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Smith: Omar Minaya Speeds Up His Self-immolation

Maybe it was after the Mets’ epic 2007 collapse. Hard to remember; there are so many miserable moments to choose from when you’re a Mets fan. But I clearly recall a friend telling me that the current pain was necessary because it made the Mets’ victories so much sweeter.

That rationalization almost works when it comes to the on-field disasters. No sports fan, not even Mets fans, feels remotely good when confronted by the fact that his team is run by bumblers. It seems incomprehensible that only two years ago Omar Minaya was the subject of a glowing Sports Illustrated cover story and that the Mets were cruising along in first place. My own contribution to Minaya mythology, in February 2005, feels as if it were written a lifetime ago.

What’s changed? Well, everything and nothing. Omar’s life story, the basis for most of those profiles, remains irresistible and admirable: He rose from poor Dominican immigrant to mediocre minor-league player to first Latino general manager in the major leagues. But losses have a way of eroding charming biography, and the devolution happens especially fast in New York. Doubts about Minaya’s abilities as an executive were plain as far back as 2002 when, as Montreal GM, he made an all-time-awful trade of Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon.

The deal was somewhat defensible because the Expos seemed at the time on the verge of going out of business. Less easily dismissed was the Moneyball anecdote in which Oakland GM Billy Beane suggested Minaya was easily hustled. Minaya’s tenure as Mets GM started brilliantly in 2004 and highlighted his greatest strength, as a salesman with free agents. Yes, the Mets overpaid for Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado, but it was necessary to revive a moribund franchise and it brought the Mets to the brink of a World Series in 2006.

Things, of course, have gone mostly downhill from there. The Mets farm system under Minaya and assistant GM Tony Bernazard has produced few real players. Signing K-Rod was genius; Luis Castillo and Oliver Perez, not so much. Yesterday’s bizarre press conference highlighted one of Minaya’s greatest stylistic flaws: He’s a lousy, unconvincing public speaker. His attack on Daily News sportswriter Adam Rubin clearly wasn’t a slip of the tongue, but it was worsened by Minaya’s clumsy description of the events leading up to it. What’s weird is that Minaya — even though he was clearly angry about being forced to fire his pal Bernazard — is savvy enough to know that fighting with the New York press is a losing proposition (though Rubin, who has always been generously helpful to me, committed an error too: Asking the people you cover for advice on how to get a job in the industry is handing them a weapon to use against you). Stranger still is that Minaya knew he had some media goodwill to draw on. What was left of that reservoir disappeared yesterday.

Maybe Minaya committed the blunder all on his own. More likely, he was encouraged to fight back — by Bernazard but also by Jeff Wilpon, Minaya’s boss and the Mets’ owner. Wilpon has long followed the most baffling media strategy of all these characters. As recently as this winter he had a sympathetic story to tell. His family had been swindled by Bernie Madoff (for as much as $700 million, if Larry King is to be believed), and the Mets were about to open a terrific new ballpark — a project largely overseen by Jeff Wilpon. He’d spoken to me briefly in 2005, but he had stayed largely silent and out of view since then, as he had for much of the time since he’d taken over running the business for his father, Fred. So as the Mets collapsed in 2007 and 2008, rumors festered: Jeff relied on back-channel sources to the Mets’ clubhouse (Al Leiter, Bernazard). Jeff undercut Willie Randolph.

Maybe Wilpon stayed quiet to protect his privacy; maybe he was trying to be the opposite of meddling George Steinbrenner; maybe he really is a bad executive. Whatever the truth, Jeff Wilpon never supplied his own narrative. [Update: Late this afternoon Wilpon said that Minaya made "a very, very large mistake" and stated his continued support for Minaya as GM.] And now the void is being filled in for him: In the papers and on talk radio, Jeff Wilpon is becoming the summer twin of reviled second-generation Knicks’ owner Jim Dolan.

Well, at least the Mets have won three in a row.

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