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The Story of O
GARY SMITH
June 18, 2007
How did Omar Minaya, the major leagues' first Hispanic general manager, turn the Mets back into contenders? By welcoming one and all into his ever-expanding circle
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June 18, 2007

The Story Of O

How did Omar Minaya, the major leagues' first Hispanic general manager, turn the Mets back into contenders? By welcoming one and all into his ever-expanding circle

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News flashed in the midst of the family's nine-day wake for Joseito: He had been captured ... alive. Rather than surrender with fellow rebels, he had exchanged I.D.'s with one of them who had ended up being executed, then gone into hiding. Now both of O's cousins had been plucked, and Lolo hung on the vine, overripe. It was time, Antonia told her husband, to blow the smoke off one of his pipe dreams.

O watched his father pack and leave for America.

Lolo relished the freedom but couldn't bear the loneliness. If his wife and children wouldn't join him in Queens, he warned, he'd return and take his chances. And thus, one sunny October day in 1967, a bony, brown eight-year-old without two words of English appeared in the shadows of Shea.

His family's new neighborhood, Corona, was America compressed into a couple of dozen square blocks, a babel of tongues, a stewpot of nations--a threat to his identity or, if he had room enough inside, an infinity of possibilities. It was a choice everyone faced: clinging to the smaller, safer circle of his own kind or embracing the wider, wilder one.

The embrace began on the steps of an Orthodox church, with a pink rubber ball and a Greek boy named Gus. Then came a Cuban named Fidel and a Dominican named Johnny. Then a Jew named Peter, an Irish-Italian named Dave, an African-American named Freddy. Whenever a newcomer showed up--another awkward outsider--O seemed to recall his backyard in Valverde Mao and picked that kid for his team.

The Gents, a Latino gang, wanted O to join them. Fat chance. He didn't say it that way, of course. He'd grown up breathing the tension that trailed a man who didn't care whose hackles he raised; O would make sure to smooth every feather. But something in him recoiled from clubs, from anything that suggested exclusion. Give him public school, not the parochial one his sister Sixta attended. Give him the shiny blue National League jacket, spangled with every team logo, not the Mets jacket. Sure, he'd use police barricades as planks to scale the fence at Shea, but he was there to root for players-- Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Juan Marichal--not the home team. Too tight a circle. Too small an o.

Better to include the gang members in his circle. Better, after a couple of hours of stickball on 99th Street, to jaunt down Junction Boulevard talking baseball with his one-of-every-kind crew, grinning and greeting Caribbean vendors and Mediterranean deli owners, grabbing guava-jelly pastries at the Cuban bakery, a couple of slices to go at the Argentine pizza joint, some goat stew at the Dominican greasy spoon, then heading to Spaghetti Park, his shoelaces and shirttail forever flapping, to watch the old Sicilians knock bocce balls while he sucked Italian ice till his lips and tongue turned neon cherry.

A neurologist could tell you what was happening inside O's cranium. The wiring in his forebrain's limbic system--the cockpit for a man's emotional relationship with the world--was thickening and spreading, new neural pathways developing in response to all his happy new connections; his inner circuitry multiplying with his outer. His dad kept upping the ante. Every year or two Lolo would get an itch or the rent would rise, and the family would move a few blocks or a few miles to another apartment where O slept on a rollaway in the living room. He never asked for his own bedroom, closet or dresser, never needed to define his own space.

His family moved again when he was 16, to neighboring Elmhurst--identified by National Geographic as the most ethnically diverse zip code in America--and O's circle grew wider still. His new school, Newtown High, boasted children from 67 countries, offered him what he calls his first public girlfriend--a Korean--and elected him sophomore president. But O was underdog, not ruling class. He served his term and never ran again; it interfered with his obsession, the one exception to his no-club rule. His ball clubs.

The Corona Redwings--he'd play on two or three of their age-division teams at a time--consumed his summers, and Newtown High's nine owned his springs. O was ringleader of a half-dozen kids who played for both programs, conductor of their dugout ditties and all-city by his sophomore year. Newtown coach Warren Albert had the only team in the league that sang during games and the only player who demanded more suicide sprints after practice. O wore it all over his face like cherry Italian ice: He was going to play in the bigs.

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