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Minaya Puts A New Face On Baseball In New York

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page D01

NEW YORK -- Omar Minaya is dressed to the nueves -- dark suit, yellow power tie, spiffy black shoes -- so well, in fact, that his short, gray hair looks like a perfectly matched accessory. Encircled by a group of decidedly less sartorially blessed reporters, he shifts seamlessly from English to Spanish, his English sentences typically ending with a streetwise "youknowwhatI'msayin'?"

All around Minaya, the New York Mets' new general manager, his players are talking about taking New York City away from the Yankees, and yanking the National League East away from the Atlanta Braves. Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran, the team's two big free agent signees this winter, may be the stars of this media event -- the kickoff to the team's annual PR-based winter caravan around the city. But Minaya, without question, is the story.

Omar Minaya, left, signed Pedro Martinez to a four-year, $53 million deal. "We can make a change," Martinez said. (Walter Astrada -- AP)

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"He's changing the way people look at this franchise," Beltran said.

A baseball team, it is often said, takes on the personality of its manager. But the 2005 New York Mets -- or, as they are calling themselves these days, the "New Mets" -- may be the first team in history that is molded to assume the personality of its general manager. The 45-year-old Minaya is dynamic, aggressive, cosmopolitan and Hispanic -- the first and so far the only Hispanic GM in the game -- and increasingly, so are the Mets.

In his first winter at the helm in Queens, not far from the streets of his youth, Minaya pulled off a stunning double play, netting -- at prices some considered exorbitant -- both the best pitcher and the best position player on the free agent market. Martinez, the legendary Dominican and former Boston Red Sox ace, will head up the Mets' rotation, while Beltran, the 27-year-old Puerto Rican center fielder, will anchor their lineup.

Three years of running the Major League Baseball-run orphanage known as the Montreal Expos on a bare-bones budget had conditioned Minaya to spend whatever money he had quickly, before someone changed his mind. That hasn't changed in New York; only the placement of the decimal point has.

Minaya arrived in New York in October and started handing out owner Fred Wilpon's money soon thereafter. In dishing out nearly $200 million in contracts this winter -- including a seven-year, $119 million deal for Beltran; four years, $53 million for Martinez; and a three-year, $22.5 million extension for pitcher Kris Benson -- Minaya and the Mets drew the ire of their fellow executives and, reportedly, the commissioner's office.

But the signings have succeeded in energizing the Mets franchise at a time when the stakes could not be higher. Behind the Mets are three straight losing seasons, each seemingly more hideous than the last. They finished fifth, fifth and fourth in the NL East in those seasons, and a distant second to the Yankees in the Big Apple.

And ahead of them, in 2006, is the scheduled debut of their regional sports network, which the Mets hope will challenge the Yankees' YES Network for viewership among the city's baseball fans and produce the commensurate revenues.

But first, the Mets had to get some decent programming to air on it.

For that duty, the Wilpons -- Fred and son Jeff, the team's chief operating officer -- enlisted Minaya, who had first earned a reputation as a talent evaluator in the Texas Rangers organization in the 1980s; his first signee to make the majors was Sammy Sosa. Minaya spent three years as an assistant GM with the Mets before accepting Commissioner Bud Selig's offer to run the Expos in 2002. By that time, Minaya had interviewed six times for GM jobs without getting an offer.

The Mets pried Minaya away from the Expos just as that franchise was set to be moved to Washington and rechristened the Nationals. For Minaya, the choice was easy: New York was home. Though born in the Dominican Republic, he grew up from the age of 8 in Queens, playing Little League baseball in the Corona neighborhood, a long home run from Shea Stadium.

"I'm a New Yorker, what can I say?" said Minaya, who lives in New Jersey now with his wife, Rachel, and their two children. "It would have been a great opportunity to be part of [the Expos-Nationals franchise] in Washington, to start with a clean slate. But this was home."

With Minaya at the helm -- and holding the purse strings to a payroll budget that could push $120 million this year -- the Mets set about on a wildly ambitious three-pronged mission to conquer lands both near and far.

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