He rose to become the Rangers’ head of pro scouting, and in 1997, the Mets’ new general manager, Steve Phillips, brought Minaya home to Queens. “For me, Omar wasn’t just a great scouting eye, he was my contrarian,” Phillips says. “You’d get plenty of conventional wisdom from other people, but Omar would make you think about weird ideas. But some of them I came around to.” In 1999, Minaya advocated bringing Rickey Henderson and Shawon Dunston to the Mets, modest moves that ended up paying large dividends. He also lobbied to trade for closer Armando Benitez, who turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing.
The baseball old-boy network gave Minaya’s off-the-field career a start partly because of his ethnicity; years later, ironically, his heritage worked against him. When Minaya was turned down for general-manager jobs, word circulated that he didn’t have “administrative skills.” So in 2002, he took a substantial gamble: He agreed to run the Montreal Expos, a team on the verge of extinction, with a budget capped at $40 million (this year, the Mets will spend more than $110 million on players). Minaya knew one benefit of taking the Expos job was that it allowed him to break the race barrier, becoming baseball’s first Latino general manager. He joined Montreal on the eve of spring training in 2002, and found that the Expos’ previous owner had left town with every coach, scouting report, and computer. “We had 72 hours to put a coaching staff, a medical staff, and clubhouse staff together,” he says. Yet Minaya’s creative deals would have had the Expos in the playoffs in 2003 if Major League Baseball hadn’t prevented him from calling up minor leaguers in September owing to “budgetary reasons.”
“That was the lowest point, by far,” Minaya says, showing a rare flash of anger. From Montreal, he kept in regular e-mail contact with Jeff Wilpon. Soon Minaya would have access to a vastly larger checkbook. But he’d still be just one link in a chain of command.
Holy metaphor, Batman: Hammers and drills smash and whine, carving new offices out of the cinder blocks above Shea Stadium’s home plate. Minaya works out of a cramped space the size of a minivan’s interior. “My new office, I’ll even get a window,” he says, shouting over the construction noise. “In Montreal—”
He stops short, glancing up at the man who’s stuck his head inside Minaya’s office. “Hello, Fred!” he says, greeting the Mets owner. “Okay!” Minaya says, rising, apologizing, and dashing out to follow Wilpon.
Minaya’s first big task with the Mets was hiring a manager to replace the fired Art Howe. Jeff Wilpon says he went out of his way to leave the search to Minaya. “We said we were gonna let Omar pick the manager, okay?” he says. “I didn’t even sit in on any of the interviews, until he said, ‘Listen, this is who we want.’ There was a lot of criticism last year that I was too involved, so it was very important for Omar to get out of the gate and do this one by himself.”
Like Minaya, longtime Yankees coach Willie Randolph had been through numerous interviews for head-man jobs; often he was brought in to be the token minority candidate. “When I spoke to Omar, I felt it was purely about the game and what I bring to the table,” says the Brooklyn-raised former All-Star second-baseman. “It wasn’t about all the ideals of what you have to be as a prerequisite to be a manager.” (Minaya has also hired his mentors Lambe and Johnson as scouts.)
While Minaya was in Montreal, general managers became media stars and a new trend in player evaluation caught fire. Partly this was because fans identify less and less with the multimillionaires on the field and more with a guy in an office assembling the team, a bond deepened by the spread of fantasy baseball leagues. General-manager hype also got a huge boost from Michael Lewis’s 2003 best-seller, Moneyball, a tale of the piecing together of the plucky, underbudget, overachieving Oakland A’s by their innovative, stat-crunching G.M., Billy Beane. Last October, Beane acolyte Theo Epstein helped the Red Sox shatter their 86-year curse.
Though Minaya, at 46, is of the same generation as Beane and other avatars of the G.M.-as-dispassionate-systems-analyst trend, he’s a throwback to baseball’s traditional, almost romantic player-evaluation methods. Minaya won’t dictate game strategy to Randolph, and he won’t draft players based on moneyball algorithms.
“I trust my eyes and my instincts and my experiences,” Minaya says. “I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded early on by a lot of pretty good young players. It brings me a lot of memory recall. When I see a kid, I think of an Ivan Rodriguez. I think of a Juan Gonzalez or a Sammy Sosa or a Kevin Brown.”