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2022 Trailblazer Award: Omar Minaya

Omar Minaya Trailblazer (1)

Every pioneer has a defining trait, something that fuels his or her determination to do something no one has done before.

Jackie Robinson had the steely demeanor, Billie Jean King outspokenness. For Omar Minaya, it might have been his sunny disposition that helped him become the first Latino general manager in major league history.

In the notorious grind of baseball, particularly the behind-the-scenes work that goes into building rosters, Minaya maintained a positive outlook. Whether he was a young scout with the Rangers, GM in the hotbed of New York, or the thick of the toughest job in baseball as general manager of the lame-duck Montreal Expos, he was upbeat.

Minaya got his first GM job in 2002 after owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins, left the Expos in the hands of MLB and took everything without a logo to Miami: computers, scouting reports, radar guns and all but six front office staffers.

Commissioner Bud Selig hired Minaya that February, leaving him a matter of weeks to put together a staff and a team on the field.

“He always came in with a smile on his face, no matter what,” said Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, who got his first full-time job that spring, when he was promoted from intern to scouting coordinator.

“You never knew if he was stressed, never knew if he was worried,” Anthopoulos said. “When he walked in a room, he’d have a smile on his face and words of encouragement. I think he sees the good in every human being he’s around. He tries to find the positive in anything. He doesn’t complain. He never will.”

Minaya was born in the Dominican Republic to a father who once spent two years in jail for speaking out against the dictatorial government. Their family moved to New York when Minaya was 8 years old. There, while his parents worked factory jobs, making sneakers and eyeglasses, Minaya grew up eight blocks from Shea Stadium, loving baseball.

He chose playing ball with his friends and hopping barricades or outrunning security guards to sneak into Mets games over the dangerous lifestyle of joining a gang.

“Strong core values and the consistency of those values—that’s what we learned from my dad,” Minaya said. “You have to be strong enough to abide by them.”

For Minaya, opportunity was always the most important thing.

The Athletics drafted Minaya as an outfielder in the 14th round in 1978 out of Newton High in Queens, but he never hit enough to stick in pro ball. Minaya was contemplating a job as a flight attendant—remember the sunny disposition?—when Oakland scout Ralph DiLullo recommended a part-time job in the MLB Scouting Bureau. That led to an introduction to Sandy Johnson, assistant GM of the Rangers.

Johnson flew Minaya in and hired him on the spot, before sending him on a 16-day gauntlet through Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“He was up for any task,” said Johnson, who later followed Minaya to the Mets. “He was a tireless worker, and he was aggressive. He wasn’t afraid to take a chance. I remember one year he flew into Venezuela and signed seven guys in about 48 hours. I let him do it, but that helped him grow because he toned down a bit. He was chomping at the bit. That’s what you love about scouts. Your job is to sign players.”

Minaya set up an academy in the Dominican Republic, laid groundwork for the Dominican Summer League, which began play in 1985, and helped the Rangers sign Dominican outfielder Sammy Sosa as well as outfielder Juan Gonzalez and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, both out of Puerto Rico before the island was incorporated into the draft. All three players would win major league MVP awards.

Minaya earned the respect of Rangers GM Doug Melvin, who promoted Minaya to lead both the domestic and international sides of scouting. That led to an assistant GM job with the Mets. Over the next four years, Minaya interviewed for six GM jobs and failed to land one.

“It gets frustrating,” Minaya said. “You get a little bit embarrassed. If you’re out there too much, it’s a risk. People told me not to go. But I had to go to open doors for myself and others. It was about getting the opportunity. Somebody had to pay the price.”

The same went for the Expos, a franchise MLB planned to contract at the end of the 2002 season. Montreal had half the payroll of any other team. Minaya took the job, and the Expos won a respectable 83 games and finished second in the National League East in 2002. MLB owners voted them a stay of execution for 2003, and they contended for the wild card until September.

“When the change was made with ownership, no one gave the Expos a chance,” Anthopoulos said. “Omar refused to hear excuses—that we didn’t have enough scouts, we didn’t have enough money, or we weren’t good enough. He was going to push and try to win. He ignited the passion for baseball again in Montreal.”

Ultimately, the Expos franchise was sold and moved to Washington in 2005. Minaya went back to the Mets, where he served as GM from 2004 to 2010. He used his considerable influence in the Latin American community to nab the likes of Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran as free agents over the Yankees. He helped the Mets advance to the 2006 NL Championship Series.

When Minaya, now an MLB consultant for amateur scouting initiatives, looks back over his career, he is most proud of the work he did in Montreal in those three short years.

For Anthopoulos, who went on to build a World Series champion with the Braves in 2021, the first weeks with Minaya left a big impression. Working late one night that spring, Anthopoulos lost track of time, only to find the parking lot gates chained shut at 4 a.m.

When Minaya arrived at 5:30, Anthopoulos was still unable to get his car out. So Minaya tossed him his keys.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe the GM just gave me his car,’ ” said Anthopoulos, then 25. “He said, ‘Go home, shower up and come back whenever it makes sense for you.’ That was my introduction to Omar.”

In the 20 years since Selig made that hire, only two additional Latinos have served as general managers in MLB: Ruben Amaro Jr. with the Phillies and Al Avila with the Tigers. Selig calls that statistic unfortunate.

“I’ve always been a great believer in minority hiring,” Selig said. “And that played a role, but let me be very clear with you: Omar got (the Expos job) because I thought he was a great baseball man. I thought he would be a perfect guy to be the general manager of that club. And it turned out, I was right.”

Gavin Stone Billmitchell

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