"I'll tell you what's amazing," Ventura says. "It's the sound of Rey's feet moving after a ball. I can hear his spikes moving through the dirt. It's a very distinctive sound, like nothing I've ever heard before. There have been times when a ball has been hit to my left and I'll think, I can reach that with a dive. But I can hear Rey's feet moving so quickly that I know he can get it. So I don't dive, and he's there. He closes ground better than anyone I've ever seen."
The odd thing about Ventura's snug fit with the Mets is that it wasn't readily apparent to either party. After spending 10 seasons with the White Sox, Ventura, who was born and still lives in Santa Maria, Calif., wanted to play for the San Diego Padres, but they showed almost no interest. He was intrigued by the Dodgers and the Anaheim Angels. They didn't call. "Some people thought he would never be the same because of the broken ankle," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine, referring to a gruesome injury suffered during a slide in a 1997 spring training game. Ventura batted only .263 for Chicago in 215 games after that.
The Mets didn't call at first, either, preferring to pursue free-agent outfielder B.J. Surhoff while trying to acquire Milwaukee Brewers second baseman Fernando Viña in a trade. When New York owners Fred Wilpon and Nelson Doubleday decided to spend more on players than they had originally budgeted, general manager Steve Phillips began courting Ventura and outfielder Brian Jordan. After Jordan signed with Atlanta, Phillips zeroed in on Ventura with a $32 million deal over four years. "Robin was a perfect fit because we could improve at two positions [second and third] with one player," Phillips says.
Ventura rejected his only other solid offer, from Baltimore, because he "didn't want to get involved in any way in displacing Cal Ripken Jr.," says John Boggs, Ventura's agent, referring to a possible move by Ripken from third base to first. "He also knew the Mets were a more competitive team than the Orioles. I keep a scrapbook, and one of the things I cut out was from a preseason publication that called Robin the most overpaid free agent."
Before he signed on Dec. 2, Ventura called Alfonzo to be certain he wouldn't mind switching positions. "I was happy because I knew my numbers would look better at second than at third, and I had played second next to Rey in the minors," says the 25-year-old Alfonzo, who raised his average to .319 on Monday night in Houston when he had a club-record six hits in six at bats. "To hear people talk about this infield as being one of the best, it makes me very proud."
With Ventura the Mets quickly learned they were improving their clubhouse as well as their defense. Ventura has even provided New York with its adopted theme song, The Doors' LA. Woman. Having just seen the Austin Powers sequel, Ventura said after a midseason win, "We've got a nice mojo working here." Franco, recalling the refrain of lead singer Jim Morrison, chimed in with, "The mojo's risin'." Soon L.A. Woman blasted from the clubhouse speakers at frat house volume after every Mets win; Morrison's widow, Patricia, noting that her late husband disliked sports, called the club in laughter over the irony of a baseball team co-opting his song; and Ventura handed out black THE MOJO'S RISIN' T-shirts to his teammates. Two years ago, after the White Sox dumped pitchers Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez in a deadline deal, it was Ventura who doled out T-shirts emblazoned with CHICAGO LEFTOVERS to his teammates. "When pressure arises, he knows how to disarm it," Hershiser says.
On a hot day in June, for instance, Ventura noticed that the Mets seemed lethargic. At the end of one inning, he walked slowly off the diamond, allowing his teammates to pass him on their way back to the cool shade of the dugout. Suddenly, Ventura burst into a sprint and made a hard slide just outside the dugout, showering the bench with dust and dirt. "Wake up!" he yelled. "Let's go get 'em!"
"I don't even remember if we won the game," pinch hitter Matt Franco says, "but I remember it worked. He picked everybody up."
More timing: Before Ventura's clutch single against Houston, the Mets were being shut out on one hit by righthander Shane Reynolds. Ventura sensed that his teammates were anticipating an upcoming off day. "Rest day is tomorrow boys!" he yelled in the dugout in the fifth inning. "Work as hard as we can tonight and think about the rest tomorrow." New York won 4-0.
In a tense situation late in a game Ventura might announce loudly at the bat rack, "Time to break out Stumpy." Stumpy is the name he has bestowed on a bat that is shorter than his usual model. He also can summon El Negro, his name for an old black bat whose finish is peeling, and Big Country, a heavier model that actually belongs to catcher Mike Piazza. "I borrowed it the first time because I wanted to hit a home run," says Ventura, "and I did."