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    Categories New York MetsRich Coutinho

An Excerpt From “Press Box Revolution”

CHAPTER 18

The “Los Mets” Era: Stereotypical Sports Reporting

When Omar Minaya took over control of the Mets after the 2004 season, he quickly elevated them to contender status by making a big splash in the offseason by signing Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran as free agents.

In my opinion, the New York media never gave Minaya the respect he deserved. He vaulted the Mets from also-rans to a final four team just two years after taking over a 71–91 team and was responsible for ending the Braves domination of the NL East. He also left the orga­nization in much better shape than he is given credit for. Their 2015 World Series team was loaded with parting gifts from Minaya, includ­ing the likes of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia, Daniel Murphy, Juan Lagares, Lucas Duda, and Stephen Matz, just to name a few.

In addition, Minaya made the move for R. A. Dickey, who his suc­cessor Sandy Alderson used to obtain both Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard.

Clearly, Omar made some mistakes and my overall point is not to canonize his tenure in New York but it was clear to me from the day he arrived that there were members of the media that made sure the term “Los Mets” became a negative description of how he built the team. Many of them would mimic his Spanish accent and some radio hosts would edit his interviews to poke fun at the way he spoke. It was a disgusting display of childish behavior from people who obviously did not understand that marketing Hispanic players was a smart business move.

And the ironic thing was Omar was a totally accessible executive who always returned phone calls and made the Mets a championship caliber club with the help of his managerial hire, Willie Randolph, who was also disrespected by the media.

During Minaya’s first spring training in charge, I readily noticed how the core media felt about this issue and I honestly thought it would just run its course but it never did. My feeling was it was up to me to learn about the Hispanic player’s culture, not the other way around. So I spent time with them in that first spring training learning about their journey to the big leagues. Both Martinez and Beltran opened up to me so much that I began to understand how pure their love of the game was. Sure, it put millions of dollars in their pocket but these stars had it in their souls and that is what many of my colleagues just could not understand.

So many Hispanic athletes lived in poverty and baseball was a blessing even though the fields they played on were primitive and their equipment substandard. I visited some of these places in the offseason and saw firsthand the environment they grew up in. But I also saw the passion that these communities brought to the table every single day. Knowing this made my skin crawl every time I heard a beat reporter make fun of the accent a player had.

One veteran reporter noticed my dispeasure and would routinely ask me what my problem was but most times I would just ignore it until one day when I finally had to say something. I shot back, “You guys do this every time a different culture comes into your baseball world and I will never understand that.” He gave me a death stare and we never spoke again.

I knew that once Carlos Delgado came to the Mets, he would never tolerate what the media was doing and quite frankly I loved it. I developed a great relationship with him and I believe to this day he spoke highly of me to his teammates, which helped me in a myriad of ways. At the time I was working at ESPN Radio and we had a show New York Baseball Tonight where I had to do a one-on-one pregame interview and I was one of few reporters Delgado would agree to that with, which angered my colleagues, even those that worked with me at ESPN.

Delgado once had a poor performance in a Subway Series game in the Bronx and I asked him about it. He reacted viciously to me and one reporter came up to me expecting me to trash Delgado, which I refused to do. My thought was he just had a bad day and he snapped. That is OK as he is entitled to feel frustration after a tough loss.

Before the next game at Shea, he called me over asking to speak to me in a corner of the clubhouse. A fellow ESPN reporter followed us, but Delgado asked him to leave, letting him know this was a personal conversation. He said, “Rich, I want to apologize—you have always been fair to me and I snapped at you the other night. You are the last reporter that deserved that.”

I give him so much credit for that as most players would just let it go but he did not. It is also an example of why you develop a relation­ship with a player based on trust. We talked about so many things over the years and I learned so much about his culture. He is also a shining example of how writers sometimes get a preconceived notion about a player and refuse to ever adjust that opinion.

Delgado came to New York with an on-field résumé defining him as clearly one of the best power hitters in the game. He was an RBI machine. He showed that time and time again and nearly carried the Mets on his back in their failed 2008 playoff bid. And I firmly believe if he had been a white player, his entire Mets career would have been viewed very differently.

One veteran writer said out loud while we were in Philadelphia, “Delgado is a punk and I wish him and I could go one on one.” At that point, I proceeded to laugh and when asked why I said, “That would be the shortest fight in history. But if you are determined, let’s alert the hospital emergency rooms in Philly.”

As time went on, every time the Mets would make a player move the quips in the press box would start. If a Hispanic player was added to the roster you’d hear, “Los Mets strikes again.” If the player was not Hispanic, you’d hear, “What’s going on? Minaya must have been told to do that.”

That was an awfully stupid comment as Minaya simply picked the best player available with Paul Lo Duca, Billy Wagner, Shawn Green, and J. J. Putz being some key acquisitions during his tenure. But never let facts get in the way.

Which brings us to the Tony Bernazard story, which became the defining moment that led to Minaya’s downfall. Bernazard was not the most politically correct executive I have ever been around. The first time we met, I introduced myself saying that I was the 1050 ESPN Mets reporter. His response was, “Big fuckin’ deal.” But there were times he was more talkative and I must admit he was a huge Daniel Murphy supporter, telling us one day he would become a dangerous hitter that could win a playoff series.

There were a litany of incidents in the Mets minor league system detailing times he had threatened players. After a series of these inci­dents were written about it in the Daily News, I ran into Adam Rubin, the writer who reported the story, while waiting for a postgame cab outside of Nationals Park in DC.

I mentioned to him that it must have been quite a week for him but he retorted that most don’t understand that Minaya and Bernazard should both be fired and he should be working inside the Mets orga­nization. I thought I was hearing things so I asked him to repeat it and he did.

A few days later, Omar Minaya announced that the team was ter­minating Bernazard’s contract and I witnessed the weirdest presser I’ve ever seen. During the media session, Omar indicated the reason this issue took so long to resolve was that Rubin had been campaigning for a job inside the organization and he had to evaluate the merits of the report.

Immediately, I thought of the conversation we had earlier in the week. We had all heard Rubin ask the Mets about working for the organization in a number of positions and I thought Omar was telling the truth especially based on what he told me in DC. But I did think this was certainly not the time for Minaya to reveal this.

Right after the presser, Rubin conducted an impromptu interview session and I asked the first question. “I just want to be totally clear: did you ever ask for a job inside the Mets organization?” His response floored me. “It is no different what you are doing, Rich. Can I tell them?” At that point, I said yes because even though I had no idea what he was about to say, I thought saying no would indict me with a topic most thought I did not want to share.

“You are taking the LSAT these days, Rich.” It was totally true but there was a basic difference—I wasn’t asking Jeff Wilpon for a position nor was I trashing a Mets employee whose termination would create a vacancy in that department. Rubin repeated his claim during an SNY show in which he was a guest.

This created a tough position for me because my ESPN bosses had no knowledge of this and I think it put doubts in their mind about my longterm future. Ironically, Rubin would take a job with ESPN that had been promised to me.

And let me be perfectly clear—I would never blame Adam Rubin because he was just trying to carve out his future but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t bitter about it. Since then, we’ve become pretty good friends and I totally respect his work ethic.

The whole incident just brought out more hatred for Minaya despite him apologizing to the reporter twice, which I personally thought was overkill. But that disdain for “Los Mets” began to show its ugly face after this incident more than ever before.

Minaya was now in his fifth season on the job, and I knew things would not end well for him after everything that had transpired.

He left the organization in a much better state than he will ever be given credit for but the thing that infuriates me the most is the dis­dain Mets fans still have for the term “Los Mets” and that is so out of line. The collapses of 2007 and 2008 were hard to swallow but Minaya remains, in my opinion, one of the best GMs in franchise history.

Whenever I say that, people look at my last name and ask if I am Hispanic, which I am not. But it is downright insulting to think that only a Hispanic writer could give him any credit. I certainly criticized him when I needed to but his overall report card is a good one (not great but good) and saying anything other than that is nothing but Los Mets hatred.

But treatment of Hispanics was not the only issue with covering the Mets in those days. Manager Willie Randolph was often treated in a disrespectful manner by certain members of the media.

I enjoyed being around the man who put an end to the Atlanta Braves’ run of fourteen consecutive division titles in 2006 but who never gets credit for it. Early in the 2008 season, Ian O’Connor wrote a story that Willie felt racism could be an issue in New York and even cited the media’s treatment of former Jets coach Herman Edwards. Willie later rescinded the comments but I wish he hadn’t.

If you think there aren’t journalists in New York with racist tenden­cies, think again. It is a only a small faction of the press, but I sensed it during Willie’s tenure as both Minaya and Willie had to deal with it. I covered Willie as a player and he was a great guy with a terrific sense of humor who was always available to chat after the game. When he became manager, most wrote he deserved the chance but I started to hear some comments that made me wonder such as, “Willie is a smarter manager than I thought he would be.” What exactly did that mean? That a black manager can’t be smart?

Early in his tenure, his pre- and postgame press conferences could sometimes get a little tense, but one day I had the opportunity to chat with him one on one and I was able to see the same side of him I enjoyed while he was a player. We talked about a variety of things other than baseball and from that moment on our relationship was great.

When I shared that experience with other reporters, most snickered, saying that it was up to Willie to reach out to them. Are you kidding me?

A few weeks later, Willie was sitting in the dugout joking with a group of reporters and trying to figure out what celebrities each of us looked like and when he came to me, I stopped him, saying, “C’mon Willie, don’t say Tom Cruise—I get too much of that.” He replied, “Yeah, you’re Tom Cruise so I guess I’m Denzel.” At that point, a writer mentioned to me that he thought Willie was being a phony. I started to think about the closet racism I witnessed twenty years ear­lier covering Strawberry and Gooden and thought that although two decades had passed, not much really changed.

Willie did a fine job in his first year as the Mets stayed in the play­off race until falling out of it in September, but he never let the team quit as they posted their first winning record in four years. In 2006, with more reinforcements obtained by Minaya, he led them to a 97–65 record—the team’s best winning percentage in eighteen years. How­ever, injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez weakened the starting rotation when the playoffs began. Nonetheless, the Mets swept the Dodgers in the NLDS and forced a seventh game in the NLCS against the Cardinals.

This is where the media started to turn on him and I think they were totally off-base. In that Game Seven, he chose Aaron Heilman to pitch the top of the ninth of a tie game rather than his closer, Billy Wagner. He did it because Wagner had faded in this series, giving up a homer to So Taguchi that gave St. Louis a win in Game Two as he was starting to have difficulty getting right-handed batters out.

After Yadier Molina’s two-run homer off Heilman gave the Car­dinals a 3–1 lead, the Mets put their first two runners on base in the bottom of the ninth and rather than sacrifice them along, he had pinch-hitter Cliff Floyd swing away. Floyd struck out and we all know the rest, including Adam Wainwright striking out Carlos Beltran to end the series. After the game, the media piled on Willie and although I may have bunted there, I firmly believe it was one of those decisions that you could defend going either way as Floyd was certainly capable of getting an extra-base hit.

The 2007 season was different from the start as the media began questioning every move Randolph made starting in spring training. Behind the scenes, VP of player development Tony Bernazard was also criticizing him. He would make snide remarks about his decisions and that was feeding the media fodder for their stories.

Despite all of that, the Mets were 83–62 with a seven-game lead on September 12, but over the next three weeks they would win only five games and miss the postseason. Willie took the collapse very hard but never used one excuse the entire time, taking full accountability although you could feel Bernazard’s hand wreaking havoc with Mets players. My sense is he wanted bench coach Jerry Manuel at the helm and knew if players challenged Willie, it would hasten his departure.

Omar Minaya went to bat for Willie after the collapse but a poor start in 2008 sealed his fate. Mangerial firings are a part of baseball but the way Willie was let go was hanndled very poorly. The team split a Sunday doubleheader and we all waited hours to see if Willie would board the team plane to the West Coast. When he did, we all thought he was safe for now. But after winning a game in Anaheim, Willie was fired, one of the strangest nights I’ve ever spent as a reporter.

Randolph helped change the culture in the Mets clubhouse and a break here or there might have given him a more successful tenure in Queens. For him not to get another shot at managing makes me think some of the things I’ve always thought—that racism does exist and like it or not, it will affect the perception people have when minorities are put in position of authority.

I heard the racist comments in the press box, so I know what Willie was feeling was real and not contrived. I lived through a period where reporters would say Magic Johnson is a great athlete but Larry Bird is such a smart player. I know what they were saying—the white player is smart but the black player is athletically gifted. I realize that these stereotypes will probably never leave the minds of some reporters.

In spite of the way they were treated by some in the media, it should never be forgotten that Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph were important reasons the Mets came within an eyelash of reaching the 2006 World Series.

Rich Coutinho :