Los Mets

Photo: Carlos Serrao

Just west of Santo Domingo, past a dusty, fume-spewing industrial riot of quarries and chemical plants, down a series of progressively smaller one-lane, tree-shrouded washboard dirt roads traveled by as many oxen as cars, and hidden behind an eight-foot-high concrete wall painted tropical pink, is a pristine green jewel of a baseball field. This is the New York Mets Academy. Here, the Mets evaluate teenage Dominicans, signing the most promising for year-round training. Roosters mingle with the prospects.

Blue Mets jerseys hang loosely off the undernourished torsos of most of the players; they’re kids, many of them 16 or 17. Still, there are thrilling flashes of raw power and quickness. Today’s late-January workout, under clear blue skies in serene 80-degree air, has an extra intensity. The Mets’ new general manager, Omar Minaya; the team’s new manager, Willie Randolph; and one of its owners, Jeff Wilpon, are paying a rare visit. Hardly anyone speaks. Until:

“¡El está aquí!”
“¡Está aquí!”
“¡Pedro está aquí!”

Behind home plate, a guard toting a shotgun opens a gate in the pink wall. Outside, a dozen barefoot boys, some straddling beaten-up bicycles, others in ragged T-shirts, are standing in the entryway. The boys slowly step back, making way.

First comes a banana-yellow Ferrari. Then a black Mercedes sedan. Then a black Ford SUV. Another SUV. And at the rear, a Hummer H2, spotless and taxicab yellow.

Pedro Martinez climbs from the Hummer’s backseat and ambles toward the field. Minaya wraps Martinez in a hug. “Oh-mar Min-AYE-ya!” Martinez shouts. “The man in New York!”

His great brown equine eyes, the ones that stare so menacingly at opposing hitters, are bright and relaxed. There’s no hint of the famously eccentric, irascible right-hander who’s beaned hitters and battled with the media throughout his twelve years in the majors. Martinez lives in a walled compound several miles away from the Mets’ Dominican camp, and he’s come to work out for the first time since bolting the world champion Boston Red Sox four weeks earlier to sign a $53 million contract with the lowly Mets.

On the field, a 16-year-old starts crushing line drives. Minaya quickly and quietly tells an assistant to pull the boy, a shortstop, out of the cage. “That kid was unsigned,” Minaya says later. “He came today because of Pedro. I had to get him out of batting practice before everyone saw how good he was and word spread to some other team before we could get him under contract.”

Martinez disappears for a while, returning in sneakers and a different pair of shorts and T-shirt, this one with a Mets logo on the front and PLAYER OF THE WEEK on the back. After some stretching and running along the outfield fence, Martinez strolls toward the Hummer. The Mets prospects, who’ve been eating lunch in a small cafeteria, put down their food and walk outside, trying to act casual, as if they’re not studying Martinez’s every move. “I only brought the Ferrari,” Martinez says, “because Jeff wants to try driving it.”

Minaya wanted to make the Mets tougher on the field. But he was also desperate to get New York talking about the Mets again, so the general manager masterminded the long-shot, shockingly successful pursuit of Martinez. Now Minaya stands watching as Pedro climbs into the Hummer. His entourage slowly fills the other vehicles. Everyone else—Wilpon, Randolph, the young players—has come to a complete, mesmerized halt; the Mets owner and manager can’t pull out of the tiny parking lot until the Martinez motorcade leaves.

Minaya smiles; when he landed Martinez, he got the commotion he wanted. He’s injected a dreary franchise with electricity and hope. But Minaya’s eyes are squinting hard. Maybe it’s the sun. Or maybe he’s wondering where Pedro’s parade will lead the Mets.

In 2000, the Mets were National League champs. They lost to the Yankees in the World Series, yet there was optimism in Flushing. The team had made the playoffs two straight years; Mike Piazza was on his way to smacking more home runs than any catcher in major-league history; and an All-Star left-hander, Al Leiter, anchored the pitching rotation. But the Mets spent the next four years splintering faster than a corked bat, finishing last or next to last three times in four seasons.

Worse than becoming losers, though, was that the Mets became a bad joke. They spent $42 million on Mo Vaughn, a first-baseman who turned up grossly overweight, with crippling knee problems and a fondness for lap dances at Scores. After appearing in just 27 games in 2003, Vaughn went on the disabled list and never returned. Robbie Alomar, an All-Star second-baseman in Cleveland, arrived in Queens and forgot how to play. Team owner Fred Wilpon spent the 2004 season watching his 43-year-old son, Jeff, get savaged in the sports pages for supposedly meddling in the decisions of G.M. Jim Duquette. The proud Piazza, who through age and injury had become a liability at catcher, reluctantly shifted part-time to first base—and fielded like a man warding off bees while ice-skating. Art Howe, the manager hired to replace the volatile Bobby Valentine, was so stoic as to seem embalmed. Along the way, the Mets bungled negotiations for superstar free agents Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero.

Losing bred low-comedy tabloid headlines (PIAZZA: I’M NOT GAY). Attendance and ratings shriveled. In the sixties, the Mets were a cute bad team. Now they were just a boring bad team.

Handicapping the Yanks
Why the Red Sox shouldn’t get too confident.

Photo: Carlos Serrao

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.”

“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 becomeirrelevant,” says Minaya. Getting Pedro washis way of gettingthem 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.

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.”

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 beltranprocess 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.

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 couldinclude 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.

Handicapping the Yanks
Why the Red Sox shouldn’t get too confident.

Los Mets