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Joy Ride
TOM VERDUCCI
July 17, 2006
Fueled by putdowns and cutups, the slaphappy Mets-a franchise whose revival is way ahead of schedule-are dominating the National League
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July 17, 2006

Joy Ride

Fueled by putdowns and cutups, the slaphappy Mets-a franchise whose revival is way ahead of schedule-are dominating the National League

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Says a rival National League G.M., "They were the best team we've seen this year. But like everybody else, there are questions about their pitching. Everyone's scrambling for starting pitching, and it's everyone's dilemma that there may not be anything out there better than what you already have."

With the Marlins keeping Dontrelle Willis off the market, Minaya's best option for obtaining a pitcher who would start one of the first three games of a postseason series would seem to be Barry Zito, a potential free agent at season's end whom Oakland would consider trading only in a deal that keeps the A's competitive this year. That could mean that Minaya would have to give up 21-year-old Lastings Milledge, an athletic, aggressive outfielder who's precisely the kind of player who fits Minaya's vision of how the Mets should play the game.

"I grew up a fan of National League baseball and teams like the Dodgers, Pirates and Giants," Minaya says, recalling some of the early adapters of integration. "I believe in a balance of speed, power and pitching, like the way those teams played ball. I always wanted a team like that. The Mets never were one of those organizations. Traditionally they relied on pitching in a big ballpark. I always wanted more athleticism, and from Day One that's what I've tried to do here."

Minaya inherited two cornerstone players to help implement his blueprint: shortstop Jose Reyes and third baseman David Wright, both 23, who this week were scheduled to become the third-youngest pair of teammates to start an All-Star Game (trailing only Bobby Doerr and Ted Williams of the 1941 Red Sox and Dean Chance and Jim Fregosi of the 1964 Angels). Mr. Wright, as his many admirers refer to him, is fourth in the league in RBIs, with 74, though his matinee looks and knack for clutch hitting earn him no slack in the clubhouse.

"He's Visine," Wagner says. "You know, eyewash. One time he dove to catch a bunt he could have caught standing up. We all went like this...." Wagner rubs a finger along his eye, as if wiping away a tear.

" Wagner said that?" Wright says. "He talks a lot for a guy from the woods. You can't get in a word with that guy."

Reyes, meanwhile, is teaching Wright Spanish and, with his slashing hitting style and derring-do as a base runner, is schooling the rest of the league in how to disrupt opponents. "The best feeling of all," says Reyes, smiling, "is sliding headfirst into third base with a triple." (He leads the majors with 12.) So dangerous with his legs is Reyes that he is on pace to join MVP runner-up Lenny Dykstra of the 1993 Phillies as the only players since 1937 to score more than 140 runs without hitting 20 home runs.

"His improvement since last year is mind-boggling," Tracy says of Reyes, whose on-base percentage has risen from .300 in 2005 to .357 in '06. "The Mets are a good team, but when he's on base they're a different team. He takes them to another level."

Reyes has benefited from the counsel of 47-year-old backup first baseman Julio Franco, who was the first player Minaya tried to sign after being named Mets G.M. Minaya could not lure Franco away from Atlanta then, but he succeeded last winter by giving him a two-year contract.

"As long as I'm running a team, there are two guys who will always have a job with me: Rickey Henderson [a Mets special instructor] and Julio Franco," Minaya says. "That's how much I think of [ Franco] as a person. He's like an extra coach on the staff. I knew he was as important to our chemistry as anybody."

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