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Now he's ready, open for business. He enters the Mets' clubhouse wearing a ball cap on which is stitched one word--relax--and begins touching and tapping coaches and players and attendants, patting their bellies and their backs or putting both hands on their shoulders, looking each in the eye and asking, "How you doin'? How you feelin'? Anything I can do to make things better?" Asking that of Ray Ramirez, the only MLB trainer raised in Latin America, even before he inquires about the star player's injury. And really meaning it when he asks, unlike most people, says first baseman Carlos Delgado.
"A lot of players fear playing in New York, but he makes it human," says closer Billy Wagner.
"I can look in his eyes," says centerfielder Carlos Beltran, "and tell that he's not hiding anything."
A ma�tre d' more than a G.M., one who knows that feeling and atmosphere are everything. Checking on everyone's kids and wife so he can call or e-mail the sick or pregnant ones after their husbands leave on the next road trip. Engaging his players in long conversations about their former teammates, so he'll know who has the sort of character he might want to add to this room--or who might be lacking only this room to blossom. "We create environment," says O, "then bring a player here and let the environment work on him." Getting his hair shaved to the scalp, right along with his team, to help young star David Wright bust his slump. Asking players out to dinner, keeping all 10 fingers on the pulse. "In a clubhouse people know and see everything but usually keep it to themselves. They'll tell you what they know if they trust." Making everyone, even the clubhouse kid banging dirt from the superstars' cleats, feel that this whole production couldn't happen without him.
Making sure that the team's Dominican mom-and-daughter cooking tandem have all the ingredients they need to serve the team arepas today because it's Venezuelan Day, and mang� tomorrow because it's Puerto Rican Day, and barbecued pork the day after because it's Southerner Day.
Making sure that his white-haired instructors and coaches, such as Ozzie Virgil and Sandy Alomar, and even his pinch-hitting Methuselah, Julio Franco--who besides O signs a 47-year-old to a two-year contract?--are mingling with the young guys. "Why," asks O, "did our culture stop looking to old people for wisdom, the way other ones do?"
Huddling with his African-American manager, Willie Randolph, hired by O after 12 failed interviews with other teams, along with his four Anglo and three Latino coaches. "Constantly talking to us about the person, not the player," says Alomar, whose son Roberto felt so isolated playing for the Mets five years ago that he asked the front office to hire a liaison for Hispanic players. "Always bringing up the player's family and personal background, reminding us how to find the right way to say things to that player. Other teams were afraid to bring in this many Latinos . They were afraid of the fans' reaction and clubhouse chemistry. He's showing you can collect people from all over the world and make them click."
Delighting as traditional language barriers between Latin American and U.S. players crumble, as the Virginian third baseman, Wright, and the Dominican shortstop, Jose Reyes, bear-hug and tussle like puppies. "It's just different here," says pitcher Tom Glavine. "Most teams, you have a couple of guys laughing and joking. Here's it's all 25 guys, from all countries, goofing around with each other all the time. Sure, talent prevails in the short term over personality and chemistry, but long term they play a much bigger part than people think."
Mingling with the media on the field before the game, O making the writers and broadcasters, just like his players, feel good about themselves: "That's a verrry good question.... That's a verrry good observation...." High-fiving opposing players who flock to him during batting practice. Touching fingers with fans through the mesh behind home plate. Heading upstairs, asking the security guards and janitor what they think of the Mets' latest personnel move, then conferring with his front-office guys on their next one.
Here, around this conference table, is the dynamic that all the moguls who wouldn't hire O hadn't understood. Here's the yin unthreatened by the yang. Too wide-eyed, too trusting? Well, here's his narrow eyes, Tony Bernazard, the vice president of player development from Puerto Rico who squinted down O two years ago when he wanted to bring Sosa to the Mets. Who besides O in baseball management would hire union chief Donald Fehr's special assistant?