Although it is the policy of this magazine not to make election endorsements, rarely does a write-in candidate with such all-encompassing virtues come along. A candidate with honor. A candidate with charisma. A candidate who not only embraces diversity but also personifies it. Most important, a candidate who knows what it's like to battle back from the brink of despair, who isn't afraid to look pressure in the eyes and laugh. A candidate who embraces the disadvantaged, the tired, the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. A candidate who believes in a thing called hope.
Never mind Gore and Bush. The New York Mets are the real thing. What more could any red-blooded American voter want than New York's breathtaking three-games-to-one Division Series upset of the San Francisco Giants, in which the Mets showed off a commitment to strong defense (four games, no errors) and a powerful arsenal of arms (starters Al Leiter, Rick Reed and Bobby Jones allowed four earned runs over 23 innings), a knack for neutralizing enemy superpowers ( Barry Bonds batted .176 for the series with no home runs) and a penchant for October Surprises ( Benny Agbayani's Game 3-winning solo homer in the bottom of the 13th inning and Jones's one-hitter in Game 4). "We're all about destiny," said utilityman Lenny Harris, after New York's 3-2 Game 3 win, in which he reached first on a fielder's choice, stole second and scored the tying run in the eighth inning. "We believe anything is possible. We may not be the biggest or the strongest or the most skilled, but we have the heart of champions. Any obstacles, we will overcome."
Speechwriters, take notes.
A Mets administration will be one in which no individual is left behind ( New York dressed 33 players for the division series, though only 25 were on the active roster); in which prosperity reigns (a $83 million payroll, fifth highest in the majors) and a young immigrant in search of the American dream can succeed. In the Giants' 5-1 Game 1 victory at Pacific Bell Park, for instance, Mets rightfielder Derek Bell was chasing Bonds's third-inning triple when he fell and sprained his right ankle. The next day New York manager Bobby Valentine surprised most of his players by bypassing veterans Darryl Hamilton and Bubba Trammell and inserting into rightfield and the leadoff spot a 23-year-old rookie who, just last year, batted .174 for the Japan Central League's Carp and had been with the Mets for 36 days. Did Valentine know something about Timoniel Perez the rest of the world didn't? "To be honest, I had no idea how Timo would perform," said New York first baseman Todd Zeile after Game 2. "I don't think anyone did."
Yet another nod to our candidate: The Mets are willing to make gutsy decisions, and they usually pay off. Perez batted .294 for the series, going 3 for 5 with two RBIs in New York's 5-4 Game 2 victory and then doubling and scoring a run in the fifth inning of Jones's 4-0 Sunday-evening masterpiece. Most important, he provided something the Mets had lacked since May 13, when they released their poker-playing malcontent, Rickey Henderson: fire atop the order. Perez began many of his at bats with an attempted drag bunt down the first base line. In the seventh inning of Game 4, he half-swung, half-bunted a chopper toward Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia, who—rushed by the lefthanded Perez's burst from the batter's box—fired an errant throw to first. Three batters later Perez easily stole second. "No question, Timo provided the needed spark," said New York catcher Mike Piazza. "He jump-started our offense."
Five years ago, when he was working as the international scouting director for the Texas Rangers, Omar Minaya was in San Crist�bal, Dominican Republic, searching for young talent. He came across a diminutive 17-year-old with blazing speed and a quick bat. One problem: Perez had already signed a contract with Hiroshima, for whom he would go on to hit .271 with only nine steals over four seasons as a part-time player. Minaya, who was named the Mets' assistant general manager in 1997, continued to follow Perez's career from afar. Apparently nobody else did.
"I'm sure people saw this tiny guy who didn't hit for a very high average and only stole a couple of bases," says Minaya of the 5'9", 167-pound Perez. "But I knew some things: First, Timo had dynamite speed; they just don't run much in Japan. Second, he had major league potential."
After last season, during which he endured a strained hamstring and a trip to the Japanese minors, Perez was confronted by some fuzzy math from the Hiroshima owners and asked to take a pay cut. Instead, he signed a minor league contract with Minaya and the Mets. Perez, who speaks Spanish and Japanese but little English, began this season with Class A St. Lucie but was upgraded to Triple A Norfolk after eight games. He was summoned to New York in late August. "This is my dream," he said in Spanish on Sunday night, during a champagne shower in the Mets' Shea Stadium clubhouse. "I always wanted to play in America...in New York, but you don't always get what you want."
Not true, young Timo. Not true. With the Mets, anything is possible. How else to explain Jones, an injury-prone enigma who missed most of last season with a right shoulder sprain and spent parts of April, May and June rediscovering himself in Triple A, cruising through the potent San Francisco lineup with an 85-mph fastball and a helium curve? How else to explain New York's major-league-leading 45 come-from-behind wins this season? The Mets have played 54 postseason games in their history, and nine have been decided in the last at bat, 13 in extra innings. Maybe that's why, after Agbayani's 13th-inning solo blast off lefthander Aaron Fultz fell into the left-field bleachers on Saturday night, the New York players jumped and leaped and yelled and laughed—but displayed no shock. Now, the Mets know that as a team with three lefthanded starters ( Leiter, Mike Hampton and Glendon Rusch) and a deep bullpen, they match up well against the leftist lineup of the St. Louis Cardinals.
"When I was with the Rangers and we'd play the Yankees, we'd fall behind and there was always a sense of, 'Here we go again,' " said Zeile. "We wouldn't give up, but things would get very negative. Here, that never, ever happens. We can be down 10 in the bottom of the ninth or down one, and we always think we're going to win. We're made up of winners."