Through the doors
to the New York Mets' clubhouse enter the young and the ancient, the slow and
the swift, the homegrown and the mercenary, the charitable and the thrifty, the
beautiful and (by official team balloting) the ugly, but never, for goodness'
sake, the easily insulted. � "Welcome," catcher Paul Lo Duca says,
"to Rip City, where we get on each other all the time." � True to their
home city's heritage, the Mets are a melting pot of cultures, customs,
languages and, yes, occasional off-color salutations that somehow works. Backed
by owner Fred Wilpon's money, shaped by a childhood dream of general manager
Omar Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic and reared in Queens, and
ably guided by second-year manager Willie Randolph, the Mets are the rare
sports team that has found instant success after a nearly complete overhaul. �
Of the 29 players on the active roster and disabled list at week's end, 16
joined the major league club since the end of last season. Only eight played
for the Mets before Minaya was named G.M. 22 months ago. And yet, in a
veritable New York minute, the Mets have become the best team (53-36 through
Sunday) in the weakest league in years, with by far the biggest lead in
baseball (12 games in the otherwise loser-filled NL East) and the thickest
skins this side of a Friars' Club roast.
"Look at the
personalities they brought in here," says closer Billy Wagner, an 11-year
veteran who signed as a free agent last winter. "We're all extroverts. Me,
Lo Duca, [Carlos] Delgado, Pedro [ Martinez].... It's not like guys came here
and were afraid to say something. I think that's why we clicked right away.
This is the best clubhouse I've ever been involved in. And the secret is that
guys can say anything they want to anyone at any time."
That's not to say
that communication is always clear. There was the time, for instance, when
backup catcher Ramon Castro ("the class clown," as Lo Duca calls him)
visited Wagner on the mound in a crucial situation against the Blue Jays.
"How about a
coo-ba here?" is what Wagner, born in the rural mountains of Virginia,
heard his Puerto Rican catcher say.
"Curveball?" Wagner finally deciphered. "I don't have a
O.K.," Castro said. "We're not throwing that anyway."
Castro is even
better known for his portrayal of ample-bottomed lefthander Darren Oliver, a
vaudevillian impersonation that he performs on charter flights-with the help of
two airline pillows stuffed into the seat of his pants.
Not even Martinez,
the three-time Cy Young winner, is immune from catching grief. After Martinez
overslept for a game in Toronto this year, he was greeted in the clubhouse by
Wagner, who took one look at Martinez's garish-colored outfit and bellowed,
"I sure hope you're not late because you were out shopping for