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Minaya Re-energizes Mets
By Alan Schwarz
PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.--On a sunsplashed morning at the Mets' spring-training complex, as fans mill about with their anticipatory pennants and toddlers dodder in billowed tees, the primary reason for the buzz can be found below the concrete third-base stands, where inside the home clubhouse Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez are slipping on Mets uniforms few ever thought they would wear. They are holding court with a half-dozen other Latin American players, who listen to the stars' Spanish sermons rapt and reverent. The conversation to someone who speaks only English is utterly impregnable, a string of codes moving way too fast to follow.
About six feet away, a Dominican man--the boss--strides past the long string of lockers with a smooth swiftness. If he had an exhaust pipe, clouds of smoke would trail him like eager autograph hounds. But Omar Minaya's wake is invisible. Instead, what follows him wherever he goes are scenes from his past, memories that though behind him keep propelling him forward as quickly as he's moving now.
• Antonia Minaya, his schoolteacher mom, sits him down at age 6 to explain something delicate about his father. Theodore Minaya spent two whole years in a Dominican jail before Omar was born--simply for his vocal opposition to dictator Rafael Trujillo. Maybe someday they would move to New York in the United States, where he and his sisters could grow up in place where they could think or become anything they wanted.
• One 1986 afternoon in the Dominican, while Minaya is on a scouting trip for the Rangers, a writer speaks to another scout, the Tigers' Ramon Pena. Minaya's a young go-getter. Could have a real future. Pena remains skeptical. "No Latin American," he declares, "will ever be the general manager of a major league baseball team."
• Minaya's Major League Baseball-owned Expos are on the way to their second straight winning season in 2003, somehow staying in contention through August. Every competitor is getting bolstered by September callups. MLB says the Expos can't have any.
• A washout as a pro outfielder, Minaya, a gregarious 21-year-old already as connected as Interstate 95, is chosen to serve as a catcher in a national Canon commercial. Obscured by mask and helmet, Minaya sweep-tags a runner while a camera crisply captures the action. The runner and star of the spot is a well-known Yankee named Willie Randolph.
• Minaya flips through his mail at his Shea Stadium office in 2000 before happening on what appears to be a fan letter. It is nothing of the sort. Sensing that Minaya could get one of the GM jobs for which he has interviewed, some psycho scrawls that Latin Americans have no business in baseball's front offices. Minaya reports the incident to Major League Baseball security.
There are more, many more: snapshots of the Sammy Sosas and Rich Aurilias and Jose Reyeses that he loved and signed as amateurs; conversations with hardscrabble journalist Jack Newfield, when the two would talk boxing and politics into the New York night; press conferences with Willie, Pedro, Carlos. They all travel behind Minaya like invisible kite tails as he zips toward the far locker-room door, pushes through it and walks several hundred yards alone, to an all-but-deserted minor league practice field. Away from the crowds and hype and reporters, he stands before a group of minor league coaches and development personnel to deliver his favorite message.
"There's been a lot of talk here about the free agents we've signed--the Pedros and the Beltrans," Minaya tells them. "But the future of this organization is in scouting and player development. We want to be the best organization out there. We want to have the best scouts. We want to have the best coaches. We want to develop the best players from within. That's how we're going to get this thing done."
The surprising thing is not that Minaya says these words. Most general managers do. It isn't that he means them. Most general managers do.
It's that these guys believe him. They feel re-energized by his presence, his enthusiasm, his just-you-wait defiance. Could it be that baseball's hottest general manager, a man who just committed almost $200 million on quick-fix stars, has dined at the White House several times, and carries a past of kaleidoscopic complexity . . . is deep down still just one of them, a scout?
Several forests met their fate this offseason as the sporting press confirmed Omar Minaya as a baseball newsmaker of the highest order. The big stories thumped on fans' doorsteps like Books of the Month: September, Mets re-hire the Queens-bred Minaya after his three-year furlough in Montreal; October, Minaya hires fellow New Yorker (and longtime job-seeker) Willie Randolph as manager; November, Minaya contentiously cuts ties with Met favorite Al Leiter and signs Kris Benson instead; December, Minaya signs Pedro Martinez, the top pitcher on the free-agent market; January, Minaya snags Carlos Beltran, the top hitter on the market. He also made strong runs at trading for Sosa and signing slugger Carlos Delgado that fell just short.
Baseball fixed one eye on how much money he spent (always more than any other club would) and the other on the ethnicity of the players on whom he spent it. Neither Minaya, Martinez (a Dominican) or Beltran (a Puerto Rican) made any bones about how Minaya's ability to negotiate with them in their native Spanish ripened their intrigue and trust with the Mets, a team that has finished dead last three of the last four seasons while flailing at contention like a 6-year-old attacks a piñata. "It was a big influence on me," Beltran says of the language link. As Minaya proudly leveraged his heritage, the New Mets were often billed as Los Mets, a moniker somewhere in between curious and wary.
It took only four months for baseball to learn that the Omar Minaya, mostly straitjacketed in Montreal, would now--because of his checkbook, personality and, yes, ethnicity--divert the game's top players to Flushing. He places No. 23 on Baseball America's 2005 Power Brokers list. Yet for all the obvious reasons he belongs there, his quieter other moves portend greater influence than most people realize. They all point toward baseball's silent-but-deadly weapon, player development. While Kris, Pedro and Carlos have gotten the headlines, perhaps competitors should concern themselves more with Tony, Sandy and Rafael.
Tony Bernazard, the former major league infielder and longtime executive with the Major League Baseball Players Association, came aboard last fall as Minaya's special assistant, affording him a unique entrée with players and agents. (Several major league GMs, who never realized Bernazard was interested in moving to the club side, are now kicking themselves for not thinking of it first.) Says Bernazard, "There was no one else that was experienced like me there right now. I can utilize that . . . it helps knowing the agents, the way they work, the players and who they are. It helps tremendously. And it helped this past winter." Sure enough, when Minaya went to woo Martinez in the Dominican and Beltran in Puerto Rico, Bernazard was right there with him.
Sandy Johnson, a player-development guru and Minaya's mentor as a young Rangers scout, was brought on as another special assistant. But perhaps the most important move came in March, when Minaya hired Rafael Perez away from Major League Baseball, where he had set up and operated baseball's central office in the Dominican Republic. In monitoring the state of the game in that and other Caribbean countries, while also sorting out the visa and subsequent birthday controversies of the last several years, Perez stands as about the most connected young executive in that bursting part of the baseball world.
"I do believe we have to explore some cutting-edge things," Minaya says. The new hires will supplement, rather than replace, the team's existing player-development staff, and try to improve a thin talent pipeline. After the Mets' stunning decision to trade top lefthander Scott Kazmir and other prospects last July in a desperate attempt to come back from six games out, and the early promotion of third baseman David Wright, there is little depth to draw from. Minaya wants to see one or two players graduating each season, whether to play for the team or be packaged in trades, and insists that his free-agent spree this offseason was not necessarily an ongoing plan.
"Right now, we don't have the players from within to be competitive--we just don't have those players," Minaya says. "Two, we looked at the free-agent market this year, and said, 'Look, should we wait another year?' We felt that the free agents out this year were better than the free agents that would come out in the next two or three years. So, we felt that this was the time to do it, maybe get a little bit ahead of ourselves."
In less public moments, Minaya has commented that for all the hype, people have overestimated the immediate impact any free agents--even Martinez and Beltran--can make on a club that went 71-91 last year. "One of the main attractions in coming here," he says, "was because ownership understands that the long-term success of the organization is going to be the overall time and effort and investment at the minor league and scouting areas." At the press conference announcing the Martinez signing, he explained that giving the pitcher a fourth year at $13 million was more about building the Mets' brand than their 2008 rotation. He looked past the clicking cameras and declared, "That kid in the Dominican who might be the next Pedro Martinez could someday be here because of this signing."
Minaya kept repeating that the Mets' future lay in evaluating and signing the best amateurs, but by the time he bought Beltran, too, most stories understandably focused on the first Latin American GM snagging the best Latin American players. His ability to build trust among them was nothing new. Giants third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo partially credits Minaya's presence with his development as a young Mets major leaguer in the late 1990s. And though Minaya lost Vladimir Guerrero with the Expos after the 2003 season, he later re-signed workhorse Livan Hernandez and second baseman Jose Vidro to a club in laughable limbo. Orlando Cabrera, Minaya's shortstop before his trade to Boston last July, says Minaya appreciates the style of Latin players more than other executives.
"Sometimes general managers don't want to use a lot of Latino guys," says Cabrera, now with the Angels. "As a Latin player, you're more aggressive--you're more hyped. You learned the game a different way. Some general managers are scared of that. 'That's too hyped for me.' But he says, 'As long as you play hard, I like everybody.' "
Minaya gladly played the Latin card during his negotiations with Martinez and Beltran, but Delgado, who signed with the Marlins, chafed at the approach. "It doesn't matter if you're Latin, American or Italian, if we're going to talk business, talk business," he told the Toronto Star. "I'm not doing you any favors, you're not doing me any favors because we're speaking in Spanish. I'm a man first." Minaya declined to respond to the comments, but has lately found himself having to defend his methods. The New York Daily News noted that this offseason Minaya got rid of Leiter, John Franco, Mike Stanton and Vance Wilson, while signing Martinez, Beltran, Felix Heredia, Miguel Cairo and Andres Galarraga.
"If you look at every free-agent market, a lot of times the better players happen to be Latin American," Minaya says. "The guys that I really wanted to get early on were smaller guys, like Craig Counsell and those kind of guys. We pursued the Hudson trade.
"If you're going to look at my heritage, my background, you should look at the fact that I'm a New Yorker. I'm a Latin American New Yorker, but I'm a New Yorker. I look at people's credentials, whatever their race or what country they're from. You grow up in New York, that's the way you look at things."
Walk into Minaya's office at Shea Stadium and you're hit flat in the face with a framed movie poster from "A Bronx Tale." Minaya grew up in Queens, yes, about 10 blocks from Shea Stadium, but as he watched that 1993 film about a 10-year-old boy coming of age on the New York streets, he felt like he was reading the diary he never kept.
"The whole story was like I was watching myself grow up," he says. "I was Calogero and my father was Robert DeNiro. He would always talk about work ethic, doing it right, how the tough thing was doing it right. We played stickball on 97th, 98th, 99th streets. I still visualize the bar in the corner; I still visualize the barbershop which I still go to. The shoe repair guy. I still visualize the metal door for the garage we used to paint with graffiti to make the strike zone. I can visualize the buildings, I still visualize second base--it was a big metal thing right in the middle of the street."
The Minaya family had moved from the Dominican to Corona in 1967, when Omar was 8. Both parents, now deceased, worked manual factory jobs down by the Brooklyn docks. Meanwhile, Omar fell in love with stickball and ultimately baseball, particularly as he became a speedy catching prospect for Newtown High.
"He was always looking for a baseball game," says Ray Negron, a fellow player in the Flushing Tigers youth program and now a Yankees consultant. "He'd go on the subway, his bike, anything. You go to a game, Omar would be there. He didn't have to be registered on the team--he'd find a way to play."
The A's picked Minaya in the 14th round of the 1978 draft, but he couldn't hit professional pitching in either the A's or Mariners systems and was finally released. (He made more money from that Canon shoot with Randolph.) He played the 1983 and '84 seasons in an Italian pro league before a friend recommended him to Sandy Johnson, who had just taken over Rangers' player-development department and was looking to score big in Latin America. Minaya was his first hire--and he immediately put him on a redeye flight (with fellow scout John Young) to Venezuela.
"John calls me the first day after the tryout camp and he says, 'Hey, this guy, he is aggressive. He wants to sign everybody!' " Johnson recalls. "I loved that he loved players. He wasn't afraid. He took the bull by the horns and went right after it."
Once, in a hurry to beat another scout to a Dominican player, Minaya stepped in a flimsy manhole that collapsed, causing a piece of wood to slice into his leg two inches deep and leave blood spurting everywhere. He still made it to the house and closed the deal. Later that year, he got a tip on a skinny kid with power potential, and signed him for $3,500. Sammy Sosa.
Johnson liked having his scouts coach Rookie league clubs so they could see just how well they had evaluated their signs. Minaya did spend the 1985-87 seasons with the Gulf Coast League Rangers, where he worked with one of the best modern collections of young players: Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer, Rey Sanchez, Kevin Brown, Robb Nen, Wilson Alvarez and more. But he remained primarily a scout and ultimately ascended to director of professional and international scouting in 1990. It was around then that Minaya decided he wanted to be a GM. "He just grew more and more," Johnson says. "You knew right away that he was a special guy. He was always just sucking everything in."
The Mets hired Minaya away to be their assistant GM in September 1997, and he became the chief talent evaluator for clubs that won the 1999 wild card and the 2000 pennant. He interviewed for a half-dozen GM jobs thereafter but couldn't get over the hump of being a pure scout without, it was said, the administrative skills required of modern GMs.
MLB fixed that by hiring Minaya in February 2002 to run the Expos, a club which, after former owner Jeffrey Loria skipped town to the Marlins, had no front office at all, its administrative framework ripped out like a fish skeleton. Minaya put together a new organization in the 72-hour window before spring training, and with contraction's guillotine hanging over his head, later swung some win-now trades that cost prospects but kept his renegade club in contention until September. He finished over 83-79 again in 2003 before the bottom fell out last year with a last-place finish.
Minaya rejects the suggestion that he couldn't fail in Montreal--that losing was expected, and success was gravy. "Montreal was pressure," he says, his ever-smiling mug visibly agitated. "It was pressure with the limited number of scouts. No callups. The uncertainty of where we would play. San Juan. It was a very demoralizing situation. Every ingredient for failure was there.
"Nobody was expecting the team to do anything there, but then again, if the team lost 90-100 games every year, I don't think that I would be sitting in this chair today. There is no way in the world."
Giants manager Felipe Alou says that Minaya faced the same scrutiny that he himself had a decade ago, when with the Expos he became baseball's first Dominican manager. "If he said the wrong thing or given the wrong advice, it would have taken a while for the next (Latin American GM)," Alou says. "It would have hurt. It's like the Latin manager. I've said, we have to be perfect. We've got to be prepared. We've got to be fair. We've got to be ready for the team, the front office, the media, and more than anything, the community--so we don't send the wrong messages that we don't know how to deal with any one of these elements."
After being rehired last September to run the Mets, who had already announced they would fire Art Howe just halfway through a $9.4 million contract, Minaya didn't take long to pick his replacement: Randolph, with whom he shared a certain kinship. It went beyond both being New York minorities and retaining city-kid candor.
"I know for sure I got used by the minority-hiring system," Randolph says. "There's no doubt in my mind. I know going into interviews that I didn't have a chance. I knew. You know what it's like to go into an interview knowing you have no shot?"
Randolph didn't need to say who would. The kid who 23 years ago tried to tag him out was now the man who made him safe.
Minaya didn't take long to beef up his organization, hiring Johnson as his special assistant; Bryan Lambe, who had scouted him in Corona and later supervised him in Texas, as coordinator of professional scouting; Rudy Terrasas, another former Rangers colleague, as assistant director of amateur scouting; Russ Bove, his crosschecker in Montreal, as scouting director; and others. But before he hired anyone--before he allowed himself to be hired, in fact--he made one non-negotiable demand on ownership: Though Jim Duquette would be stepping aside as GM, Minaya would not take his spacious GM office. Minaya's Shea abode is instead a small room down the hall.
"Omar has gone really far in saying, 'I'm not forgetting about you guys,' " retained player-development chief Gary LaRocque says. "But he gives us a fresh look and energy. He's a pure scouting guy. He loves to evaluate. He's really re-energized the department: 'We've done some things well. But we have to do some things better.' "
Until Minaya's player-development efforts begin to bear fruit, which should take several years, the story in New York will surely remain his Latinization of the Mets. They are the New Mets now, infused with verve and sensibilities that New York quickly embraced. How far the Mets have come: In a 1971 Sports Illustrated article about Latin-Americans in baseball, one team executive called them "moody" and "lazy," while a Met prospect said, "Not knowing English I never know where I stand here."
Another minor leaguer mentioned in that story was a young Dominican third baseman named Felix Minaya, who, incapable of speaking English, struggled to communicate with Mets officials. He occasionally got help from a translator--his eager, teenaged cousin, Omar.
Some 34 years later, Omar Minaya is still translating for the Mets. Spanish to English and back are but intermediate steps, talk for the offseason. On Opening Day, when Martinez starts and Beltran bats third, Los Mets will begin being paraphrased into wins and losses, baseball's universal language.