Joy Ride

Fueled by putdowns and cutups, the slaphappy Mets-a franchise whose revival is way ahead of schedule-are dominating the National League
July 16, 2006

Through the doorsto the New York Mets' clubhouse enter the young and the ancient, the slow andthe swift, the homegrown and the mercenary, the charitable and the thrifty, thebeautiful and (by official team balloting) the ugly, but never, for goodness'sake, the easily insulted. ¶ "Welcome," catcher Paul Lo Duca says,"to Rip City, where we get on each other all the time." ¶ True to theirhome city's heritage, the Mets are a melting pot of cultures, customs,languages and, yes, occasional off-color salutations that somehow works. Backedby owner Fred Wilpon's money, shaped by a childhood dream of general managerOmar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic and reared in Queens, andably guided by second-year manager Willie Randolph, the Mets are the raresports team that has found instant success after a nearly complete overhaul. ¶Of the 29 players on the active roster and disabled list at week's end, 16joined the major league club since the end of last season. Only eight playedfor the Mets before Minaya was named G.M. 22 months ago. And yet, in averitable New York minute, the Mets have become the best team (53-36 throughSunday) in the weakest league in years, with by far the biggest lead inbaseball (12 games in the otherwise loser-filled NL East) and the thickestskins this side of a Friars' Club roast.

"Look at thepersonalities they brought in here," says closer Billy Wagner, an 11-yearveteran who signed as a free agent last winter. "We're all extroverts. Me,Lo Duca, [Carlos] Delgado, Pedro [Martinez].... It's not like guys came hereand were afraid to say something. I think that's why we clicked right away.This is the best clubhouse I've ever been involved in. And the secret is thatguys can say anything they want to anyone at any time."

That's not to saythat communication is always clear. There was the time, for instance, whenbackup catcher Ramon Castro ("the class clown," as Lo Duca calls him)visited Wagner on the mound in a crucial situation against the Blue Jays.

"How about acoo-ba here?" is what Wagner, born in the rural mountains of Virginia,heard his Puerto Rican catcher say.

"A what?"Wagner asked.

"Coo-ba,"Castro said.

"Curveball?" Wagner finally deciphered. "I don't have acurveball!"

"Well,O.K.," Castro said. "We're not throwing that anyway."

Castro is evenbetter known for his portrayal of ample-bottomed lefthander Darren Oliver, avaudevillian impersonation that he performs on charter flights-with the help oftwo airline pillows stuffed into the seat of his pants.

Not even Martinez,the three-time Cy Young winner, is immune from catching grief. After Martinezoverslept for a game in Toronto this year, he was greeted in the clubhouse byWagner, who took one look at Martinez's garish-colored outfit and bellowed,"I sure hope you're not late because you were out shopping forthat."

Another timeMartinez returned to his locker after batting practice to find his wildlystyled loafers strung up from his locker, a team custom to mock fashionstatements that invite ridicule.

"A lot of timesyou'll see somebody's shirt hanging in the middle of the clubhouse,"Martinez says. "Cliff [Floyd], his stuff seems to be hanging alot."

Floyd also hasdrawn attention for the music that accompanies each of his at bats at home: thetheme to Sanford and Son. The tune was picked by Lo Duca, who thought itapropos for the oft-hobbled leftfielder.

And then there'sWagner, who still hasn't lived down the time he asked the clubhouse caterer ifhe could have a gallon of milk to take home to Greenwich, Conn.

"You're making$10 million a year, and you won't spring for a gallon of milk on the wayhome?" Lo Duca told Wagner. "Reach into that wallet once in a while,will ya?"

When the Mets arerolling, as they have been for most of the season, they seem to have it all:pitching (they were second in the league in ERA at week's end), hitting (firstin runs), speed (first in steals), power (second in homers) and thatimmeasurable but unmistakable element called chemistry, which develops when youcan, with only the finest intentions, refer to your teammates as Visine, Mosesand Captain Red Ass.

So charmed are theMets that they entered the All-Star break 20-8 (.714) in one-run games-only sixteams in the post-1961 expansion era have played better than .700 ball inone-run games over a full season-and had flourished despite having to use 11starting pitchers in their first 88 games.

"Theirversatility is very impressive," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said last weekas the Mets took three of four games from Pittsburgh. "They haveswitch-hitters who hit equally well from both sides; they have guys on thebench who complement one another, which makes it hard to match up with themlate in the game; and they can run and pitch. They can win games in a lot ofdifferent ways."

If the Mets keepthis up, they will break or challenge franchise records for runs, home runs,stolen bases and opponent strikeouts while accelerating Minaya's time line fora pennant. Minaya has said that his goal for 2005 was to restore thefranchise's image-Delgado, a free agent that off-season, chose to sign with theMarlins in January '05 rather than the Mets because he deemed Florida thebetter team-and for 2006 was to contend for a playoff spot. With such a largelead in the division, however, Minaya's revamped agenda is to fortify hisrotation to carry the Mets through three rounds of playoff series. Unless theteam's '05 first-round draft pick, righthander Mike Pelfrey, who allowed threeruns in five innings to win his big league debut last Saturday, sticks,Martinez, 34 and with a sore hip (he was placed on the 15-day disabled listlast Thursday, retroactive to June 29), would be their youngest postseasonstarter, fronting Tom Glavine, 40, Orlando Hernandez, 36, and Steve Trachsel,35. In a humorous but telling moment last week Glavine stopped short when hestepped into the trainer's room to find a deli-counter-length queue. "Oh,my goodness," Glavine said, "what number are we serving in thewhirlpool, number 9?"

"When we went9-1 on the road trip [to Los Angeles, Arizona and Philadelphia in June], that'swhen I knew we had a good team," Minaya says. "But we still can bebetter. It's all about pitching, pitching, pitching. That's what I'm lookingfor every day."

Says a rivalNational League G.M., "They were the best team we've seen this year. Butlike everybody else, there are questions about their pitching. Everyone'sscrambling for starting pitching, and it's everyone's dilemma that there maynot be anything out there better than what you already have."

With the Marlinskeeping Dontrelle Willis off the market, Minaya's best option for obtaining apitcher who would start one of the first three games of a postseason serieswould seem to be Barry Zito, a potential free agent at season's end whomOakland would consider trading only in a deal that keeps the A's competitivethis year. That could mean that Minaya would have to give up 21-year-oldLastings Milledge, an athletic, aggressive outfielder who's precisely the kindof player who fits Minaya's vision of how the Mets should play the game.

"I grew up afan of National League baseball and teams like the Dodgers, Pirates andGiants," Minaya says, recalling some of the early adapters of integration."I believe in a balance of speed, power and pitching, like the way thoseteams played ball. I always wanted a team like that. The Mets never were one ofthose organizations. Traditionally they relied on pitching in a big ballpark. Ialways wanted more athleticism, and from Day One that's what I've tried to dohere."

Minaya inheritedtwo cornerstone players to help implement his blueprint: shortstop Jose Reyesand third baseman David Wright, both 23, who this week were scheduled to becomethe third-youngest pair of teammates to start an All-Star Game (trailing onlyBobby Doerr and Ted Williams of the 1941 Red Sox and Dean Chance and JimFregosi of the 1964 Angels). Mr. Wright, as his many admirers refer to him, isfourth in the league in RBIs, with 74, though his matinee looks and knack forclutch hitting earn him no slack in the clubhouse.

"He'sVisine," Wagner says. "You know, eyewash. One time he dove to catch abunt he could have caught standing up. We all went like this...." Wagnerrubs a finger along his eye, as if wiping away a tear.

"Wagner saidthat?" Wright says. "He talks a lot for a guy from the woods. You can'tget in a word with that guy."

Reyes, meanwhile,is teaching Wright Spanish and, with his slashing hitting style and derring-doas a base runner, is schooling the rest of the league in how to disruptopponents. "The best feeling of all," says Reyes, smiling, "issliding headfirst into third base with a triple." (He leads the majors with12.) So dangerous with his legs is Reyes that he is on pace to join MVPrunner-up Lenny Dykstra of the 1993 Phillies as the only players since 1937 toscore more than 140 runs without hitting 20 home runs.

"Hisimprovement since last year is mind-boggling," Tracy says of Reyes, whoseon-base percentage has risen from .300 in 2005 to .357 in '06. "The Metsare a good team, but when he's on base they're a different team. He takes themto another level."

Reyes hasbenefited from the counsel of 47-year-old backup first baseman Julio Franco,who was the first player Minaya tried to sign after being named Mets G.M.Minaya could not lure Franco away from Atlanta then, but he succeeded lastwinter by giving him a two-year contract.

"As long asI'm running a team, there are two guys who will always have a job with me:Rickey Henderson [a Mets special instructor] and Julio Franco," Minayasays. "That's how much I think of [Franco] as a person. He's like an extracoach on the staff. I knew he was as important to our chemistry asanybody."

Says Wright of theman who has spent some of his 29 pro seasons in Japan, South Korea and Mexicoand has 2,546 major league hits, "He's talked to Jose and me about thingslike, 'If I only knew back then when I was young some of what I know now, I'dbe looking at 3,000 hits.'" Adds Lo Duca, "That's Moses. He'sall-knowing. Wisdom and knowledge, that's what he brings. He hasn't lost anargument yet."

For his part, LoDuca seems ever in search of an argument, whether getting in the grill of hispitchers when they lose focus, spiking the baseball in a fit of anger at thefeet of umpire Angel Hernandez or barking at Yankees third baseman AlexRodriguez for styling too much after hitting a home run. "That's justme," says Lo Duca, whom Wagner refers to as Captain Red Ass. "Must bethe Italian blood."

Minaya wound upwith Lo Duca and Delgado, his cleanup hitter and first baseman, only afterFlorida's decision last winter to slash its payroll. Minaya knew a year agothat he needed a middle-of-the-order hitter, but he was unsure where to turnafter a three-team midseason deal to get Manny Ramirez from Boston fell throughwhen Tampa Bay backed out. (Minaya was prepared to trade Milledge in thatdeal.) "Power hitters like that just don't come on the market," Minayasays of Ramirez.

Then, on the finalday of the general managers' meetings last November in Palm Springs, MarlinsG.M. Larry Beinfest told Minaya, "We're prepared to talk about everybodyexcept Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis." Says Minaya, "That startedthe ball rolling for the 2006 team." Delgado was the perfect fit: a premierpower hitter, a close friend of quiet Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran, whostruggled in 2005 trying to be the Mets' franchise player, and a charitablesoul whom Minaya calls "a better person than he is a player." The Metsgave up three young players to get Delgado on Nov. 24, then two weeks latersent another pair of prospects to the Marlins to get Lo Duca.

"I hadthree-year offers out to [free-agent catchers] Ramon Hernandez and BengieMolina," Minaya says. "Then Lo Duca popped up. I always feel like whenyou have a bird in hand, you take the bird."

In between thosetrades Minaya signed Wagner to a four-year, $43 million contract, fulfilling apromise he had made to Martinez and Glavine. "I told them, 'At this stagein your careers, I promise you I will do everything I can to make sure you getthe wins that are coming to you,'" Minaya says. "We went after B.J.Ryan and Wagner. I give the Blue Jays credit. They went out aggressive on Ryan,giving him five years right away. We needed Wagner after that."

Wagner did notbecome fully vested as a Met until May 21, when he saved a game against theYankees the day after blowing a four-run lead against the crosstown rivals.Minaya, understanding that Wagner had to pass such a trial by fire, told him inthe clubhouse after that save, "Congratulations. You just won us thepennant."

Minaya's blueprinthas worked as well on the field as it promised to on paper. Martinez andGlavine have 18 total wins, half of which have been saved by Wagner. Beltran,buoyed by the presence of Delgado, is one of a franchise-record six All-Stars,sports a career-high .995 OPS and was recently named one of People magazine's100 most beautiful people-a designation that inspired a teamwide vote todetermine the ugliest Met. (Castro, Franco and Eli Marrero tied for the honor."Finishing in a very strong second place was David Wright," says LoDuca.) Wright and Reyes, insulated by veteran stars, have blossomed without theadded burden of being team leaders. Franco leads the league in pinch hits andstories told.

"Cleveland,that was the worst for team chemistry," Franco says. "We'd get 80,000[fans] on Opening Day and 2,000 after that. By the All-Star break we'd be 20games out, and guys were worried only about their stats, not winning. Now inMexico.... "

Still, Minaya isnot satisfied. Sitting over a cup of Navy-bean soup last week at a New Jerseydiner, the towers of the George Washington Bridge looming through the windowbehind him, Minaya, expert though he may be on the lay of this land, wore acountenance drawn more from concern than confidence. He wants his team toimprove on grinding out at bats, the way he watched the Red Sox do whilesweeping a three-game series from his club late last month. (The Mets went on a3-6 slide against AL East powers Toronto, Boston and New York.) He knows he mayneed another pitcher. The architecture of these new Mets, he knows, is a workin progress. The concrete is still wet.

"What is NewYork Mets-style baseball?" asks Minaya. "That's what we're working on:to have something in place that lasts going forward. So that when you think ofthe New York Mets, you think of players who can take the extra base or take youdeep. Power. Speed. Athleticism. We're getting there."


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PHOTOPhotograph by Kathy Willens/APFUN IN FLUSHING With plenty of clutch hitting-- such as this walk-off homer by Beltran (center)--the Mets opened up a 12-game lead in the NL East. TWO PHOTOSDAVID BERGMAN; ERIK S. LESSER/EPA (FRANCO) THEYOUNG And the ANCIENT
David Wright / Julio Franco
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONTHE CATALYST An opposing manager says that Reyes, who leads the majors in triples, has made "mind-boggling" improvement. TWO PHOTOS THE SLOWAnd the SWIFT
Cliff Floyd / Jose Reyes
PHOTODAVID BERGMAN THE INSTIGATOR On a team with no shortage of nicknames, the fiery Lo Duca has earned the moniker Captain Red Ass. TWO PHOTOS DAMIAN STROHMEYER (PELFREY, MARTINEZ) THEHOMEGROWN And the MERCENARY
Mike Pelfrey / Pedro Martinez
PHOTOJOHN IACONO THE LINCHPIN Martinez's signing gave the Mets an ace and signaled that the franchise should be taken seriously. TWO PHOTOSRAFAEL SUANES/WIREIMAGE.COM (BELTRAN); MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS (CASTRO) THEBEAUTIFUL And the UGLY
Carlos Beltran / Ramon Castro
Carlos Delgado / Billy Wagner