A Life In Baseball
- | From Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007
The tension at Shea Stadium was palpable. It was the bottom of the ninth in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals and the capacity crowd was on its feet, tempting the baseball gods with rally caps in hopes of conjuring another Mets miracle. In the general manager's box on the press level, Omar Minaya watched with bated breath as Carlos Beltran dug in with the Mets trailing 3-1, the bases loaded and two strikes against him. In his office humidor, cigars were ready to be clipped, lit and enjoyed in a Champagne-soaked locker room celebration. Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright came to his set. He wheeled, dealed and delivered a knee-buckling curveball that Beltran took for called strike three. The season was over for the Mets and their dreams of a pennant and World Series appearance put on hold. Minaya's championship cigar would have to wait. The 2007 season was five short months away and there was work to be done.
It isn't easy to please baseball fans in New York. They have high expectations for winning, low tolerance for losing and short memories. They love you one minute and want to burn you in effigy the next. Like it or not, that's the way it is, whether you're a player, manager or general manager such as Omar Minaya.
"This is a pressure cooker job," says Minaya, puffing casually on an Arturo Fuente Don Carlos Robusto during a recent off day at Shea. "The truth of the matter is, the pressure is on you only as much as you allow it to be."
As a general manager, the pressure lies in building a baseball team that passionate New York fans are going to embrace as their own. It lies in building a team with talent and style, and it lies in building a team that is going to reach its ultimate goal: winning the World Series. So far Minaya is two out of three. The Mets have become an exciting and entertaining team under Minaya's watch, with stars like Beltran, Pedro Martinez, David Wright, John Maine and Jose Reyes giving fans what they want. It's only the World Series that has eluded Minaya and the Mets.
Even with the pressures to win, Minaya is down-to-earth, exuding extreme confidence and an attitude that makes you believe he would be successful in any profession, not just as a baseball executive. "You have to believe in yourself and in your ability," he says matter-of-factly. "You have to be prepared, ahead of the curve, and you have to anticipate what's going on around you. You have to realize that you're going to make mistakes, so you can't be afraid to make them. When you do make them, you admit them and move on.
To hear Minaya speak, one might get the impression that being a general manager isn't as hard as it's sometimes made out to be, or that any armchair analyst or fantasy baseball fanatic could handle the reins of a major league franchise. It isn't quite so simple and Minaya knows that. His secret, which isn't really a secret at all, is simple. "You have to have balance in your personal life," he says. "I have my priorities in place so that my family comes first. Because of that, I feel that everything else will fall in place."
Balance to Minaya means spending as much time as he can with his wife, Rachel, and his two sons, Teddy and Justin. It means listening to Cuban son music and Brazilian jazz, with a regular fix of Merle Haggard and Bob Dylan. It's watching basketball and boxing, playing dominoes and working out to stay fit.
It also means enjoying the finer things in life and appreciating the pleasures of a good meal, a quality bottle of wine and a handmade premium cigar. "Arturo Fuente is the main brand I like to smoke," he says, "especially a Don Carlos or a Hemingway. I really like La Aurora, too, and a small Dominican brand called Patria. It's mild, but nice." Minaya is also fond of Cuban cigars, but "there's just something about Dominican leaf" that keeps him coming back.
"I like the routine of smoking a cigar and the slow burn," he says. "I like the relaxation it brings." At his home in New Jersey, Minaya smokes on his poolside deck with his wife, who also enjoys cigars, and a bottle of wine. In Miami, where he often travels, he can be found at Aromas of Havana smoking over a game of dominoes, and when he's in his native Dominican Republic, "there's nothing better," he says, "than late at night under a palm tree, sitting in a rocking chair enjoying an ice-cold Presidente beer and a cigar."
It's no surprise that Minaya is passionate about cigars, or baseball, considering he hails from a country that produces some of the best of both. He was born in 1958 in the tobacco region of Cibao, in the city of Mao, in the hillside province of Valverde, not far from Santiago. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a laborer, who immigrated to New York City in 1965 to better support his family.
Two years later, his family followed him to Corona, Queens, and from the moment Omar Minaya arrived, sports—pick-up basketball games in the neighborhood schoolyard, touch football games in Corona Park, and plenty of stickball—became a central part of his life. Sports provided friendships and, just as important for a kid growing up on the streets of New York, a means of staying out of trouble.
But of all the sports he loved to play, it was baseball that gave Minaya the fever. It started in Little League when he played in the shadow of Shea Stadium, emulating his baseball heroes such as Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Juan Marichal, but it wasn't until Minaya reached Newton High School in Elmhurst, Queens, that his dream of becoming a professional baseball player seemed attainable. "I had developed physically by the time I was a freshman," Minaya remembers, "and it was then that I started to separate myself from the group in terms of ability. By my junior year, I realized that I had a chance to be a player."
During his senior year, with scouts already showing an interest, Minaya excelled. As a catcher, he batted .489 and was awarded all-city and all-state honors, achievements that would get him elected to Newton High's Hall of Fame this past April. For the schoolboy standout, the questions then became whether he would be drafted and signed or attend college. The answer came during the 1978 amateur entry draft when the Oakland Athletics selected him in the 14th round, 342nd overall. "It was a big deal for me," Minaya recalls. "I was chasing a dream."
After graduating from high school, Minaya reported to Bend, Oregon, to play outfield with the Bend Timber Hawks, a short-season A-ball team in the Northwest League. "Coming from New York, it was a different world," Minaya says. As much as he missed New York, he did not welcome his release during the 1979 spring training after one year with the organization. "It was a traumatic experience for a 20-year-old kid who had set his sights and dreams on being a major leaguer," he says. "It was very difficult to accept. You feel like a failure."
Following his release, Minaya returned to New York, working odd jobs. But soon the Seattle Mariners picked up the young outfielder. After a spell in Wisconsin with the Wausau Timbers of the Midwest League, Minaya was again released. This time the writing was on the wall. "When I was released from Seattle," Minaya recalls, "something in the back of my mind told me that you just have to accept the fact that you're just not good enough. That it just wasn't meant to be."
Minaya's playing career wasn't over yet, however. Shortly after his release, an offer came to play in Italy's professional league. Before he knew it, Minaya was living in the seaside Tuscan town of Castiglione della Pescaia, practicing during the week and playing games on weekends. As well as prolonging his career, Minaya found the cultural experience unforgettable. "Those were wonderful years for me," he says. "I was able to learn about a different culture, about food and wine, and I was able to open my mind to a lot of different opinions and situations."
Today, Minaya's experience in Italy holds special relevance considering the globalization of baseball. "I'm a firm believer that God has a plan for all of us," Minaya reflects, "and I think He was just setting things up so I could be where I am today. He prepared the table. If you're in baseball today—or in any sort of leadership position—you have to have a global vision. That experience in Europe really helped me in what became my baseball career later on."
But that "baseball career later on" almost didn't happen. After two years in Italy, Minaya didn't feel the same about playing the game. He was 25 years old and said to himself, "It's time to go out there and do something besides play baseball." But what was that? "I was geared toward the business world, sales and making money," he says, "but I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I was willing to experiment with anything. I just wanted to be creative and I wanted to be something different."
But leaving baseball wasn't easy for a man who believes that Dominicans are born with the game in their blood. Not long after he arrived back in New York, Minaya received a phone call from Ralph DiLullo, the scout who had signed him to his minor-league contract with the Athletics, asking him if he was interested in coaching and scouting. For Minaya, coaching was a no-brainer, but scouting? That was for old men. Still, DiLullo was persistent, convincing Minaya that he had the skills to be a successful scout. "I think he saw me as a person who was going to have an opinion and wasn't going to be afraid to voice that opinion," says Minaya. "I think he saw my work ethic and an ability to project for the long term, which you need as a scout. I think he also saw I was aggressive."
After interviewing with several clubs, Minaya was offered a job with the Major League Scouting Bureau. At the same time his name was recommended to Sandy Johnson, the scouting director for the Texas Rangers. Recognizing the asset in Minaya's ability to speak two languages, Johnson hired him in 1985 as an amateur scout for the Rangers and immediately sent him to the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. During the summer, Minaya also coached for the team's affiliate in Florida's Gulf Coast League.
"He had all the things you look for in a young guy," says Johnson, who is now the vice president of scouting for the Mets. "I gave him the opportunity and he took the ball and ran with it. He was a hard worker. He could handle a lot of situations and could communicate with people, from the owners of the Latin American ball clubs where I sent him, right down to the batboys. He had a way about him and you knew he was something special. He was aggressive and he took a lot of pride in representing the organization."
Despite Minaya's early reticence about scouting, he soon caught the bug. "It's the chase" that is so alluring about scouting, he says. "Every morning you wake up and you're looking for that diamond in the rough. You wake up and you have to have that drive to go out and find that guy. I still have that drive today. I'm always trying to improve the Mets. Always looking for opportunities to make this team better."
Hard work and the ability to visualize what a player is going to be in a couple of years are the keys to scouting, he says. You also have to be hard-nosed. "Scouting is a tough business," he says. "It's a failure business and you have to be thick-skinned." Not that Minaya tasted much failure with the Rangers. During his first year, while coaching in Florida, he was tipped off about a 16-year-old Dominican prospect working out at the Toronto Blue Jays spring training complex in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. After watching the prospect, Minaya was so impressed that he invited him to a tryout with the Rangers and soon after signed him to a contract. That player was the formidable slugger Sammy Sosa.
Minaya was involved in the signing of other future stars such as Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez, and rose through the ranks to become the director of professional scouting for the Rangers. "He was a go-getter," Johnson says. "I used him in all kinds of situations and kept giving him more and more responsibilities. He thrived on it. He left nothing on the table. When you gave him an assignment, the assignment would be taken care of in rapid order and in top flight."
"In baseball you see a lot of great prospects," Johnson adds. "Omar was a great prospect to become a general manager. He was a decision maker. He had guts and confidence in his own convictions and that's the way you're successful in this business."
Before Minaya would realize that destiny, he would return to New York City, this time as the assistant general manager of the Mets. In 1998, Minaya jumped at the job, not only because he felt he had the front-office baseball skills to succeed, but because he knew the landscape. "The most important thing that I brought to the table," he says, "was an understanding of baseball in New York City and an understanding of the passion that a New York Mets fan has. For me, that goes back to growing up in New York."
Minaya helped rebuild a Mets team that had fallen on hard times during the 1990s, finishing no better than 18 games out from 1991 to 1996. By 1998, the Mets were back in the hunt, missing the playoffs by a single game, before making them in 1999 as a wild-card entrant. They beat the Diamondbacks in the divisional series before losing an exciting and emotional league championship series to the Atlanta Braves in six games. In 2000, it all came together for the Mets. They clinched the wild card, beat the San Francisco Giants in the division series, and defeated the St. Louis Cardinals to win the National League pennant before losing to the New York Yankees in the first "Subway Series" since 1956.
By this time, Minaya's market value as a baseball operations man was sterling and he wanted nothing more than to become a general manager. He knew that to run an organization of his own he would have to move on, so he began interviewing. But interview after interview failed to generate an offer. "This business is a fraternity of people that need to feel comfortable with whom they give the general manager's job to," he says. "Some will say the reason I didn't get that job was because I was a minority. The fact is, not too many minorities have been given the opportunity, but I had to be careful that I didn't go down that road and start believing that that was the only reason. It's a matter of trust and that's a personal thing. The best isn't always hired. It's the one they feel most comfortable with. At those interviews, I was recognized as a good baseball man, a good talent evaluator, but I was told that I didn't have the administrative skills."
Minaya proved them wrong. Just before spring training in 2002, Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, rang with an offer to take over as general manager of the Montreal Expos. But it was an offer laden with potential pitfalls. At that point, the Expos were in a state of disarray. In November 2001, Major League Baseball had announced that the American League and the National League would be contracted by one team each. The teams marked for elimination were the Minnesota Twins and the Montreal Expos. But a Minnesota court ruled that the Twins were bound by a contract with their stadium to play out the games they had agreed to. The decision gave the Expos a reprieve as well because their presence was needed to balance schedules for interleague play. But the decision had come after MLB had already bought the team out from its owners. While the Expos were saved, they were left with no scouts, no coaches and no front office, and a fan base that couldn't fill a shoebox.
"Taking the position was a major, major risk," says Minaya. "It wasn't only about winning and losing, it was about maintaining a franchise that the commissioner of baseball had entrusted to me. The team was owned by Major League Baseball and there were a lot of issues regarding conflict of interest, integrity and management."
Still, the opportunity was too good to resist. Minaya agreed to take the job and become the first Hispanic general manager in Major League baseball history. "It meant a lot to me to be given an opportunity that nobody from my heritage had been given," Minaya says proudly, "and I'm very grateful to Bud Selig. But with that opportunity came the responsibility to go out there and do the best that I could, because doing a good job meant others could get the same opportunity. I wanted to open doors for others like me."
As dysfunctional as the Expos were, Minaya made the most of it. He worked long hours, played it straight with the players and others in the organization—including the manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson—and made bold moves and exciting trades, all of which resulted in a second-place finish for the team in 2002, its best finish since 1996. A year later, the Expos played 22 home games in Puerto Rico, but still found themselves in the wild-card race at the end of August. Then the hammer fell. Selig, citing budget concerns, stopped the team from calling up minor-league players when rosters expanded. The team finished eight games behind the Marlins, who won the wild-card spot and went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series. "People weren't expecting me to win," says Minaya of the situation, "and some people think that when you're not expected to win, you can't lose. That wasn't the case in Montreal."
The Expos, who would eventually relocate to Washington, D.C., as the Nationals, weren't the only team struggling. After reaching the 2000 World Series, the Mets failed to make the playoffs the next five years, finishing in last place twice. It was time for the team from Queens to straighten the ship. Minaya, who had turned down the general manager position with the Mets before the 2004 season because the organization wanted to split the responsibilities, received a call from Fred Wilpon, the team's owner and chief executive officer, with a new offer: executive vice president and complete control over baseball operations.
"The fact of the matter is, I was very happy in Montreal doing my job," says Minaya. "I enjoyed my time there, loved the team and was looking forward to going to Washington with them. That being said, when it opened up that I was going to have the ability to make all baseball decisions [with the Mets], it was a great opportunity to come home to New York."
Minaya had his work cut out for him. He needed to build a winning team, and fast because, as he puts it, you can't tell baseball fans in New York that the team is going to win in three or four years. They want immediate results. Minaya's first step was defining what the Mets were going to be about. Pitching? Stealing bases? Hitting for power? Defense? "You want to be all of those things," Minaya says, "but the reality is you aren't going to have the funds to fit all of those areas. The most important thing is communicating a plan to your manager, your players and your fans: 'This is what we're about. This is our identity.'"
And Minaya's plan for the Mets? "We're going to run," he says, "and we're going to steal bases. We're going to pitch, have a good bullpen, and we're going to catch the ball. We are going to play hard and we're going to come at you every day.
"I always thought of this team as a combination of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants," he adds. "They were athletic teams and that is what I wanted to present with the Mets."
Minaya'a plan got off to a tremendous start during the 2004 off-season, when he signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, two marquee players, to give the Mets a new face. Minaya also hired Willie Randolph as manager. "I thought Willie was a perfect fit," he says. "Sure, I had some doubts about his managing abilities, because he had never managed, but he was a hard worker, a professional, and the fans knew him. He was a New Yorker and he was going to be able to handle New York. He was going to understand that they hate you one day and they love you the next."
In 2005, the Mets improved from 71 wins to 83, and although they missed the playoffs, they were in the wild-card race until late in the season. The progress was heartening, but the job wasn't over. To go along with Martinez and Beltran, and emerging stars such as David Wright and Jose Reyes, Minaya set out to add more pieces to the puzzle. He signed slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado, hard-nosed catcher Paul LoDuca and top-notch closer Billy Wagner. He also continued to add role players such as infielders Jose Valentin and Julio Franco, and outfielder Endy Chavez.
Oddly enough, while Minaya has been praised for his aggressive pursuit of players, he's also been criticized for signing too many Latin Americans, something that he shrugs off. "I don't think much about it," he says, "because I think that people always try to find fault in what you're doing. It's all part of being in the public eye and being a general manager. The fact of the matter is, we go out and get the best players, whether they're Hispanic or not."
Minaya also shrugs off the criticism because, for him, it all goes back to baseball being a world game. "The globalization of the game is huge," he says, unable to stress it enough. "It's good for baseball and I think it's a reflection of the game as a whole. If you don't understand that, you are at a competitive disadvantage."
It turned out that the criticism was unfounded as the Mets won a division title in 2006—their first since 1988—and their first playoff berth since 2000. Suddenly, Minaya and the Mets had the World Series in their sights. After sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in the divisional series, it was closer than ever. Then came the Cardinals and the exciting seven-game series that left them short of the World Series.
In a process that Minaya describes as ongoing, he spent the off-season bolstering the Mets lineup even further, most notably by acquiring outfielder Moises Alou. Although many of his moves were considered minor in comparison to those in previous years, Minaya entered the 2007 season confident the Mets could attain their goal of a championship.
He had his detractors. Baseball analysts—from ESPN and Sports Illustrated to Baseball America and FoxSports.com—predicted that the Mets would be contenders again and would almost certainly reach the playoffs, but that their starting pitching would prevent them from winning the World Series.
"All winter long we were told that our starting pitching wasn't strong enough," says Minaya. "I think the real strength of this team is our offense and our speed. I think it's our defense, especially turning double plays, and it's our bullpen." Minaya also believes the team has those intangibles needed to win. "The fact that this team has played together and won together is huge," he says. "There's chemistry as a group and a lot of clubhouse leadership."
Yet baseball is a funny sport and the best team on paper doesn't always take home the trophy. There are streaks and slumps, and always an injury or two to overcome. "It's such a long season with so many ups and downs," Minaya says. "You want to sustain your ups for as long as you can, and keep your downs from being that long. The bottom line is it's a marathon."
Then there are the baseball gods, who need not be aroused, especially with idle talk of celebratory cigars when the season isn't half over. Yes, the goal is to win the World Series and, yes, cigars will be in order when the time comes, but Minaya won't tempt fate. "I haven't set one aside yet," he says. "But I can tell you, it's going to be something special."
Photo by Marty Umans