This was how New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya spent last week: signed Carlos Beltran, baseball's preeminent free agent, in the early hours of Sunday, Jan. 9; dined at the White House on Monday night with President Bush and assorted baseball luminaries; introduced Beltran at a Shea Stadium press conference on Tuesday morning in a media extravaganza that rivaled, if not upstaged, the Yankees' introduction of their oversized bauble, lefty ace Randy Johnson, that afternoon; jetted to Florida with Beltran for a minicamp on Wednesday; introduced Beltran at another press conference on Thursday, this one in the centerfielder's native Puerto Rico, where Minaya and his front-office compatriots (Jeff Wilpon, Jim Duquette and Tony Bernazard--the Traveling BlackBerrys) also visited with free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado. As evidenced by his wooing of righthander Pedro Martinez over dinner in the Dominican Republic on Thanksgiving, Minaya, 46, is an aggressive G.M. who will literally get in your kitchen if he thinks it will foster the trust that leads you to sign with him.
The phrase resonating around New York last week was "the Latinization of the Mets." Refracted through the prism of ethnicity, the signings of Martinez and Beltran and the courting of Delgado by baseball's first Hispanic general manager support that characterization. Of course, viewed in more prosaic baseball terms, the Latinizing Mets have done nothing more than grab a wispy pitcher with Koufax-like numbers, buy a 27-year-old, five-tool player who was incandescent with the Houston Astros during the playoffs and pursue a slugging first baseman. To paraphrase an old New York expression, the ability to speak Spanish and a quarter will get you a cup of coffee. Speaking Spanish and guaranteeing a fourth year to Martinez and paying Beltran roughly $10 million more than anyone else would (and giving him a full no-trade clause) will get you players who initially considered the Mets a second or even a third option. "These negotiations were pretty much like any other club's," Minaya says. "Maybe one difference is that you don't see clubs picking themselves up and visiting players like we do. But finances are definitely first, and we are fortunate to have the finances in play. Only then is it a matter of how you get trust in place. Maybe the language you're able to communicate in helps get you some of that trust."
The Dominican-born Minaya, a former minor league outfielder in the Oakland and Seattle systems, is not shy about leveraging his ethnicity. If being Hispanic was once a roadblock to his hiring as a G.M.--"I was an assistant for six years and interviewed for six, eight jobs and never got one," Minaya says--it now appears to be an asset, one of increasing value given the growing number of Latin players in the majors. He might not be able to sell free agents on the Mets' recent history (an average of 91 losses over the past three seasons) or their standing relative to the Yankees (somewhere between a distant second and, to use Minaya's word, irrelevant), or their ballpark (Shawshank with box seats), but he can sell Latino players on New York's substantial Spanish-speaking fan base, the Mets' own diversity and, not least, himself.
Although Minaya cringes at the characterization of the Mets as Latinized, he does want his team to become the predominant baseball brand in the Caribbean. The four-year, $53 million deal given to Martinez, a sublime if shopworn six-inning pitcher, certainly served notice of those intentions. The impact was immediate: Minaya says the number of teenagers who subsequently asked for tryouts at the Mets' baseball academy in the Dominican Republic shot up so dramatically that the team had to turn players away. Beltran acknowledged last week that Martinez's signing had influenced his decision. Minaya is blunter. "Without Martinez," he says, "there is no Beltran."
At first glance Beltran's stats make the deal (a seven-year contract for a reported $119 million, though Minaya calculates the figure at $115 million) a virtual no-brainer: Besides playing a strong centerfield, the iconic position of New York baseball, the switch-hitter has had at least 100 RBIs and 100 runs in each of the past four seasons. But a favored tool of baseball's decimal crowd, OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage), suggests a more nuanced conclusion: Beltran, who seemed to grow into his power with 38 home runs last year, ranks just 57th among 2004 major leaguers in career OPS, below Ryan Klesko and Trot Nixon. Nor has the history of $100 million men been exactly sanguine. Of the first nine, four--Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Hampton--hardly have been cornerstone players. "We looked at that," Minaya says. "The difference is, Beltran is younger than those guys were when they signed. From an evaluation standpoint and character standpoint--his background, his family, a solid foundation--we didn't see any free agent next winter in his class."
Minaya really does pay attention, even though one underwhelmed G.M. calls him "the Mr. Magoo of baseball executives." There is also an anecdote in Michael Lewis's best seller Moneyball in which Oakland A's G.M. Billy Beane figuratively holds Minaya's hand on the phone while walking him through a potential three-way trade in 2002, explaining how Minaya, then the Montreal Expos' G.M., can wind up with an extra prospect from Oakland if he pushes the Red Sox to include a minor leaguer in a deal for outfielder Cliff Floyd. (Minaya says he hasn't read the book.) The passage was harsh considering that Minaya not only wound up adding Floyd (before trading him to Boston) but also swung a creative deal for righthander Bartolo Colon, helping the resource-starved Expos hang around in the National League wild-card race into July.
Montreal, where Minaya spent the last three seasons as G.M. after front-office stints with the Texas Rangers and the Mets, is a city that's more concerned with language than race, but it was inevitable that Minaya's roots would be a factor when he returned to New York last fall. His family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was eight, and he grew up in the Corona section of Queens, about 10 blocks from Shea. (He now lives in suburban New Jersey with wife Rachel and their two sons.) In his five seasons as Mets assistant G.M. he witnessed firsthand New York's lust for stars, which further motivated his pursuit of potential ratings winners who could become must-see TV on the Mets' regional sports network when it debuts next year.
Of course, the Mets being the Mets, there are still problems, such as last week when Mike Cameron expressed reservations about moving from center to right to accommodate Beltran. The middle relief is a cipher, Mike Piazza has to catch full time at 36, and the Yankees are still the Yankees. But at least there's a back-page buzz around the Mets again, a sense of hope for a franchise that pity forgot.
The Mets will be better ASAP. And via SAP.