of this stuff, but they think it looks real. I tried to put myself together pretty good."

Benson's tall, lanky frame wouldn't figure to translate to the holiday icon very well, but after some last-minute adjustments -- including extra padding to round out the belly -- the right-hander found he made a pretty good stand-in for the real deal.

"Gotta start working out, Santa," Mets manager Willie Randolph laughed, patting Benson's protruding stomach.

The students from P.S. 91 (Queens), P.S. 13 (Staten Island), P.S. 18 (Brooklyn), P.S. 142/P.S. 188 (Manhattan) and P.S. 85/P.S. 65 (Bronx) seemed to agree, delighting in singing holiday songs and ripping into gifts delivered by St. Nick.

"Santa, you're the best," said Randy Lewis, a second-grader at P.S. 18, waving an action figure. "Just what I wanted."

"Thought you might like that," Santa replied.

The third Santa Claus in as many years, following John Franco and Mike Cameron, Benson settled in with Mrs. Claus -- his wife, Anna -- and met with the children for more than an hour, signing some autographs but mostly fielding gift requests.

Brooklyn-born Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, in town on an apartment-hunting expedition, was also on hand to help meet and greet the young fans.

"It's a lot of fun," Benson said. "You've got a few kids who really take it seriously and [ask] to spend time with their families, or they want a baby sister. Then you've got kids who'd rather not sit on your lap because it's not the cool thing to do."

Benson's offseason has been more eventful than expected. In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's event at Shea, Benson had been fodder for the offseason Hot Stove, rumored to be included in various trades to the Diamondbacks, Orioles and Royals, among other teams.

Those deals appear to have cooled, but with roughly nine weeks to go until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, Mets general manager Omar Minaya refuses to close the door on any possible negotiations.

Though the Mets could field a full starting rotation immediately if necessary, Minaya makes a practice of checking out every possible trade opportunity; some of which have included Benson.

Benson signed a three-year contract with the Mets before the 2005 season, but that deal does not include a no-trade clause. Reports of ongoing discussions irked the Bensons, prompting Anna to recently call Minaya and Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, as reported in several New York tabloids.

Though Anna described feeling "shocked and dismayed" at the trade reports, the Bensons and the Mets now appear to be on the same page. Minaya said that Benson was "OK" and understands that "it's part of the baseball business."

"I love the Mets organization," Anna Benson said. "They've been so good to us. They treat us like family. ... I guess I didn't understand it all."

"I like the direction we're going," Kris Benson said. "It's a learning experience, and hopefully we'll still be here come February."

The festive December party has been a staple of the Mets' winter program and an annual event at Shea Stadium since 1990, with children invited from New York City public schools to share the holiday spirit.

"I think it's a credit to the Mets organization and what everyone in the organization has done," Minaya said. "It's the right move to do."