Management politics aren’t the only unsettled dynamic. Even with the splashy upgrades, the Mets are probably the fourth-best team in the National League East. David Wright is a budding star at third, but missing out on Delgado means the Mets will likely continue to struggle to score runs. The middle of the infield—gifted but brittle 21-year-old shortstop José Reyes and neophyte second-baseman Kaz Matsui—is a huge question mark. The bullpen lacks dependable middle relievers who can bail out the Mets’ older starting pitchers—a group that could include Martinez. He’s just 33, but his frame is lean and fragile; in his prime, Pedro used his whiplike arm to hurl pitches with pinpoint, artistic control as well as intimidating velocity. In the past few seasons, though, his fastball has slowed and he’s tired drastically after six innings.
And Minaya faces the delicate task of blending the old and new parts of the Mets both off the field and on. This winter, Minaya considered trading Piazza and tried to unload starting outfielders Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron but found no takers. Will the three veterans be motivated or disgruntled by the reminder of their disposability?
“I don’t think we can control success, but we can control effort,” says Minaya, who predicts a big season from Piazza if the 36-year-old catcher stays healthy. “The effort is there. As far as the results, you just don’t know.”
Theoretically, Minaya has time to succeed, thanks to a five-year contract. “All baseball organizations talk about building gradually,” says the general manager of a rival National League team. “But with the big-market clubs—Boston, Los Angeles, especially New York—there’s no time. The media, the fans, the owners want you to win now. That will be Omar’s biggest challenge, the lack of patience.”
The annual Baseball Writers Association of America gala is the Oscars of baseball-awards events: lots of highlights from the past year’s hits, plenty of windy acceptance speeches, and the presentation of the industry’s highest individual honors. Mercifully, the baseball version involves no dance numbers, though this January it did have Billy Crystal cracking wise to the $200-a-head crowd packed inside a ballroom at the Sixth Avenue Hilton. “Willie Randolph is going to the Mets from the Yankees,” Crystal says. “Before Omar got there, that was like going to bed with Pamela Anderson and waking up with Louie Anderson.”
Minaya’s moves deserve praise, but his image certainly hasn’t been hurt by his schmoozing with New York media and cultural types. Murray Chass, the Times baseball columnist, campaigned for Minaya’s promotion for years. Minaya is a consultant on an upcoming TV documentary about Latins in baseball; the director of Viva Baseball is PR giant Dan Klores.
“As New Yorkers,” Minaya says, “we have a great opportunity to have dialogue with people who are intelligent and have diverse opinions. That’s the beauty of our city, whether it’s baseball, political, social. It’s mentally energizing.”
Minaya was close to Jack Newfield, the crusading liberal journalist who died of cancer in December. “The day after I went to the funeral service, it stayed with me so bad,” Minaya says. “There was so much more this man could give. I felt vulnerable a little bit, because here I am coming to New York in this job, and Jack was the type of person you could go to for advice. I think we shared a lot of similar beliefs on issues, from baseball to boxing to politics.” When the baseball dinner ends, the tuxedoed Minaya heads straight for Pete Hamill. The writer had presented the final award, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ World Series victory. “As kids, we didn’t know from moral—we were Dodgers fans, and Jackie Robinson was a Dodger—so I hate to say this in some self-righteous way, because we only realized it later,” Hamill says. “But the Dodgers’ winning with Jackie Robinson was about something being right.”
Minaya talks about fielding a club that reflects the city’s racial diversity, but he isn’t assembling the Mets according to any affirmative-action program. And Mets fans would unite behind a bunch of players colored fuchsia—if they were winners. That part of the equation won’t play out until April, and June, and October. “From me, they’re gonna have 100 percent effort, every five days, if I can,” Martinez says, managing to sound humble and alarming at the same time. “I’m praying to God that I stay healthy all year and give them an opportunity every five days.”
But on a midwinter night, with spring training beginning soon, there’s joy in recognizing one of those great circularities only baseball provides. Hamill presented that award to two Dodgers from the 1955 club. One of them is Johnny Podres, who in his playing days invented a deadly, deceptive changeup. Years later, as a coach, Podres taught the special grip to a minor- league pitcher named Guy Conti. In 1991, Conti, as a Dodgers coach, taught it to a skinny 20-year-old Dominican who needed a complement to his blazing fastball. Back in November, Conti was hired to be the Mets’ new bullpen coach. Now he’s being reunited with the man who calls Conti his “white daddy”—Pedro Martinez.
Changeup, fastball; the old Dodgers, the new Mets; Podres, Pedro. To complete the connection, all Minaya’s Mets need to do is imitate the Dodgers who won the Series. They’ve spent enough years looking like the Dodgers who earned the nickname Bums.