By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 4, 2005
NEW YORK -- Now everybody knows his secret. It glares every morning from the National League standings, Eastern Division, first place, the Washington Nationals. Here it is a year, a new franchise and 230 miles away and still Omar Minaya squinted into a sunny afternoon and began to laugh.
"It's a fun team, isn't it?" the general manager of the New York Mets said. "I told people this winter, 'You've got a great team,' and people looked at me like I was crazy."
The Nationals are his team, too. He comes to town Monday with the Mets, looking up from the bottom of the division at the team on top and it's not hard to forget what he helped to make.
Minaya inherited this group in 2002, back when nobody wanted it, when Major League Baseball didn't know if it should save, sell, move or destroy the Montreal Expos. He had been biding his time as a mid-level executive with his hometown Mets, dreaming of the chance to run his own team. Then the league office called and gave him his opportunity, handing him the Expos and telling him he'd get almost nothing in resources.
But he kept piecing things together, hoping to make some kind of roster that could be competitive. He found a hard-throwing relief pitcher in the Mexican League named Luis Ayala, he drafted Chad Cordero and traded for Livan Hernandez and Nick Johnson. Brad Wilkerson got his first real opportunity under Minaya's watch, as did Brian Schneider and John Patterson.
And strangely, they started to win. Only baseball kept breaking their hearts -- taking something away, indulging in a ridiculous experiment to make them play half their home games in Puerto Rico and ordering the payroll slashed as soon as the season ended. In 2003, the proudest moment of Minaya's career, the Expos were in the pennant race, right up until the start of September and another trip to San Juan. Still, they believed they were good enough to win everything.
Then baseball handed down a decree. They would not be allowed to call up players from the minors on Sept. 1 like every other team in the game. Too expensive. They'd have to make do with what they had. The heart went out of the Expos that day.
"It was a message to the players," Minaya said. "It was a momentum killer."
Ultimately, it made his decision to leave for New York last winter that much easier. He had been through too much; the Mets offered stability. It was too much to pass up.
But as he sat in the visitors dugout at Yankee Stadium before a recent Mets-Yankees game, he could hardly disguise the pride he still has for the team he left behind.
"The guys who were there those three years -- there was a bond there," he said. "We felt basically like David, that's the only way I could describe it. We were David and there were 29 other clubs that were Goliath."
He was asked about the resilience that this Nationals team seems to have, the way it fights its way through games. He was asked if he recognized it and nodded sadly.
"Yes," he said. "There was a resilience because of what happened those first three years. They went through stuff that no one else in baseball has been through. All of that is what made it so special, from the little people like [equipment manager] Mike Wallace to the clubhouse guys. They are what made that place special."
Then he laughed again.
He was asked if he looks at the standings and is proud of the Nationals. He thought for a moment, looked as if he wanted to say yes, then shook his head.
"I hope we catch them," he said.
Minaya was quick to heap praise on the Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden and his assistant, Tony Siegle. This, after all, is their team. Too many of Bowden's gambles have paid off -- Jose Guillen, Esteban Loaiza, Marlon Byrd, Ryan Drese -- for Minaya to claim anything but a piece of the franchise's history. Yet it is clear a fraction of his heart remains with Washington.
"He's right, we went through a lot," Sunday's hero, Schneider, said.
For now, Minaya will have to be content with knowing the secret he kept trying to share is finally out. It was painful to leave, he said. But the pull of going back to Queens was too much. In the end, he felt he had no choice.
"They're a tough group of guys," he said. "You cannot ever forget 2003; they were as good as the Marlins, who won the World Series. But nobody knows this because nobody saw Montreal in 2003. What killed us was not getting the call-ups.
"Was it unforgettable? Oh, yeah."