The Story of O (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday June 12, 2007 2:13PM; Updated: Tuesday June 12, 2007 2:13PM
What does it look like when an uncommon man's deepest essence plays out on a major league meadow in the country's largest city? When his inner world, his vast neural web of pathways and connectors, is free to fan out across a franchise with revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars?
It all begins in darkness each day, the man tending first to the core of the circle. It begins at five without an alarm clock, with gospel singer Shirley Caesar wailing You're Next in Line for a Miracle from his iPod in the kitchen. He reads a few pages of the Bible as he listens -- but why read just one book? A few more pages, on this day, from Elie Wiesel's Night, a few from Immaculée Ilibagiza's Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust and a few from Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now. Then O's off to the gym at sunrise each day to run and lift weights while his iPod finger whirls from merengue to blues to big band to rock to country to mariachi. Love it, man! Mariachi on a treadmill.
Now he's ready, open for business. He enters the Mets' clubhouse wearing a ball cap on which is stitched one word -- RELAX -- and begins touching and tapping coaches and players and attendants, patting their bellies and their backs or putting both hands on their shoulders, looking each in the eye and asking, "How you doin'? How you feelin'? Anything I can do to make things better?" Asking that of Ray Ramirez, the only MLB trainer raised in Latin America, even before he inquires about the star player's injury. And really meaning it when he asks, unlike most people, says first baseman Carlos Delgado.
"A lot of players fear playing in New York, but he makes it human," says closer Billy Wagner.
"I can look in his eyes," says centerfielder Carlos Beltran, "and tell that he's not hiding anything."
A maître d' more than a G.M., one who knows that feeling and atmosphere are everything. Checking on everyone's kids and wife so he can call or e-mail the sick or pregnant ones after their husbands leave on the next road trip. Engaging his players in long conversations about their former teammates, so he'll know who has the sort of character he might want to add to this room -- or who might be lacking only this room to blossom. "We create environment," says O, "then bring a player here and let the environment work on him." Getting his hair shaved to the scalp, right along with his team, to help young star David Wright bust his slump. Asking players out to dinner, keeping all 10 fingers on the pulse. "In a clubhouse people know and see everything but usually keep it to themselves. They'll tell you what they know if they trust." Making everyone, even the clubhouse kid banging dirt from the superstars' cleats, feel that this whole production couldn't happen without him.
Making sure that the team's Dominican mom-and-daughter cooking tandem have all the ingredients they need to serve the team arepas today because it's Venezuelan Day, and mangú tomorrow because it's Puerto Rican Day, and barbecued pork the day after because it's Southerner Day.
Making sure that his white-haired instructors and coaches, such as Ozzie Virgil and Sandy Alomar, and even his pinch-hitting Methuselah, Julio Franco -- who besides O signs a 47-year-old to a two-year contract? -- are mingling with the young guys. "Why," asks O, "did our culture stop looking to old people for wisdom, the way other ones do?"
Huddling with his African-American manager, Willie Randolph, hired by O after 12 failed interviews with other teams, along with his four Anglo and three Latino coaches. "Constantly talking to us about the person, not the player," says Alomar, whose son Roberto felt so isolated playing for the Mets five years ago that he asked the front office to hire a liaison for Hispanic players. "Always bringing up the player's family and personal background, reminding us how to find the right way to say things to that player. Other teams were afraid to bring in this many Latinos . They were afraid of the fans' reaction and clubhouse chemistry. He's showing you can collect people from all over the world and make them click."
Delighting as traditional language barriers between Latin American and U.S. players crumble, as the Virginian third baseman, Wright, and the Dominican shortstop, Jose Reyes, bear-hug and tussle like puppies. "It's just different here," says pitcher Tom Glavine. "Most teams, you have a couple of guys laughing and joking. Here's it's all 25 guys, from all countries, goofing around with each other all the time. Sure, talent prevails in the short term over personality and chemistry, but long term they play a much bigger part than people think."
Mingling with the media on the field before the game, O making the writers and broadcasters, just like his players, feel good about themselves: "That's a verrry good question.... That's a verrry good observation...." High-fiving opposing players who flock to him during batting practice. Touching fingers with fans through the mesh behind home plate. Heading upstairs, asking the security guards and janitor what they think of the Mets' latest personnel move, then conferring with his front-office guys on their next one.
Here, around this conference table, is the dynamic that all the moguls who wouldn't hire O hadn't understood. Here's the yin unthreatened by the yang. Too wide-eyed, too trusting? Well, here's his narrow eyes, Tony Bernazard, the vice president of player development from Puerto Rico who squinted down O two years ago when he wanted to bring Sosa to the Mets. Who besides O in baseball management would hire union chief Donald Fehr's special assistant?
A little sketchy on contract and labor-relations nuances? O.K., turn it over to the man who'd been MLB's wonk on such matters for eight years, assistant G.M. John Ricco. A little green at taking $53 million risks, such as the one in signing injury-prone All-Star pitcher Pedro Martinez to a four-year deal? There's 66-year-old vice president of scouting Sandy Johnson, who helped the Padres, Rangers and Diamondbacks make those decisions for a quarter century, the guy who gave O his first big league job. Unschooled in the statistical-analysis approach to talent evaluation that the young Moneyball G.M.'s love? Meet Ben Baumer and Adam Fisher, O's young numbers geeks. "Don't choose one or the other -- field guys or stat guys," cries O. "Choose both! Listen to what the church and the Commies say! Know what I'm sayin'?"
Wait, something's missing from the circle -- a woman! He summons Leonor Barua, his executive assistant, to the table. "Because there's just too much testosterone and strong opinions in a roomful of baseball men," he says. "I'm amazed by people who talk negatively of others. I just listen and think, Why do they need to do that? A lot of that comes from insecurity, people's fears. Gimme a woman. She'll subdue that testosterone. She'll see the big picture. Before every big decision I make, I call my wife. Before every trade, I ask Leonor."
Then O looks to the far edges of the circle, making sure the Mets' Latino prospects are being taught English, and their Anglo prospects are being taught Spanish. That they're all taking turns cooking in six-man teams for the rest of the minor leaguers in training camp, learning about nutrition and doing community service. That old Mets uniforms are being shipped to teens in Ghana, and two Ghanaian teens are being shipped to the U.S. to work out with Mets minor leaguers. That the team's expensive new Dominican academy will have classrooms and computer labs and instruction in plumbing and electrical work so that all the kids who never make it to the bigs will have a diploma, a vocation, a life.
Game time. Time to watch his guys play. The stars O wooed to New York by traveling to their homes and looking in their eyes rather than negotiating through agents: Beltran, Wagner and, when he returns later this summer from shoulder rehab, Martinez. The surprising contributors that O excavates from other rosters, role players such as outfielder Endy Chavez whom other teams judge by what they can't do but O welcomes for what they can. It's the team that has been lurking in his limbic forebrain since O was a child, the team that he wanted the Mets to be when he sneaked in to root for their more multiethnic foes. "What do you think of when you think of the Mets in their early years?" he asks. "Power pitching and non-athletes. This is the team the Mets were supposed to be back then, the inheritors of the legacy of the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Guys who stole bases and hit for power. A true centerfielder. A slick shortstop. Athletes. Guys of different colors and nationalities.
"But what happened? George Weiss, a Yankees guy, an American League guy, ran the Mets at the beginning. That's what happened. The National League stood for inclusion. It's where Robinson broke ground for blacks, Clemente for Hispanics. I see the Mets that way. Sure, I knew there'd be criticism about the ethnic makeup of the team. When you're the first Latino G.M., you know it's coming. But I don't care about players' color, religion, heritage or even sexual preference. I care about winning today. I'll go to sleep tonight thinking, How can we make this team better?"
The Mets win again, tightening a grip on first place in the National League East that they've held virtually every day for the last two seasons. Fans cluster around O as he leaves the stadium. "It's like he's the cleanup hitter," marvels a friend. They're shouting to him, "Doing a great job, Omar! Awesome job! Best G.M. I've ever seen! You saved us!"
O's turning to make eye contact, calling "How ya doin'?" to the Anglo fans, "¿Están bien?" to the Hispanic immigrants and even "Va bene? Tutto bene!" to one with ITALIA on his T-shirt. Explaining to a reporter, as he goes, that as much as he loves being on top, he's lost if all this isn't about the people on the bottom. About the good the Mets can do around the world, the AIDS clinics he's helping to open in the Dominican Republic, the thousand bags of Christmas meals that he and his sisters buy for the poor people around Valverde Mao in memory of his deceased parents. "I'm the underdog," he says. "That's still how I see myself. My father and my cousins went to jail over a principle. We came here because of oppression. That's what I'm about. But you've got to have an exit strategy to stay principled. If not, you'll compromise principle for materialism and comfort."
His exit strategy, if the circle ever feels like a noose? "The Peace Corps," he says.
It's late. He hops into his car. A reporter asks for his address and zip code so he can use MapQuest to find O's house the next morning. "Whoo, my zip code...." he says. He begins searching the car for an envelope or document that might show it. "Hmmm ... you'd think I'd know that since I've lived in that house for eight, nine years now. My zip code.... That's a verrry good question.... Look, if I find it, I'll call you. Know what I'm sayin'?"
He waves and drives away, into the great wide open.