The Mets are likable, and the recent turbulence never disturbed the team’s core personality trait, its exuberance. If the Mets don’t have the happiest clubhouse in the bigs, doctors need to start testing other teams for something besides steroids. The morning after a painful loss, the Mets’ locker room echoes with the shouts from the resumption of a raucous, season-long dominoes tournament—a scene and a mood you’ll never see in the oppressively serious Yankees’ locker room, win or lose. “We don’t know each other 100 percent yet,” Martinez says. “But there’s great harmony.”
Harmony is easy when you’re in first place. Maintaining the vibe will grow tougher as October approaches. There are whimsical Dominicans, sarcastic African-Americans, an implacable Japanese, goofball white guys, and taciturn white guys on the roster. The best reason for hope, though, is that the Mets are assuming the temperament of a single outwardly tranquilo, internally complex, metronome-steady Puerto Rican.
It is one hour before the first pitch and four days before Mother’s Day. David Wright and Carlos Delgado are in the Mets’ dugout, awaiting their turn in the batting cage. Wright, 23, is bursting with puppyish energy. He never stops moving. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other. He flips his batting helmet from hand to hand. He wipes his face on his uniform sleeves. He taps his bat against the toes of his sneakers. He bounces up the dugout steps to wave to fans, then hops back down.
“There’s that charity thing on Sunday, for Mother’s Day and breast cancer!” Wright says to Delgado. “They’re gonna get us pink bats for the game! You gonna use one?”
Delgado is built like a vertical cinder block with legs. Even sitting down, as he is now, he’s a formidable presence. At 33, he has dozens of gray flecks in his sharply trimmed goatee. He is dark-skinned with a level, unwavering gaze. But Delgado’s solidity is more than cosmetic. He laughs as hard as anyone, but Delgado oozes seriousness of purpose. After every at-bat, he returns to the dugout and charts each pitch he saw in a notebook. “Sure, I’ll use the pink bat,” Delgado says quietly.
“Even if it’s a lousy bat?” Wright chirps.
“Sure,” Delgado replies, then ponders and calculates. “But maybe not for more than one at-bat.” Pause. “Sunday,” he says. “Milwaukee. Who’s pitching?”
Guys talk more about the game, says Willie Randolph. “That’s because of Carlos. He’s the thinking man’s ballplayer.”
Wright shrugs and stretches his legs.
“They’ve got Capuano going tonight. Which means Hendrickson tomorrow. So we should get Davis Sunday.” He is, of course, correct about the Milwaukee pitching rotation, and when Mother’s Day rolls around, Wright and Delgado use their good-cause lumber the entire game, collecting one hit apiece, though the Mets lose, 6-5.
In 2005, with the gifted Wright and Reyes playing their first full seasons, the Mets won twelve more games than they did the previous year and stayed in the playoff hunt until an ugly September losing streak. Omar Minaya, in his second winter as general manager, fortified the bullpen by acquiring Duaner Sanchez and refusing to parole Aaron Heilman. He added major talents in three key roles: first-baseman (Delgado), closer (the redneck lefty Wagner), and catcher (the sly, fiery Lo Duca). Yet Minaya and manager Willie Randolph were also intent on filling a leadership void. Mike Piazza was the face of the Mets for eight seasons and a terrific hitter for most of that time, but he was more interested in being laid-back than being The Man; no Mets official tried to stop Piazza from signing a free-agent deal with San Diego. That left center-fielder Carlos Beltran as the highest-paid Met. But the shy, deeply religious Beltran is uncomfortable in the spotlight.
Minaya has all the same arcane, computerized OBPS and WHIP charts as his rivals. Yet he’s assembled the Mets as much by instinct as by spreadsheet. The 2006 team is a rebuke to both the spare-no-expense monsters (the Mets’ payroll is $93.5 million lower than the Yankees’) and the stat-head, chemistry-doesn’t-matter new wave of thinking. “We want great players,” Minaya says, “but we want them to be great character guys, too.”
The dynamics of baseball teams are intricate and shifting, so anointing one leader is silly, and the Mets are blessed with multiple bold personalities, including Martinez, Wagner, Lo Duca, and left-fielder Cliff Floyd. They added the 47-year-old Julio Franco because he’s not only a canny pinch hitter but also a revered dugout sage. “What’s special is everyone here is hungry, everyone’s on the same path,” Franco says. “The guys who I would have been worried about playing with are no longer here.”
Martinez is the most compelling personality and the Mets’ one indispensable player. But Delgado is the connective tissue. His arrival has relaxed his old pal Beltran and matured the endearingly spacey Reyes (Delgado has also choreographed an elbow-bumping post-homer dance routine with the 22-year-old shortstop). “There are some guys who carry the load, guys that lead the group,” Delgado says. “And most of the time, the media has it wrong. Because you don’t have to hit .300 to be that guy. I don’t get caught up with that bullshit, about what makes a great leader. Because if you have to ask, you just don’t know.”