The New York Mets are live on the corner TV above the bar, and Omar Minaya is explaining how he hopped the fences at Shea Stadium as a kid, sometimes to watch the Mets play, sometimes to watch Joe Namath throw fastballs at practice with the Jets. The cops who did not know Minaya and his friends would chase them, and the cops who did would leave them alone.
He laughs out loud at the sound of his own grown-up voice telling these childhood tales. It was a different world back then, Minaya says. He doesn't remember there being after-school centers in his Queens neighborhood. He does remember riding the 7 train in the afternoon while figuring out ways to stay clear of trouble.
Minaya was born in the Dominican Republic, but you have never met a man prouder to call himself a New Yorker except, perhaps, the man Minaya is pointing to on his cellphone screen. Chris Mullin, head basketball coach at St. John's, is pictured next to Minaya's younger son, Justin, a 6-foot-6 high school wing and Division I prospect. When Mullin, a son of Brooklyn and an original Dream Teamer, was hired by his alma mater, he boasted that he knew every back door of every gym at every public and Catholic school in the city. "And if not," Mullin said, "I know the janitor in the gym. So I'm going to get in there."
That's Minaya. He knows baseball's janitors, players, scouts, middle managers and owners, and yes, he's going to get in there. Everyone knows Omar, maybe the most popular man in his sport. He counts himself among the first management officials to cross over to work for the MLB Players Association (he's a senior adviser to the union's executive director, Tony Clark), and he swears he maintains a great relationship with Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon, the father and son who fired him five years ago as the team's general manager.
Minaya also speaks glowingly of the GM who replaced him, Sandy Alderson, who has shaped this team into a National League East juggernaut with the help of 13 current Mets whom Minaya brought into the organization. Fourteen if you count Terry Collins, who might be the league's Manager of the Year. Fifteen and 16 if you count Dan Warthen and Ricky Bones, the coaches who work with the seven Minaya pitchers on Alderson's active roster -- seven arms contributing to one of the best staffs in the game.
As he picks over plates of clams and fried calamari at Dimora, a Mets-first hangout in the Yankee-centric burbs of northern New Jersey, Minaya makes it clear he has no interest in basking in the glow of a fairly remarkable New York, New York story. This is Sandy's team, he says, before lavishing praise on Sandy's lieutenant, Paul DePodesta. And besides, Sandy offered Omar a chance to join his staff in 2010 (Minaya declined because he didn't think it would be fair to his successor to stick around), and he honored Omar by keeping so many of the people he'd drafted, signed, or hired.
"I thought the world of Sandy before he got here," Minaya says, "and the moves he made at the end of July are obviously a major reason they are where they are." Just then the former executive-turned-union guy looks up at the TV showing the slugger who embodied the biggest (by far) of those moves, Yoenis Cespedes, who, as missing New York pieces go, appears to equal the sum of Dave DeBusschere times Gary Carter.
"One of the biggest challenges in this city is patience," Minaya continues, "and Sandy showed great patience from the start. A lot of general managers come in and do whatever they want to do, but you have to give Sandy credit for identifying the talent in place and letting it develop. That was huge."
So was the acquisition of that talent in the first place. On the team that opens a three-game series against the Yankees on Friday night as the safer local bet to make a deep postseason run, Minaya is responsible for three stars (Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia), a potential star (Steven Matz), a Gold Glove center fielder (Juan Lagares), a circle of credible regulars (Daniel Murphy, Lucas Duda, Jon Niese, Ruben Tejada, Bobby Parnell), a quadruple-A role player resilient enough to drive a dagger through the Nationals' barely beating heart (Kirk Nieuwenhuis), a promising reliever who has allowed one earned run since Aug. 23 (Hansel Robles) and, of course, the former bonus baby who cried for a cheering Citi Field crowd and forever altered the way the city felt about this team (Wilmer Flores).
"If you show New Yorkers that you care," Minaya says, "that's all they ask. And now Wilmer will be loved around here forever no matter what." But Wilmer's team won't be loved around here no matter what, and Minaya knows this too. He's watching on TV as the Mets lose to the Marlins, the same opponent that drove Minaya's collapsing 2007 and 2008 teams out of the playoffs on the final days of those seasons. He winces when reminded of that unforgiving fact. "We should've never been in that spot," he says, shaking his head. His Mets had lost a Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in 2006 and followed that with the back-to-back heartbreak that led to Minaya's demise two years later.
"When you don't win in New York three years in a row," Minaya says, "you're going to get fired. If we had just made it to the playoffs in '07 or '08, it would've given us more space. When you're up seven games with 17 to go [in '07], you've got to finish the job. And when you don't, that's on the head of the organization. That's on me."
The Mets are now up eight games on the Washington Nationals in the NL East with 16 to go, and no right-minded observer believes Alderson will be forced to make the same concession speech in the first week of October. The Nationals were supposed to be the Kentucky Wildcats of this regular season -- the league's best team -- and instead they've run themselves out of the gym. The question isn't whether the Mets will hold off the Nationals (they will), but whether they have the requisite arms and bats to win the franchise's first World Series title in nearly 30 years.
It's an encouraging question to a fan base that had endured six straight losing seasons and that had lost complete faith in the Wilpons after they slashed payroll in the wake of the Bernie Madoff scandal. The correct response? Collins had managed nine seasons in the wild-card era before this one, yet he'd never reached the playoffs. Alderson had already proved he could build a championship team and consistent winner, but proving that in Oakland isn't the same as proving it with a franchise forever suffering from an inferiority complex in a town that eats the insecure for lunch.
So the people who can provide the most enlightening answer to The Question are those who have built the most recent Mets contenders. Minaya is willing to take a shot at it, and he has earned the opportunity. But in his best hour, he fell one or two swings short of pay dirt. One of his dear friends stands as the last Met to lead a team to the World Series, so he gets the first crack.
Valentine: 'I think the Mets will win it all'
Bobby Valentine is on his bicycle and out of breath. Of course he is. The 65-year-old athletic director at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut has pulled over to the side of the road, panting, to talk about his favorite subject: the Mets.
He took over that team at its dysfunctional worst and had it in the NLCS in Year 3 and the World Series in Year 4. The Mets lost the NLCS to the powerhouse Braves in six games in 1999 and the World Series to the powerhouse Yankees in five games in 2000, all while Valentine and GM Steve Phillips fought for control of the team and forced Minaya into the role of peacekeeping ref.
Three years removed from his final managerial act, his disastrous season in Boston, Valentine sounds like Jack Buck describing Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series homer ("I don't believe what I just saw") when describing what it's been like watching the Mets for the past seven weeks.
"I've never seen anything like it," Valentine says. "Whether I'm at my house or at a friend's house for dinner, watching the games, I'd say I've gotten out of my chair 10 times in the last month in total disbelief. They've just been daring teams to get a lead on them, and it's incredible. It's like, 'Go ahead, get a lead on us. We're just going to break your heart anyway.'" Valentine has been keeping the Mets' magic number posted in his sports bar in Stamford, and on nights he's in the house he loves nothing more than ripping off another sheet in the countdown to the franchise's first playoff appearance in nine years. "The place goes up in a roar," Valentine says, "and we buy a round of drinks."
But the hysteria is tempered by at least a small dose of fatalism. These are Mets fans, after all, conditioned to expect the worst possible outcome. Valentine has an assistant at Sacred Heart, Sheryl Madison, a die-hard who goes back decades with the Mets, and she can't help but hold her breath and wait for something calamitous to go down.
Her boss doesn't see it like that, not this time. He thinks something irreversible started happening the late July night Alderson had effectively traded Flores and Zack Wheeler to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez, the news hitting the Internet and then hitting the young shortstop like a brick wall, leaving him in tears in the middle of a home game against San Diego. "The greatest tears ever shed," Valentine says.
The trade unraveled, and the Mets found a surreal way to blow a big lead in a rain-delayed mess the following afternoon. The Nationals arrived at Citi Field the next night with a three-game NL East lead, looking to put away the Mets and seal Collins' end-of-season fate. In the 12th inning of that series opener, Flores hit a home run off Washington's Felipe Rivero. The Mets are 31-13 overall and 6-0 against the Nationals since Flores made contact with that pitch.
Funny, but Valentine thought the trade that didn't happen was a wonderful idea. Nothing against Flores, of course.
"But I'm a fan of Gomez and I figured Wilmer's tears would just fade away," Valentine says. "I thought Gomez might be just what we needed. Wrong!"
Alderson landed Cespedes from Detroit at the trade deadline, and as consolation prizes go, it's been a fairly good one. Cespedes has been so devastating that even the Wilpons might have to throw nine figures at him to retain his services. But is he devastating enough to lead this team to a ticker-tape parade before he marches straight into free agency? Are the Yoenis Cespedes Mets good enough to win it all?
"Yes, they are," Valentine says. "I think the Mets will win it all. I don't want to put pressure on them, but I'm going to have to see something to tell me otherwise. I think the other teams are flawed. The Dodgers are good, but they have to hold their breath after the first two starters. The Pirates do concern me, but St. Louis is an enigma; you never know how the heck they keep doing it.
"I'm pulling like hell for the Yankees to make it to the World Series too, and for the Mets to beat them this time. I think they're better than our 2000 team. I loved my group. I love Rick Reed and Mike Hampton and Al Leiter, but they weren't featuring what these Mets pitchers are featuring. And then you have [Bartolo] Colon in their back pocket, something I didn't have.
"We couldn't fall behind like this team can. It's so ridiculous to go from the team they were earlier in the season, just trying to squeak out a run to help deGrom or Harvey ... get a win, to now falling behind by five runs before blowing the other team away. I mean, what is that? They still have questions on defense, but it's so easy to overlook because the pitching is so outstanding and the offense has guys who fit so perfectly. This is a really super team and just so different from anything I've ever seen."
Official: Alderson 'patient under siege'
Among the many things that have impressed baseball people about the Mets was their ability to survive the storm created by Harvey and Scott Boras when, out of left field, they swung their innings-limit mandate like a wrecking ball through the dream (half) season. The agent and the ace decided the first week in September -- days before another crucial series with Washington -- was the ideal time to declare that 180 innings would be the max for a starter returning from Tommy John surgery, and the Mets responded by, you know, winning and winning and winning some more.
"I don't know anything," Valentine says, "but shouldn't that have been one of the first two or three questions in the spring? Like, 'Hey, Doctor, where did you go for dinner tonight? And by the way, how many innings does Matt Harvey have this year?'"
Either way, this Boras move matched his decision to opt Alex Rodriguez out of his Yankees contract in the middle of the 2007 World Series between Boston and Colorado. Still, the Mets went ahead and swept the Nationals on the road and assumed command of the division. They recovered from a Wilson Ramos grand slam and a 5-3 Max Scherzer lead in Game 1, recovered from a bad Harvey start and a late 7-1 hole and prevailed on Nieuwenhuis' pinch-hit homer off Jonathan Papelbon in the eighth inning of Game 2, and punctuated the sweep behind homers from Kelly Johnson and Cespedes in the eighth inning of Game 3.
One senior baseball official who watched the drama unfold said he would've demoted Harvey to Triple-A Las Vegas after the pitcher initially supported Boras' innings cutoff, and that the team's continued success in the wake of the controversy "tells you Harvey is not their leader in any way, shape or form."
But of greater significance, the official said, is what that success says about where the organizational leadership actually exists.
"Sandy Alderson did an amazing job staying patient under siege until he got the right deals," the official said. "I think the feel-good narrative around Wilmer Flores is an inaccurate depiction of what's gone on there. A lot of people would've had an emotional response to the pressure from media and fans to do something to fix the offense, would've fired a coach or made a trade for the sake of making one, and Sandy was strong enough to wait and show great discipline.
"Right now, everything is going right for the Mets; they're really talented and they have a horseshoe up their ass. At some point that horseshoe will come out, the party will be over and they'll play in the postseason under a completely different dynamic than they're playing under now.
"But yes, they are good enough to win it. The Mets have high-end pitching and a good offense, and they'll enter the process as one of the better teams. I think they're better than the Cardinals and Pirates, and as tough as the Dodgers are with [Clayton] Kershaw and [Zack] Greinke, Kershaw has shown he can be beaten in the postseason. So Sandy deserves a lot of credit for where they are. Omar Minaya left behind a lot of assets, and Sandy finished it off. It takes a village to do it, your scouts and your staff, and before Sandy arrived Omar was definitely the head of that village."
Minaya: 'Better than the 2000 team'
In a different life, Omar Minaya signed a 16-year-old Sammy Sosa for $3,500. He always knew what he was doing when it came to predicting success in a wildly unpredictable business. If David Wright was Phillips' draft choice in 2001, Jose Reyes was really Minaya's signing two years earlier and, ultimately, another core piece of the 2006 team that won the NL East by a dozen games and ended Atlanta's run of 11 consecutive division titles.
Minaya left the Mets in 2002 to become baseball's first Hispanic GM for a lost cause in Montreal, then returned to replace Phillips in 2004, when he told Fred Wilpon the franchise had to go big-game hunting in George Steinbrenner's New York. "If we don't try," Minaya told Wilpon, "people are going to think we're weak. And you can't have people in New York thinking we're weak."
For a while, nobody thought the Mets were weak. Minaya landed Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and Johan Santana. Willie Randolph, another Minaya hire, was 50 games over .500 in his first three seasons as manager. But the Mets didn't reach the World Series, and one bad move and bad break led to the next bad move and bad break. The Mets lost 92 and 82 games in 2009 and 2010, respectively, and Minaya knew he deserved what was coming next.
He warned his two sons that their father was about to be fired. He told his bosses, the Wilpons, that they needed to make a change, and they did. They called their GM into the office and thanked him for his service, and Minaya drove back to his New Jersey home, alone. "First time I've ever been fired," he says.
Minaya was back in one of his favorite restaurants the other night, explaining why he left a front-office position with the Padres and rejected offers from other teams to go work with the union on some grow-the-game initiatives. He says he was always considered a pro-player executive, anyway, and that he wore that label as a badge of honor.
DeGrom was pitching on the TV above the bar, so it was a good time to review what Minaya saw in some of the Mets who have made the eight-game lead over Washington possible.
"Drafted deGrom in the ninth round, 2010," Minaya says. "Saw him on video in the draft room. He was a shortstop, good athlete, lean and athletic. What you see on that TV is what I saw. Easy delivery."
Harvey? "Saw him at North Carolina; gave up two runs in six innings and yet I walked out of there saying, 'We're going to take this guy.' You don't scout performance; you scout ability. I once signed Juan Gonzalez after watching him strike out three times and hit one fly ball. Matt was throwing harder in the sixth and seventh innings than in the first and second, and he had a drive and physicality about him that other people didn't have. I never thought deGrom would be a front-line pitcher, but we knew that about Harvey."
Familia? "He was 17 when I saw him in the Dominican Republic, and he was throwing 91, 92 mph. Those are good numbers at 17. After two innings I was sure we needed to sign him. Great makeup, very even-keeled. I always thought he'd end up a closer."
Lagares? "I'd heard he was a softball player, but he had a very compact swing, short to the ball. When we tested him in running and jumping, he was right there with the two best kids we ever had, Jose Reyes and Carlos Gomez. And I wanted athletes. You've got to be an athlete first, and then you look at makeup."
Matz? "We didn't have a first-round pick [in 2009], and I thought there was no way we'd get him in the second round. But he was asking for a lot of money, and somehow he fell to us. We negotiated up until a few minutes before the midnight deadline to sign him, or he was going to college. I told Jeff Wilpon, 'We have to get this done.' I told him what they wanted [$895,000], and to Jeff's credit he said at the last minute, 'OK, give it to him.' I told the agent I'd give him my best bottle of wine to close it out. I still owe that to him."
Flores? "He was 16 years old, and I was told he wanted a million dollars. I had a rule that if anyone wants more than $500,000, I have to see him in person. So I get on a plane with my mentor, Sandy Johnson, and we go to Port St. Lucie to watch this skinny kid barrel the ball every time he swung. Wilmer wasn't a great runner, and I prefer athletes, but he could hit. I thought he'd be a second baseman who could someday hit .270 with 15 to 20 homers and 70 RBIs. We gave him $750,000."
Terry Collins? "Terry was going to retire when I brought him in as our field coordinator in 2010. We go back to the mid-1980s, when he was managing winter league ball in the Dominican Republic. I always liked Terry, and I'd interviewed him when I hired Willie [Randolph] as manager. Terry's a hell of a baseball man, and he's energetic, and age doesn't mean a damn thing. I just wanted to keep him going because I believed in the guy. He thought of retiring and I said 'T, hang in there.' To Sandy's credit, he interviewed Terry after I was fired and Jerry Manuel was fired and gave him the job."
Credit. Minaya is big on giving predecessors and successors credit. When fans still approach him in the street to thank him for this current Mets team, he tells them to thank the more responsible parties instead. When he's reminded that Alderson used Minaya assets to acquire Noah Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud (R.A. Dickey) and Zack Wheeler (Beltran), he defers to the invaluable contributors Alderson acquired on his own (Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, Michael Conforto). In the end, if Alderson didn't get enough credit as a founding Moneyball father (Brad Pitt didn't play him in the movie) and didn't get enough blame as a steroid era enabler in Oakland, he's probably getting the right amount of credit for the 2015 Mets. Things do have a way of evening out in baseball.
Maybe they will even out for Minaya now. As a union official representing the entire labor force, he says he is not allowed to say he is rooting for the Mets to win the World Series. But he is allowed to say whether he believes they are capable of winning one for the first time since 1986.
"I think this team is better than the 2000 team," Minaya says. "The 2006 team was dominant all year round and had more experience and I think was a better overall team than this one. But these Mets can dominate you with pitching. It's a dangerous team that's been evolving in the second half, and nobody wants to face power pitching in the playoffs. So yeah, I think the Mets are good enough to do it."
They're good enough to do what the last legitimate Mets contender could not. And as a proud, inclusive New Yorker who had a role in the process, Omar Minaya is just fine with that.