Enter Omar. Besides his baseball acumen, the new general manager came with a narrative: The kid from Queens who’d grown up as a Mets fan was coming back to run the club. Even better, Minaya is Dominican—in a city with a surging Latino population, in a sport whose brightest young stars speak Spanish, in an industry where the executive ranks have always been 99 percent white. Suddenly, a franchise that had been humiliated on the field and dominated in the headlines by the Yankees had a charismatic leader, a man who immediately assumed one-name stature in the media: Omar.
Yet no one buys tickets to watch the general manager. “The Mets had become irrelevant in New York,” Minaya says. So he had to make fans and players—and especially their agents—take the Mets seriously again. An early notion centered on Sammy Sosa. Then Minaya had a better idea.
“Say hello to Omar.”
You might think Pedro Martinez has other things on his mind. He’s made it to the World Series for the first time in his glorious career, playing for a franchise that hasn’t won the baseball championship in nearly nine decades. In two days, Martinez is scheduled to make his first and possibly only World Series start, in a pivotal game.
But outside the Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park, Martinez spots Jay Horwitz, the longtime PR director for the Mets. When the 2004 season ends in a few days, Martinez will become the biggest name pitcher on the free-agent market. Perhaps Martinez just wants to send along greetings to Minaya, a fellow Dominican who’s recently taken on a high-profile new job in New York.
Months later, Minaya laughs as he recalls getting a phone call from Horwitz during the World Series—and getting the meaning from Pedro. “When you’re a free agent, that’s a pretty clear coded message: ‘Hey, keep me in mind,’ ” Minaya says. “The timing of it tells me, this isn’t Pedro being polite; this guy’s interested. Especially since Pedro told Jay, ‘Say hello to Omar,’ twice.”
Until late in November, though, Martinez insisted that his first choice was returning to the Red Sox. Minaya didn’t much care. If the door was open a crack, the Mets G.M. was barging in. First he worked on Fernando Cuza, Martinez’s agent, who also represents Vladimir Guerrero and had been burned by the indecisive Mets the previous winter. “Omar didn’t want me to hold that against him, that in the past the Mets put you through a big ordeal and then they’d come up short,” Cuza says.
Minaya can be a seductive salesman. Addressing reporters, he begins each answer by referring to the questioner’s first name, Ronald Reagan–style: “Well, Lee, our bullpen . . . ” In private conversation, the six-foot-tall Minaya leans forward, establishing an intimacy. He’s resolutely upbeat, flashing a broad smile, and instead of launching into monologues, he frequently stops and asks questions, appearing genuinely curious instead of slick.
All of Minaya’s skills got an early, crucial off-season test. Al Leiter was at the end of his contract. Besides being a crafty left-hander, Leiter had, over seven seasons with the Mets, been a high-profile promoter of local charities. At 39, with a recent history of arm problems, Leiter was on the downside of his pitching career. But he was also extremely close to the Wilpons. “I like the guy a lot and I like Lori, his wife, and my kids are friendly with his kids,” Jeff Wilpon says. In 2004, that friendship fueled stories that Leiter had a back-channel role in the management of the Mets. Both Leiter and Jeff Wilpon deny that the pitcher was calling any shots.
Now Minaya faced his first test: He wasn’t sure if he wanted to re-sign Leiter, but it wasn’t clear, despite promises, that he’d have the power to make the final decision. In November, Minaya offered Leiter a one-year, $8 million contract, but set a short deadline. Leiter, claiming to be insulted, began meeting with other teams. On Saturday, November 20, though, Leiter left a phone message for Minaya saying he was accepting the Mets’ offer. He’d blown Minaya’s deadline by a day, but wasn’t worried. Until Minaya still hadn’t responded by Monday afternoon.
The general manager had been busy explaining to the Wilpons why he wanted to cut Leiter loose. “It was difficult for me personally,” Jeff Wilpon says. “But Omar and the baseball guys made their decision based on the baseball facts. When that came down, I stood behind them. They wanted to go hard after Pedro. Omar was very firm in what he thought was the right thing to do.”