“If we were gonna pay Al $8 million, why can’t we go out and get the best guy for another $4 million more?” Minaya says, repeating the reasoning he used to sell the Wilpons on chasing Martinez. “A guy who’s not only going to impact your team, a Hall of Fame guy, but a guy who’s gonna impact the brand. And the key was, Pedro wanted to come here.” Minaya elides the fact that Leiter’s contract would have been for a single season and Martinez’s ended up being for four years, a difference of a mere $45 million.
Leiter was furious, but Minaya was on his way to Santo Domingo. He had a lunch date with Pedro Martinez. “When you grow up in New York, you go to it,” Minaya says. “You don’t expect it to come to you. Maybe some of the tools we learn as New Yorkers—I don’t know if the word is aggressive, but be proactive.”
“It showed me a lot that he came here,” says Martinez, who picked up the tab. “Because it wasn’t just a normal day. It was Thanksgiving Day, and when you leave your family, on such a special day, to come visit somebody, you must be interested, you must be willing to work and willing to do something. A lot of the time, veteran players especially, like me, we love that. We love to share a little bit of respect with whoever you’re negotiating with.”
Minaya was offering Martinez more than $50 million and, eventually, a longer contract than the Red Sox. “It’s always about money,” Minaya says. But he wisely angled his appeal toward Pedro’s ego. Come to New York and you can be the savior of a franchise. Come to the Mets and impart your wisdom to our other pitchers. “Omar said, ‘I’m after you. And I want you to know that. I would like to start a new horizon with you, and a new team,’” Martinez says. “Omar said, ‘All I need is somebody that will help Tommy [Glavine] a little bit more.’”
The notion of Martinez as a Mets elder statesman was an inspired bit of salesmanship, especially since the image contrasts so severely with the picture of Pedro in Boston. This was the Red Sox pitcher who covered his locker in police tape and scrawled DO NOT ENTER. BAD MOOD to ward off reporters. Though the Boston press inflated some of Martinez’s weirdness, no hype was necessary to dramatize his worst moment: the playoff game in 2003 when Martinez, frustrated at having blown a 2-0 lead, flung a fastball at the head of Yankees outfielder Karim Garcia. In the subsequent brawl, Martinez shoved the charging 72-year-old Yankees coach Don Zimmer to the ground.
“The Mets had become irrelevant,” says Minaya. Getting Pedro was his way of getting them taken seriously.
Minaya isn’t condoning beanballs or elder abuse, but he knows the Mets badly need Martinez’s nastiness; the past few years, they’ve been passive losers. Yet even though Martinez was charmed by Minaya’s blandishments, the pitcher continued to wait for the Red Sox. In mid-December, as Minaya flew to Anaheim for baseball’s annual winter meetings, he was pushing to bring the Martinez chase to a conclusion. After the Mets’ negotiating team landed in California, the ride got bumpier.
“On Saturday, reports came out on ESPN saying Pedro is signing with the Red Sox that night,” says John Ricco, an assistant G.M. “This is, like, ten minutes after we just met with him and felt we had a great meeting.” Minaya and his chief assistant, Tony Bernazard, kept talking to Cuza, and late Sunday afternoon came the breakthrough: The Mets would stretch their offer from three to four guaranteed years. Down in the Dominican, Pedro strolled out of his house, gazed up at the stars and thought hard, then called California. He’d be the Mets’ new ace.
The Shea Stadium press conference to officially announce the signing was a zoo. The Post hired a midget, mocking Martinez’s Boston friendship with 28-inch-tall Nelson de la Rosa. When the moment came for Martinez to pose with Minaya, photographers screamed that their view was blocked by a large wooden podium. After a long few seconds of indecision, the endearingly clumsy Horwitz tried to wrestle the podium off the stage. And failed. Finally, two burly technicians arrived.
“The Mets,” said a photographer, “could screw up a free lunch.”
Minaya was born in valverde, a small town in the hills on the north side of the D.R., to a laborer dad and a schoolteacher mom. His father had spent two years in jail for opposing Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, and in 1967, the family moved to Queens. Omar grew up in Corona and was the star catcher on good Newtown High School teams, batting .489 as a senior. “I put him as what he turned out to be, an organizational player,” says Bryan Lambe, then a scout for the Detroit Tigers. “Put it this way: If you have a minor-league club, how many prospects you really think you have on that a club? Three, four. But you need 25 guys to play.”
Drafted by Oakland, Minaya played rookie ball in Bend, Oregon, with future big-leaguers Harold Reynolds and Dave Valle. He was homesick—“We had eight guys living in one apartment, and we only had one mattress. We took turns, two guys sleeping at a time; it was a king-size mattress, thank God”—but his fatal baseball problem was that he couldn’t hit pro pitching.
Minaya’s real gift was for connections. As a high-school kid, he’d met Ralph DiLullo, a legendary old-time scout, one of the last bird dogs to wear a tie and a straw fedora to ball games. After Minaya washed out of the minors in two years, DiLullo became his employment agency, calling Lambe, who had a part-time opening. Lambe told Minaya not to take the job—with his Dominican heritage and his bilingual fluency, Minaya could do better, Lambe believed. Lambe called Sandy Johnson, a friend who’d just taken over the Texas Rangers’ scouting system. “I hired him on the spot,” Johnson says. “You could see right away he was a people person, very aggressive, very hungry, had a lot of desire to stay in the game.”
The Rangers dispatched Minaya to the Dominican Republic and bought him a twenty-year-old Jeep to crisscross the island. One 1985 signing made two careers. In sports-page mythology, Minaya is The Man Who Discovered Sammy Sosa. The reality isn’t so simple. Minaya had been tipped to Sosa by Amado Dinzey, one of Minaya’s assistants, and Sosa had auditioned for the Yankees and Blue Jays. When Toronto passed, Minaya pounced. When Sosa started slugging homers for the Cubs, it sealed Minaya’s reputation as a genius for spotting raw talent.