More intriguing, though, is that Minaya envisions a new model for building a team that’s neither purely intuitive nor coldly rooted in on-base-percentage calculations. The Mets will still draft dozens of players, but they’ll increasingly deploy Minaya as a recruiter, almost in the mold of a college coach, particularly in Latin America. There, the amateur players aren’t subject to the major-league draft, so teams with big money and connections have a sizable advantage. This winter is a vivid example of how the approach can pay off at the bottom and top of the ladder: Minaya’s signing of Martinez attracted that 16-year-old Dominican shortstop who showed up at the Mets Academy because Pedro now wore blue and orange. And it also gave the Mets credibility with Carlos Beltran.
Teams had been lusting over the 27-year-old center-fielder, knowing his contract expired at the end of the 2004 season. Only the Yankees, though, appeared to have the wealth to meet Beltran’s asking price. “We went into the Beltran process saying, ‘We’re gonna be long shots here. This makes perfect sense that the Yankees will get this guy,’” Minaya says. “ ‘But let’s see where this road leads. At least we’re showing our fans that we care.’”
He and Bernazard called Beltran’s agent for 31 straight days. In early January, Minaya, becoming the Kissinger of general managers, flew to Puerto Rico with Fred Wilpon to visit Beltran at home. Minaya doesn’t ignore stats: When determining how long a contract to offer, Minaya studied breakdowns compiled by John Ricco that showed drop-offs in performance by age and contract length. One graph related to Bernie Williams, who signed a seven-year contract with the Yankees when he was 30. Williams’s health and stats went significantly south after he turned 34. The Mets drew the line at seven years—a contract that ends when Beltran is 34.
“We went into the beltran process saying, ‘We’re gonna be long shots here. But let’s see where this road leads.’”
“From day one, Omar has been a ‘we’ guy,” Ricco says. “Every time a managerial candidate came in, Omar walked him around and introduced him to the video guys, the accounting guys. By doing that, these guys now feel a part of it. You get a mind-set, especially with the Yankees across town—it’s not only that the Mets haven’t won, but our direct competitor is winning. It gets thrown in your face every day. The organization starts to get this defeatist attitude. You need to turn that around. Now the ticket guys are showing up every day saying, ‘I’m gonna sell because that creates revenue that allows us to make these moves.’”
The Mets signed Beltran to a $114 million deal only after the Astros and the Yankees passed, but Minaya doesn’t care about being the third choice. Not only does he have an All-Star center-fielder for the next seven years, but Beltran, at his introductory press conference, handed the team a new marketing slogan. “I’m proud to be a part of the new Mets,” Beltran said. “I call it the new Mets because this organization is going in the right direction, the direction of winning.” Soon even the Mets switchboard was answering the phone, “Thank you for calling the new Mets.”
It may be some time, however, before the old Mets are completely exorcised.
When the free-agent season began in November, Minaya wanted to quickly sign Carlos Delgado. The former Toronto Blue Jay would fill the Mets’ glaring needs for a first-baseman and a left-handed power hitter. Yet David Sloane, Delgado’s agent, insisted on waiting—until Beltran had signed somewhere and teams that had lost out turned their money toward Delgado, Minaya figured; until the Yankees, Delgado’s first choice, determined whether they could shed Jason Giambi for allegedly using steroids, Sloane says. By late January, the Yankees were still stuck with Giambi, and three other teams were chasing Delgado. As he paced the field in the Dominican Republic, Minaya kept punching numbers into his cell phone, arranging a meeting in Puerto Rico the next day with Sloane and Delgado.
The three-hour discussion at the San Juan Ritz-Carlton seemed to go well. But three days later, Delgado and Sloane were still taking their time, mulling offers from the Mets, Marlins, and Orioles. The Mets were about to stage their annual Winter Caravan, a somewhat corny old-school promotional event in which most of the team visits city schools, hospitals, and business offices to kick off the start of season-ticket sales. On a Sunday evening, during another conference call with Delgado’s agent, Wilpon demanded the first-baseman’s answer by the next day so as not to “interfere” with the Winter Caravan, Sloane says.
“I’m not stupid enough to believe they were serious,” Sloane says, still angry. “I knew what they were trying to do, which is why I told Carlos that when you’re confronted by a bully, you hit him in the mouth.” Sloane delivered his punch on ESPN, which suddenly ran a report saying the Mets had withdrawn from the Delgado sweepstakes. At midnight Sunday, a stunned Jeff Wilpon, watching TV at home, called Minaya, who spent Monday re-entering the hunt. To no avail: On Tuesday, Delgado signed with Florida. “I don’t think he ever really wanted to be a Met,” Wilpon says.
Perhaps not, though Sloane claims the Mets were “neck and neck” with the Marlins until the deadline was imposed. After starting the off-season by allowing Minaya free rein in the Leiter decision, Wilpon ended the winter as a large presence during the Delgado negotiations. “I encourage the ownership group to participate,” Minaya says. “If you’re the general manager, I believe you still have to run things by the owner. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” Wilpon may function as a valuable brake on Minaya’s sometimes impetuous enthusiasm, but the division of labor between the two men is still evolving.