Just west of Santo Domingo, past a dusty, fume-spewing industrial riot of quarries and chemical plants, down a series of progressively smaller one-lane, tree-shrouded washboard dirt roads traveled by as many oxen as cars, and hidden behind an eight-foot-high concrete wall painted tropical pink, is a pristine green jewel of a baseball field. This is the New York Mets Academy. Here, the Mets evaluate teenage Dominicans, signing the most promising for year-round training. Roosters mingle with the prospects.
Blue Mets jerseys hang loosely off the undernourished torsos of most of the players; they’re kids, many of them 16 or 17. Still, there are thrilling flashes of raw power and quickness. Today’s late-January workout, under clear blue skies in serene 80-degree air, has an extra intensity. The Mets’ new general manager, Omar Minaya; the team’s new manager, Willie Randolph; and one of its owners, Jeff Wilpon, are paying a rare visit. Hardly anyone speaks. Until:
“ˇEl está aquí!”
“ˇPedro está aquí!”
Behind home plate, a guard toting a shotgun opens a gate in the pink wall. Outside, a dozen barefoot boys, some straddling beaten-up bicycles, others in ragged T-shirts, are standing in the entryway. The boys slowly step back, making way.
First comes a banana-yellow Ferrari. Then a black Mercedes sedan. Then a black Ford SUV. Another SUV. And at the rear, a Hummer H2, spotless and taxicab yellow.
Pedro Martinez climbs from the Hummer’s backseat and ambles toward the field. Minaya wraps Martinez in a hug. “Oh-mar Min-AYE-ya!” Martinez shouts. “The man in New York!”
His great brown equine eyes, the ones that stare so menacingly at opposing hitters, are bright and relaxed. There’s no hint of the famously eccentric, irascible right-hander who’s beaned hitters and battled with the media throughout his twelve years in the majors. Martinez lives in a walled compound several miles away from the Mets’ Dominican camp, and he’s come to work out for the first time since bolting the world champion Boston Red Sox four weeks earlier to sign a $53 million contract with the lowly Mets.
On the field, a 16-year-old starts crushing line drives. Minaya quickly and quietly tells an assistant to pull the boy, a shortstop, out of the cage. “That kid was unsigned,” Minaya says later. “He came today because of Pedro. I had to get him out of batting practice before everyone saw how good he was and word spread to some other team before we could get him under contract.”
Martinez disappears for a while, returning in sneakers and a different pair of shorts and T-shirt, this one with a Mets logo on the front and PLAYER OF THE WEEK on the back. After some stretching and running along the outfield fence, Martinez strolls toward the Hummer. The Mets prospects, who’ve been eating lunch in a small cafeteria, put down their food and walk outside, trying to act casual, as if they’re not studying Martinez’s every move. “I only brought the Ferrari,” Martinez says, “because Jeff wants to try driving it.”
Minaya wanted to make the Mets tougher on the field. But he was also desperate to get New York talking about the Mets again, so the general manager masterminded the long-shot, shockingly successful pursuit of Martinez. Now Minaya stands watching as Pedro climbs into the Hummer. His entourage slowly fills the other vehicles. Everyone else—Wilpon, Randolph, the young players—has come to a complete, mesmerized halt; the Mets owner and manager can’t pull out of the tiny parking lot until the Martinez motorcade leaves.
Minaya smiles; when he landed Martinez, he got the commotion he wanted. He’s injected a dreary franchise with electricity and hope. But Minaya’s eyes are squinting hard. Maybe it’s the sun. Or maybe he’s wondering where Pedro’s parade will lead the Mets.
In 2000, the Mets were National League champs. They lost to the Yankees in the World Series, yet there was optimism in Flushing. The team had made the playoffs two straight years; Mike Piazza was on his way to smacking more home runs than any catcher in major-league history; and an All-Star left-hander, Al Leiter, anchored the pitching rotation. But the Mets spent the next four years splintering faster than a corked bat, finishing last or next to last three times in four seasons.
Worse than becoming losers, though, was that the Mets became a bad joke. They spent $42 million on Mo Vaughn, a first-baseman who turned up grossly overweight, with crippling knee problems and a fondness for lap dances at Scores. After appearing in just 27 games in 2003, Vaughn went on the disabled list and never returned. Robbie Alomar, an All-Star second-baseman in Cleveland, arrived in Queens and forgot how to play. Team owner Fred Wilpon spent the 2004 season watching his 43-year-old son, Jeff, get savaged in the sports pages for supposedly meddling in the decisions of G.M. Jim Duquette. The proud Piazza, who through age and injury had become a liability at catcher, reluctantly shifted part-time to first base—and fielded like a man warding off bees while ice-skating. Art Howe, the manager hired to replace the volatile Bobby Valentine, was so stoic as to seem embalmed. Along the way, the Mets bungled negotiations for superstar free agents Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero.
Losing bred low-comedy tabloid headlines (PIAZZA: I’M NOT GAY). Attendance and ratings shriveled. In the sixties, the Mets were a cute bad team. Now they were just a boring bad team.