O hopped a flight
to Dallas that December of 1984, met Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson
and was rushed on to a red-eye for a 16-day blitz through Venezuela, Puerto
Rico and the Dominican Republic escorted by Rangers scout John Young, to see if
the kid could handle life on baseball's frontier. The kid could. "He's a
dynamo," Young reported to the home office. "He connects with people at
every level, from the owners to the batboys."
O's task: Stake a
Rangers beachhead in Latin America, land long ago claimed by other teams. The
Giants and the Pirates had been mining the Dominican Republic for years; the
Blue Jays and the Dodgers had baseball academies there. But O was a bird dog of
a different color. He, unlike most scouts, had command of both English and
Spanish. He could walk into the poorest prospect's home, wash down the oxtail
and goat stew with a tall glass of boiled roots without a blink, infect the
fathers with his easy smile, convince the mothers with his eyes. He could vouch
for their 17-year-olds' soft landing in the U.S.; why, O himself, who soon
doubled as manager of the Rangers' Florida Instructional League team, would be
their shepherd on the other side. His networks, like fungi, sprouted overnight.
The Mayor, visiting Rangers officials soon dubbed him. They learned to cop
their own rides to the hotel bar after a ball game; you could nurse four
Presidentes in the time it took O to part with the pay phone and the third
baseman's third cousin.
He loved the
chase. He flourished in flux. He lived out of a duffel bag, half the year in
Santo Domingo, a few months back in New York scouting his old turf, a few
months in Florida managing the Rangers' rawest prospects, flying to Central and
South America at the drop of a tip, always the last one on the plane. He'd
awaken at 5:30 in his Santo Domingo apartment, bang out his sit-ups and
push-ups, then jump into his old red jeep to catch two ball games and try out
five kids, ready for anything to happen, because everything did. Ready to hit
fly balls over the goat grazing in shallow center, and mercy grounders to the
ragamuffins who begged to be tried out along with the local stud. Ready for the
blackouts, the candlelight negotiations, the red jeep's crummy carburetor dying
again at midnight in the middle of dangerous countryside; thank God for that
fungo bat. Ready for the coiling mountain dirt roads and the fleabag hotels in
Venezuela, the threat of kidnapping during the cocaine wars in Medell�n,
Colombia. Ready, with the help of his network, to shanghai 16-year-old Sammy
Sosa off a weekend bus ride home from the Blue Jays' academy, just before
Toronto was likely to sign him, and turn him into a Ranger. Ready to shift
emotional gears without grinding, to sit at a table to sign a poor second
baseman to a $2,500 contract, only to discover that the box on the table was a
small casket containing the second baseman's dead baby brother.
He renovated a
ratty old field in a tiny sugar-mill town and procured a house, a generator, a
set of weights, 15 prospects to move in and a woman to cook and clean for them.
That freelance writer from the U.S., a former high school ballplayer named
Loren Feldman, interviewing him about Dominican baseball for a travel story in
GQ? Suddenly Feldman was the first base coach, and his wife, Jill, the English
teacher. Bingo, the Rangers had a baseball academy.
everything'll work out. O would convince everyone of that ... because he
believed it. And lived it. He and his old childhood pal from Queens, former
Mariners catcher Dave Valle, partnered in 1994 to form Esperanza, a foundation
that established AIDS clinics across the Dominican Republic and provided poor
women with loans to start small businesses. By then O was director of
professional and international scouting for the Rangers, spending more time in
the home office in Texas and discovering, just as he had everywhere else, that
he loved it. "Love the rodeo and the rednecks!" he'd gush. "Know
what I'm sayin'? I talk Texas, I get ex-cited! Texas gets a-hold of you! Love
those wide-open spaces! Love it, man!"
That was all he
needed, that one link with the Rangers' chairman, the future U.S. president,
and all the differences between them--life experience, politics,
philosophy--washed away, and they'd be friends for life, even sharing dinner at
the White House. You took people by what they had to offer, not by what they
didn't. That's how W entered the ever-widening circle.
One day in 1989 O
was getting a haircut in a Manhattan unisex salon. Nearby reclined a female
customer, long, lithe and olive-skinned. Part Irish, part African: O's kind of
the hairstylist, was looking at O the way O was looking at her. "Lay low,
Richard," he'd had to murmur. "Just a haircut." How, now, could O
ask him to ask her for her phone number? Easy--he's O. Richard sighed and
returned with Rachel Albright's number.
Within a year O
had her on Via dell'Amore in Castiglione della Pescaia, requesting her hand in
marriage, and three years later they were raising a toddler named Teddy in
Texas. But she was a Jersey girl, so it was bliss for them both that day in
1997 when O was shown to his new office, in the stadium he'd once stolen into,
as the assistant general manager of the New York Mets.
O was the
triggerman, the one who would urge G.M. Steve Phillips to make a deal whenever
he hesitated. The Mets missed the playoffs by a game in '98, made it to the
National League Championship Series in '99 and the World Series in 2000. By
then, with the explosion of Latino playing talent, it had become an
embarrassment to Major League Baseball that no Hispanic had ever been a general
manager and that black G.M.'s remained nearly as scarce. O's name emerged: a
double fix. He, after all, was the only Hispanic near the gates of power. He
had Len Coleman, the National League president from '94 through '99, twisting
owners' arms on his behalf, and everyone in baseball loved O. But....