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Minaya earns his reward for keeping Expos afloat

by Alan Schwarz
October 7, 2004

NEW YORK—I thought he was nuts.

When Omar Minaya was offered the Expos general manager job in early 2002, the then-Mets assistant GM asked my opinion on what he should do. Imagining 29 marionette strings immobilizing and eventually choking him—not to mention fearing that Major League Baseball Central considered him more for his ethnicity than his ethics—I advised him to pass, to avoid getting sucked down a whirlpool from which he might never emerge.

Well, thank goodness Minaya viewed our little chat as the rough equivalent of consulting a compass to turn south. He not only saved baseball the embarrassment it deserved for owning the Expos "temporarily" for three full seasons, but he also asserted himself as one of the most intriguing executives in the game, a guy who kept his nomadic bunch competent and even competitive for most of that time. So you can forgive Minaya for standing at Shea Stadium the last week of the season, freshly returned to New York as the Mets' real, buck-stops-here GM, and recalling the risky round trip he'd just completed.

"Maybe I'm going on too long and talking too much," the affable New Yorker said with a laugh. "But I want to hold onto this podium. It took me a while to get here."

A 46-year-old Queens native who grew up a half-mile away from Shea Stadium and jumped its turnstiles as a kid, Minaya moves from one embarrassment to another. The 2004 Mets hawked their promising future for a slot-machine spin for which everyone but them foresaw lemons, and enter this winter spastically grasping for new identity and direction. They clutched onto Minaya as resolutely as he did that lectern.

Scratch And Claw

Given the legitimacy Minaya cultivated in Montreal, it's easy to forget that when he took control of the Expos there wasn't much Expos to control. The gutted club needed a farm department, minor league managers and coaches, trainers and everything else.

"Imagine yourself—'You're the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, and you have 72 hours before players report to spring training to put the organization together,' " Minaya said. "All in the national spotlight with people wondering, 'What the hell is this?' People are calling you vagabonds. You have to keep up morale. Other GMs call you expecting you to do them favors."

Longtime baseball man Tony Siegle, Minaya's assistant GM, recalled that when they started, Minaya "couldn't wait to make trades." He swung two (for Bartolo Colon and Cliff Floyd) to stay in July 2002's wild-card race that cost many of the club's prospects and raised skepticism over Minaya's appreciation for player development; then again, when you're on the contraction chopping block, you ain't building for 2007.

As it became clear the Expos would stay in Montreal through 2004, Minaya began to run the club more conventionally, even as MLB did little to help. Staging a half-dozen "home" stands in San Juan reinforced the club's laughable transiency, yet in 2004 Minaya and his underrated staff still swung trades for prospects (Maicer Izturis, Ryan Church, Brendan Harris, Francis Beltran) and even encouraged Livan Hernandez and Jose Vidro to sign long-term.

"I give Omar all the credit," Siegle said. "When he walks into a room it lights up. He was never negative: 'We don't care what the situation is. We're going to operate as normally as possible.' He's grown into a GM."

Yes, the new Washington owners will inherit a below-average farm system. But over Minaya's three seasons, the Expos played .479 ball—20 full games better than the Mets.

On the same day MLB announced it finally would move its Expos to—whooda thunkit?—Washington, Minaya was rehired by the Mets. He broke down saying goodbye to Siegle, kissing him on the cheek and saying, "I couldn't have done it without you."

New York State of Mind

"Omar's heart never left the New York Mets," Siegle said. "He talked about them all the time. They never left him."

And now they have invited him back, admitting how badly this organization needs a talent evaluator to go with his predecessor, Jim Duquette. Watch Minaya show faith in a first-time manager (such as classy ex-Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo, for whom Minaya coached in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 1986) and begin to jettison veterans Al Leiter and Mike Piazza, a makeover the Mets should have begun months ago.

"Right now we're in transition," Minaya said, pointing to the youth of infielders David Wright and Jose Reyes. "This is not a rebuilding project."

For three years, Minaya was more than Major League Baseball deserved. In the end, it got him the job he deserves even more.

You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.

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