Building a Beisbol Brand

Building a Beisbol BrandBuilding the Béisbol Brand
By Jonathan Mahler NY Times 2005

On the June morning that I visited the Mets' Dominican Academia de Béisbol, a pair of perfect diamonds surrounded by stucco walls topped with barbed wire in the tiny town of Boca de Nigua, the Dominican Summer League had just begun. The Mets' prospects were playing the Detroit Tigers' prospects.

One of the Mets' most promising young players on the island, a 17-year-old shortstop named Samuel Jiuz, was making his first start. As he took infield and batting practice, it was easy to see why the Mets are so high on Jiuz. He possesses what scouts call ''plus tools'' -- a strong arm, soft hands, speed and power -- as well as a ''good body.'' Lean and muscular, he appears in no danger of growing fat. Right now, he's listed at 6-foot-3 and 176 pounds, but with better nutrition and weight training, the Mets' senior scout for the Dominican Republic, Eddy Toledo, expects him to put on 25 pounds of muscle over the next few years. Scouts like to match a prospect with the major leaguer whom he most closely resembles; Toledo compares Jiuz to the former All-Star shortstop Tony Fernandez.

Both of Jiuz's parents died years ago -- his mother in a motor-scooter accident, his father of a lung ailment -- and he was raised by an uncle in San Pedro de Macorís, the Dominican Republic's most fertile source of major leaguers. Jiuz started playing baseball at age 9 with a makeshift glove, fashioned from a milk carton, and a homemade ball, essentially a small rock wrapped in twine and then dropped in a sock. A local agent, or buscón (''finder''), spotted him playing in the street a year later.

The Mets first saw Jiuz in a local tournament for 13- to 14 year-olds, but Major League Baseball prohibits teams from negotiating with players until they are 16, so they just signed him a few months ago, shortly before his 17th birthday. His buscón was initially looking for at least a $100,000 signing bonus, but the Mets managed to talk him down to $47,500. Jiuz paid the buscón 12 percent -- a bargain considering that some buscones take as much as 25 percent -- and bought his grandmother a house in San Pedro. In addition to free room and board at the Mets' academy, Jiuz will earn about $700 a month for the duration of the summer season, during which he'll be splitting time at shortstop with a more-developed prospect.

Just before the game was about to start, Rafael Pérez, the Mets' new head of international player development, and I settled into plastic lawn chairs behind the Mets' dugout. In the second inning, Jiuz, who hits from the right side, lined a big-league curveball into right field for a base hit. There were only a handful of people watching, and there was no real cheering to speak of, but the Mets' manager made sure that the umpire gave him the ball for Jiuz: it was the first hit of his professional career. Jiuz was still smiling when he came back to the dugout, his sinewy arms dangling from his Mets uniform, to grab his glove and start circulating the ball among his teammates for their autographs.

The next inning, the smile disappeared. First, Jiuz fielded a sharply hit ball in the hole and launched a throw 10 feet over the first baseman's head. Then he let a routine grounder bounce between his legs. A couple of innings later, he snared a line-drive up the middle and was about to step on second to start an unassisted double play when he dropped the ball.

Pérez, who until recently ran Major League Baseball's office in the Dominican Republic, didn't look surprised. ''You've got great talent here, but many of these kids haven't learned the fundamentals,'' he told me. ''Look at Jiuz. He's got the tools, and he's a great kid, but you can't expect him to be fielding like Omar Vizquel'' -- the Giants' slick-fielding shortstop from Caracas.

With his shaved head and wire-rimmed glasses, Pérez, who pitched in the Pirates' minor-league system in 1989, looks more like a Latin-American studies professor than a former ballplayer. When Omar Minaya, the new general manager of the Mets and baseball's only Latin-American G.M., hired him this spring, Pérez was best known for waging an uphill battle to try to regulate the buscones, whose long list of alleged offenses include doctoring birth certificates and encouraging prospects to use performance-enhancing drugs. But it was something else that piqued Minaya's interest in him. As the head of Major League Baseball here, Pérez was intimately acquainted with the various academies -- all but two teams have one -- and thus knew as much as anyone about how big-league teams go about developing gifted but unschooled players like Jiuz. His job now is to use that knowledge to turn the Mets' academy into the island's most efficient baseball factory. He is doing the same thing at the team's complex in Venezuela.

That Latin America produces more than its fair share of major leaguers is hardly news. But almost anyone who watched the All-Star Game earlier this month had to have been surprised at just how outsized a role Latinos, and Dominicans in particular, have come to play in professional baseball. A record 24 of the 60 players originally selected were Latin American. Half of them were Dominican. (Venezuela was second among Latin-American countries with five.) A quarter of all major-league players are now Latin American, and that number is virtually guaranteed to grow: almost half of all minor leaguers are Latino.

With the signing of Pedro Martínez and Carlos Beltran, two of baseball's best Latin players, and the broader implementation of what the Dominican-born, Queens-bred Minaya refers to as his ''global development plan,'' the Mets are now engaged in the most overt acknowledgement yet of the game's changing demographics. That plan includes, among other things, dispatching coaches like Mets' missionaries to run free baseball clinics around the world. While major-league teams have been harvesting Latin America for 50 years, the Mets are going a step further, self-consciously rebuilding and, no less important, rebranding themselves as an international team whose ethnic makeup will reflect the increasingly Hispanic city they represent. The team's Latin-inflected style of play -- fast, aggressive, emotional -- will be unmistakable and, if Minaya's hunch is correct, irresistible to New York. But the birth of the so-called New Mets points up a cultural shift in the game as much as a stylistic one. Long one of the great institutions of assimilation -- immigrants once studied box scores so they might sound more American -- baseball now celebrates, even exploits, its diversity.

Even for a franchise that began its life more closely resembling a comedy troupe than a baseball team, the past few years have been particularly humiliating ones for the Mets -- and by extension for their owner, Fred Wilpon. After winning the National League pennant in 2000, the team imploded, barely finishing above .500 in 2001. In the subsequent three seasons, they dropped to 75-86, 66-95 and 71-91, landing in last place in their division twice and second to last once.

For Wilpon, the situation was especially dire because he was finalizing plans with Time Warner Cable and Comcast to launch a Mets TV network in 2006. The decision had been inspired by his crosstown rival, the Yankees, whose YES Network -- which offers a seemingly endless loop of Yankee home-shopping opportunities, hagiographies of Yankee ''legends'' and broadcasts of Yankee games -- had been a financial boon to George Steinbrenner. But the Mets didn't have a century of ''great moments'' to fall back on. ''The way things were going, who was going to want to watch our new network?'' Jeff Wilpon, Fred's son and the team's chief operating officer, told me recently in his office at Shea. ''Who cared about the Mets?''

His father decided to take action, not only bringing in Minaya but also giving him the money he needed to buy the two priciest free agents on the market. In the wake of the acquisitions, Wilpon wanted to make the most of the new buzz around the team. Jerry Seinfeld, a lifelong Mets fan, suggested that he speak with a partner at the advertising agency that had produced his American Express commercials. And so, not long after the Mets signed Martínez and Beltran, they signed Ogilvy & Mather. Within a matter of weeks, ''Next Year Is Now'' posters -- the first strike in the repositioning of the Mets -- festooned the city's subway stations and bus shelters: ''Next Year Is a Crowded 7 Train,'' a reference to the subway line that stops at Shea, and ''Next Year Is Pedro and Piazza Speaking the Same Language.''

More pointedly, the Mets unveiled a parallel advertising blitz aimed at Hispanics, a campaign reflecting the new and proudly multicultural face of baseball. (This year's All-Star home-run derby embraced this theme too, pitting players from eight different countries -- five of which were in Latin America -- against one another.)

When the Mets started playing in Flushing, Queens, in 1964, the borough was still heavily Italian and Jewish, so it is not surprising that their fan base has historically been white. By contrast, Washington Heights, which is right across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium, has long been a favored destination for Dominican immigrants. Until this year, the Mets largely limited their efforts to attract Latinos to two promotions, Merengue Night and Hispanic Heritage Night.

But Queens has changed -- today, the 7 train, which runs along Roosevelt Avenue, cuts through one Hispanic neighborhood after another en route to Shea -- and so have the Mets. This off-season, after unloading Al Leiter, John Franco and Mike Stanton and picking up Martínez, Beltran and Miguel Cairo, the Mets decided to make an aggressive play for Hispanic fans. ''We basically said we had to step it up a whole other notch,'' says Tina Bucciarelli, the team's senior director of marketing.

The comedian John Leguizamo, who was born in Colombia and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, played himself in a radio spot on the sports station WFAN in which he left a series of increasingly desperate phone messages begging Minaya for tickets. Ads for ''Los Mets'' appeared earlier and more often in El Diario, the biggest Spanish-language newspaper in New York, and on Spanish-language television. Spanish speakers were added to the ticket-sales office, the group-sales department began aiming at churches and schools in Hispanic neighborhoods and a new season-ticket package, ''the Pedro Pack,'' was born (tickets for eight games, including his first home start, and Pedro Martínez Bobblehead Day).

In March, when the Mets were looking for a new exclusive bank sponsor, Minaya created more cross-promotional possibilities by reaching out to a friend, Richard Carrion, the chairman of Banco Popular, a bank that caters to New York's Hispanic population. Banco Popular's name is now plastered all over Shea. Dominican players have been enlisted to appear at branch openings (alongside the team's mascot, Mr. Met). Customers opening accounts receive two free tickets to a Mets game, and Banco Popular recently started running free round-trip buses on some game days to Shea from Latino neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

The Mets have directed much of their Hispanic marketing energy toward the radio. Spend any time in one of New York's Latin neighborhoods, and it's easy to see why. The streets are crowded with kids playing ball and old men sitting on the sidewalk in beach chairs, and many are listening to transistor radios. One Spanish-language station, WADO, now broadcasts nearly all of the Mets games as well as a weekly call-in show with Minaya. A well-connected Latin events promoter, Vidal Cedeno, acts as their publicist with Hispanics; among other things, he has encouraged radio hosts to banter about the Mets. Tune into La Mega, the city's largest Spanish-language radio station -- La Mega's morning show is often the highest-rated in any language in New York -- on a day when Pedro Martínez is slated to pitch, and you will hear an endless stream of Mets chatter.

WFAN has added its own Hispanic-themed call-in show, the Latin Beat, whose host is Roberto Clemente Jr., the scion of one of baseball's most revered Latin-American pioneers. Clemente, who has also worked as a Spanish-language broadcaster for the Yankees, avoids the usual sports-talk-show carping and focuses instead on broader issues of interest to the city's Latin fans: recently he encouraged a debate on who's a better role model for young Latin Americans, Carlos Beltran or Alex Rodriguez.

The Hispanic population's appetite for the Mets is clearly growing. ''People are always asking me why I write so much about the Yankees,'' says Fadiel Lebrón, who covers both New York teams for Hoy, another Spanish-language daily, ''even though I'm writing as much, maybe even a little more, about the Mets.'' But it's not the Mets per se that many Latin fans are responding to; it's their Latin players. Dominican loyalty in particular seems to transcend the rivalries that most American baseball fans take for granted. The interiors of bars in Washington Heights are just as likely to be draped in Red Sox pennants and jerseys -- the team's Dominican-born left-fielder, Manny Ramirez, grew up in the neighborhood -- as they are in Mets or Yankees paraphernalia. ''When Pedro used to come into Yankee Stadium, the Dominican flags were everywhere,'' Clemente says. ''They want to root for their guys. Now they're coming from the Bronx to Shea Stadium to root for their guys.'' In much the same way that an earlier generation of Brooklyn Dodgers ate at Toomey's Diner in Flatbush, a number of younger Dominican players -- both Yankees and Mets -- frequent El Nuevo Caridad, a Dominican restaurant on 191st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.

If You Get Pedro, They Will Come

Last December, when Omar Minaya offered Pedro Martínez a four-year, $53 million contract, not everyone in the Mets' front office was convinced he was the wisest investment. The team's statistical analyst, Ben Baumer, a 27-year-old graduate of Wesleyan University with a master's degree in applied mathematics, made the case for Matt Clement instead. Baumer agreed that Martínez would be the better pitcher in 2005, but he marshaled stats suggesting that Clement might well be a better value over the course of a four-year contract. Martínez's walk rate was trending up, while his strikeout rate was trending down, and in 2004, for the first time in his career, Martínez exceeded the league average in home runs per pitches thrown. Clement, by contrast, was still improving. His control wasn't as good as Martínez's, but his 2004 strikeout rate was, and he had held opposing hitters to a lower batting average. In three years, Baumer figured, Clement could be as good or better than Martínez, and he was certainly going to be a lot more affordable.

Baumer may have been right -- Clement, who signed with the Boston Red Sox, and Martínez may both win 20 games this season -- but Minaya knew that in Martínez he was getting more than just a pitcher. ''Pedro was as much a marketing signing as a baseball signing,'' he told me when I first spoke with him in March at the Mets' spring training camp in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Minaya's hope was that Martínez would bring fans -- especially Latin fans -- out to Shea and raise the team's profile in the Dominican Republic so that more of the country's most talented prospects would want to become Mets.

Sure enough, a few weeks later, when Martínez made his Shea Stadium debut on a cloudless, 55-degree afternoon in Queens, the Mets drew the largest Saturday crowd in the 44-year history of the franchise. The rundown ballpark, which is adjacent to a row of chop shops and sits directly beneath the flight path of La Guardia Airport, was awash in the Mets blue and orange but also in the blue, red and white of Dominican flags that fans were waving wildly along the first- and third-base lines. Martínez didn't disappoint, giving up just two runs on three hits and striking out nine over the course of seven innings. The Mets won in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the ninth. After the game in the interview room next to the clubhouse, Martínez, who had by now had time to shower and dress, conjured visions of a new era at Shea: ''Now the Latin population is coming in, and you're starting to see some Dominican flags and things like that. People are going to start following me, and I have a lot of people. And with the population that we have of Dominicans in New York, I think it's going to be even greater.''

Martínez was right. Even though the Mets at midsummer were hovering around the .500 mark as they had for most of the season, attendance at Shea was up 30 percent, and Pedro was the main reason: the Mets typically draw about 5,000 more fans for games that he starts. It's a phenomenon reminiscent of ''Fernandomania,'' when Mexican fans crowded into Dodger Stadium to watch their chubby ace with the fluttering eyelids, Fernando Valenzuela, baffle hitters with his screwball. Fernandomania lasted just one season; the Mets are hoping that Pedromania will continue through the duration of his four-year contract, long enough to consecrate a new era at Shea. In the Dominican Republic, the enthusiasm for Martínez is no less palpable. All of his outings are on national TV, and when he's on the mound, people crowd around television sets in open-air bodegas known as colmadones, their bottles of Presidente beer sweating through brown paper bags.

Martínez, who signed with the Dodgers in 1988 for $5,000, cuts an idiosyncratic figure in the locker room. Most of his teammates show up at the park in polo shirts and jeans; he favors a dandier look that includes white Nike sweats, a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag and his trademark Jheri curls. When he received his 2004 World Series ring, Martínez had to be prodded to model it: ''My fingers are too ugly, too skinny. They're not ring fingers.''

For years, Latin players in the big leagues were considered moody and self-absorbed, which was very much Pedro Martínez's reputation when he arrived in New York. But Minaya spoke with several of Martínez's Red Sox teammates before signing him and heard a different story. ''Pedro was very well liked by most of his teammates in Boston,'' he told me. ''He may not have been very well liked by some of the media, but the media's perception of who's a good clubhouse guy isn't always right.''

Martínez is certainly less accessible to the media than the rest of his teammates, refusing to arrange interviews in advance and never talking to reporters for more than 10 minutes or so. He can get testy, especially when he's asked about his old nemesis, the Yankees. Earlier this season, during a news conference on the eve of the Subway Series at Shea, he snapped at a writer who suggested that it was an important set of games: ''Why is it so important? Is your newspaper going to sell a lot of papers?'' Martínez rarely makes appearances outside the ballpark, spending most of his free time gardening at his home in Westchester. On his pitching days, his intensity creates a force field around his locker as he dresses for the game, a painstaking ritual that entails, among many other things, rolling on a heavy dose of deodorant before pulling on an undershirt that reads ''Quién es tu padre? Jesús'' and cleaning every last vestige of mud off the bottoms of his spikes.

But since coming to the Mets, Martínez has been anything but aloof. He has been a mentor to younger pitchers and even offered useful advice to the 39-year-old Tom Glavine. When the sprinklers accidentally went on during one game at Shea, he danced through the water. He has been known to put on a show for his teammates as well. One day this summer, a flat-screen TV in the locker room was tuned to ESPN Classic, which happened to be broadcasting a 1999 game in which Martínez, pitching for the Red Sox against the Yankees, struck out 17. A small crowd gathered around as he narrated, a half-English, half-Spanish performance that included impersonations of the hitters he was facing.

You Can't Walk Your Way Off the Island

The architect of the New Mets, Omar Minaya, was 8 when his family moved to Corona, Queens, from the Dominican Republic in 1967, a little more than five years after the assassination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo. The fall of Trujillo marked the end of a brutally repressive era in the Dominican Republic -- Minaya's father was among the many jailed for speaking out against his regime -- and opened the door for thousands of Dominicans to leave the country. Like Minaya's parents, most of them came, and continue to come, to New York in search of higher-paying jobs. The Dominican Republic, a country of nine million, is the world's 84th most-populous nation, but it has consistently ranked as New York's single biggest source of legal immigrants.

When Minaya's family arrived in Queens, his mother, a schoolteacher in the Dominican Republic, took a job in an eyeglass factory. His father worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Unlike an earlier generation of immigrants who had, by and large, been eager to disappear into the fabric of American life, most of the Dominicans who arrived around this time still felt a strong attachment to their homeland; many hoped to eventually return there when they had earned enough money to retire. This was also the era when Dominicans were starting to stand out in the big leagues: in 1966, the Dominican brothers Mateo and Felipe Alou finished at the top of the National League batting standings. Minaya's father took him to his first big-league game at Shea to see their fellow countryman, the high-kicking San Francisco Giant Juan Marichal, pitch against the Mets.

Minaya attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, Queens, in the mid-1970's, when the ethnic makeups of the neighborhood and school were changing. One afternoon in the late spring, I went with Minaya, a tall, broad-shouldered man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, to his alma mater for the unveiling of a new baseball field. The students who filled the metal bleachers during the dedication ceremony were mostly Hispanic and Asian. Minaya -- ''a Newtown graduate and the man responsible for the Mets hysteria in Queens and in the Dominican Republic,'' as the M.C. described him -- was called to the podium to speak. As he approached the microphone in a creaseless blue suit and crisp white dress shirt, the school's baseball team went crazy, chanting rapid-fire: ''Minaya, hey! Minaya, hey! Minaya, hey!'' I learned later that every single member of the Newtown Pioneers baseball team is Hispanic and that all but two, a Puerto Rican and a Colombian, are Dominican.

Minaya was an all-city catcher at Newtown. After hitting .498 his senior year, he was drafted in the 14th round by the Oakland A's. He gave most of his $14,500 signing bonus to his parents, who used it to buy the house they would eventually retire to in the Dominican Republic, and then he flew out to Bend, Ore., to join the A's rookie-ball team. Minaya could not hit professional pitching, though, and within a couple of years he washed out of the minor leagues. He extended his career by playing a couple of seasons of pro ball in Italy before moving back home to Queens, where he worked two jobs, loading trucks in the meatpacking district in Manhattan and spraying perfume on shoppers at Bloomingdale's, while looking for something more permanent in baseball.

In 1984, a scout put him in touch with Sandy Johnson, the new head of scouting and development for the Texas Rangers. Johnson had played in the Latin-friendly Pittsburgh Pirates organization and was looking to beef up his new team's presence in Latin America. He offered Minaya $11,000 a year to cover the Dominican Republic and other Latin countries for him.

At this point, the Dominican Republic had been producing major leaguers for almost 30 years: Ozzie Virgil, the first Dominican-born player to make it to the big leagues, made his debut at third base for the New York Giants in 1956. Baseball had come to the Dominican Republic at the end of the 19th century via Cuba, the game's longtime Caribbean nexus. According to Rob Ruck, a historian and the author of ''The Tropic of Baseball: Baseball in the Dominican Republic,'' the game was initially played by the children of upper-class Dominican families who could afford to send them to the United States to study (and play ball). With the help of the U.S. military, who occupied the country from 1916 to 1924, baseball soon trickled down to the lower classes.

Before long, Negro League teams were plucking players from Dominican baseball clubs. With the exception of those Cubans whose skin was light enough to enable them to pass as white, though, baseball's color barrier was almost as restrictive with respect to Latinos as it was with respect to African-Americans. When Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947, a few teams started scouting the Dominican Republic, most notably the Giants, who made an exclusive agreement with the country's premier baseball club, giving them a pipeline to future All-Stars like Marichal and the Alou brothers. But it wasn't until after the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the subsequent U.S. blockade, which made it virtually impossible for American teams to import Cuban athletes, that big-league clubs came to the Dominican Republic en masse. During the 60's, the Latin presence in the majors continued to swell. In 1971, a Pirates team that had players from four Latin-American countries won the World Series.

By the time Minaya arrived in the Dominican Republic in the mid-80's, the first academies were under construction, and the image of Latin ballplayers in the United States was in transition. With a few exceptions, Latin major leaguers had been considered more valuable for their gloves -- the poor condition of the fields in the Caribbean and South America produces players who could handle grounders on the moon -- than their bats. ''A Latin guy was a good-field, no-hit type of a guy, a defensive type of guy,'' Minaya told me. But during that time, San Pedro de Macorís, a city that had already produced scores of lithe, sure-handed shortstops, also gave the big leagues a new generation of brawny Dominican outfielders, including Pedro Guerrero and George Bell. Baseball historians like Ruck have explained this phenomenon genetically and culturally. San Pedro is surrounded by sugar-cane fields, and many of the players who emerged from the region were descended from West Indian stock. Their forebears were manual laborers who had come to the region to cut cane and spent their free time playing cricket.

Other parts of the country were soon churning out power hitters, too. It may have been that big-league organizations were now making sure that their Latin prospects were eating right. Or perhaps it just took some time for Latin-American players to overcome the self-perpetuating light-hitting stereotype. That said, given the alarming rate of steroid use in Latin America -- players in the Dominican Summer League were drug-tested for the first time last year, and 11 percent came up positive -- it is hard to ignore the probability that performance-enhancing substances also played a role.

The image of Latin ballplayers was changing in another sense as well. For years, Latinos had been labeled hot-headed, a reputation that made many general managers wary of stocking their rosters with them. Juan Marichal, who infamously clubbed the Dodgers' catcher Johnny Roseboro over the head with a bat in 1965, reinforced the image. ''I think a lot of writers couldn't communicate with Latin players,'' Minaya says, ''and by not communicating with them, they created a false perception.'' As greater numbers of Dominicans and other Latinos broke into the majors, though, more writers made an effort to get to know them, and that perception started to change. What had been considered volatility in an earlier generation of ballplayers was now recognized as intensity.

It was in the Dominican Republic that Minaya developed his taste for the sort of athletic and aggressive, if raw and often impatient, ballplayers who are endemic to the island. That Dominican prospects aren't usually known for their plate discipline makes sense. There is an expression in the Dominican Republic that goes something like this: ''You can't walk your way off the island.'' (José Reyes, the Mets' 22-year-old Dominican shortstop and leadoff hitter, whose inability to take pitches drives fans crazy, is a case in point.) Among the dozens of free-swinging prospects Minaya signed while working for Texas was a skinny but physically gifted 16-year-old kid from San Pedro named Sammy Sosa. Minaya paid Sosa $3,500, and to make sure that he was fed well, he persuaded the Rangers to give his family an extra $500 for a generator to keep their food from spoiling during the country's regular power outages.

When Minaya became an assistant G.M. in charge of talent evaluation for the Mets in 1997, he was already one of baseball's most vocal champions of international, and particularly Latin, players. Not long after arriving in Flushing, he presented his boss, Steve Phillips, with a 50-page report on how the Mets could better exploit the overseas market. His proposals included adding full-time scouts in Panama, Colombia and Japan.

In 2002, Minaya was hired away from the Mets to run the Montreal Expos, making him baseball's first Latin-American G.M. It was a job that not many of his colleagues would have touched. The Expos had just been taken over by Major League Baseball. The organization had no front office to speak of, and the team was slated for contraction at the end of the season. The Expos survived, of course, and partly because Minaya was able to turn them into playoff contenders. Before this season, they relocated to Washington as the Nationals and have spent much of the season at the top of the National League East division.

Still, when Fred Wilpon, the owner of the Mets, brought Minaya back to Queens as the G.M. last September, he was in some ways an unconventional choice. An ex-ballplayer who never graduated from college, Minaya represented a departure from the Ivy League-educated G.M.'s increasingly in favor. What's more, although he was only 45, he was an old-fashioned baseball man, skeptical of the increasing fixation on statistics. Among the attributes Minaya did display in Montreal was the ability to attract and retain Latin players. Despite the club's perpetually on-the-brink status, he managed to re-sign the pitcher Livan Hernandez and the second baseman Jose Vidro to long-term contracts; both have been critical to the success of the Nationals, a team that, along with the Dodgers, has the highest percentage of Latinos in baseball.

As Minaya banters in Spanish with the various Latino Mets during batting practice or in the locker room after a game, it's easy to see why so many Latin-American players feel comfortable with him. During his courtship of Martínez and Beltran, Minaya was not shy about playing up their shared heritage. He visited both players at home in Latin America, in Beltran's case taking along his new Puerto Rican deputy, Tony Bernazard, who had for years been the go-to guy for Latin players in the Major League Baseball Players Association. Only a couple of years earlier, Roberto Alomar, the Mets' second baseman, complained that the players had no Spanish speakers to turn to for guidance. Now both Martínez and Beltran cited the front office as a key factor in their decisions to join the Mets.

After the Martínez and Beltran signings, a number of other Latin free agents, including the pitcher Odalis Pérez, made it known that they, too, were interested in playing for the Mets. But Minaya's Latincentric approach backfired with the Puerto Rican free-agent first baseman Carlos Delgado. ''I'm not doing you any favors; you're not doing me any favors because we're speaking in Spanish,'' he told The Toronto Star in early March. ''I'm a man first.'' Minaya chose not to comment, but he was suddenly chafing at his team's new nickname, Los Mets. ''The Yankees have been Los Yankees for a long time,'' he told me, a little defensively, ''and no one ever talks about that.''

Minaya is clearly not filling ethnic quotas; he is building the best team he can, one that, as he puts it, ''reflects what New York is all about.'' Even with all of the Mets' off-season acquisitions, they are still far from predominantly Latin. Their 40-man roster at spring training was about 28 percent Hispanic, which landed them in baseball's Top 10, but only barely.

In Search of the Next Sammy Sosa

There are no fences surrounding the Dajabon ball field, nor is there any grass to speak of. The pitcher's rubber is made of cement. The outfield is bumpy, weed-strewn terrain where horses sniff around for a snack. Located less than five miles from the border of Haiti in the northwest corner of the Dominican Republic, Dajabon is an unlikely place to be discovered, but on a 100-degree-plus afternoon in June, five teenagers in soiled T-shirts, tight baseball pants and weathered spikes were stretching out their calves and hamstrings in right field as Rafael Bournigal, a former big-league utility infielder and the Mets' chief international scout, walked onto the field, possibly ready to change their lives forever.

For the next hour or so, Bournigal put the prospects through the usual paces. They ran the 60-yard dash, handled some balls at their respective positions and took batting practice. The Dominican Republic's reputation for turning out shortstops notwithstanding, this dry, dusty and impoverished region is better known for its pitchers and catchers. There are so few fields here that it's hard to do much more than play catch.

Sure enough, the two players who most interested Bournigal were a 17-year-old switch-hitting catcher and a right-handed pitcher a year older. The catcher wasn't tall, but he did have a ''good body'' -- muscular but not too thick. As he started rifling balls down to second base, it was clear that the kid had a ''plus'' arm. Bournigal rated it a 60 out of 80, which means that he already throws better than an average big-league catcher. His mechanics as a hitter were poor; among other things, he started his swing too late. He had good bat speed, though, which is much harder to teach. The pitcher was tall and lean and had a ''projectable frame'' -- wide shoulders, which suggested that he was still filling out. Although his fastball topped out at 88 miles per hour, a respectable, if not attention-grabbing, velocity, he had a good curveball and changeup and threw what scouts call a ''heavy ball,'' which means that his pitches sink naturally and are therefore hard to drive.

After the tryout, the prospects and several of their teenage friends who had come to watch piled onto scooters and sped off. Bournigal talked to the buscón who had set up the workout and arranged to have the pitcher and catcher sent to the Mets' academy outside Santo Domingo, about a five-hour drive away. If they performed reasonably well in simulated games, always a concern because most of the prospects here have very little game experience, Bournigal would probably sign them both.

The odds that either of them will ever set foot in a big-league dugout are slim. According to the Mets, about 25 percent of the Dominican prospects at major-league academies will graduate to rookie ball in the United States, and only 4 to 5 percent will make it all the way to the majors. Because the average bonus is around $30,000, though, most teams can afford to sign a couple of prospects each month. Clubs can carry only 35 players at a time, so they create space at their academies for new players by simply cutting others who aren't progressing quickly enough.

When Minaya joined the Mets, he told Bournigal that he wanted him to be more aggressive in the Dominican Republic and in the international market in general, even if that meant paying more for players. Earlier this month, Minaya proved how serious he was when he authorized Bournigal to spend $1.3 million (plus college tuition) on the most coveted offensive prospect in the Dominican Republic, a 16-year-old outfielder named Fernando Martínez.

In 1999, the Mets signed Jose Reyes, a top prospect who learned to play shortstop with his bare hands, for just $15,000. But bonuses here have been increasing exponentially in recent years, a reality that concerns the Mets' longtime senior Dominican scout, Eddy Toledo. The average Dominican earns $2,000 a year; the hunger, both real and metaphorical, tends to create intensely focused prospects. Toledo worries about players losing their desire if they get rich before being sent up to the States. ''Almost 100 percent of the players here come from poor families,'' he told me one day at the Mets' academy. ''It's hard to be here at 1 o'clock in the afternoon in the summer when you have millions.''

A Vision of a Mets Finishing School

To get to the Mets' Academia de Béisbol, you head due west from Santo Domingo. After about a half-hour, you pass a battered blue missionary church in Boca de Nigua. At the pink cinder-block carnicería, you take a left. It's slow going from there because of the foot traffic; cows, roosters, shoeless children and women with plastic water jugs all fight for space along the narrow dirt road. Eventually, you reach the Mets' complex, and a blue garage-size door slides open to reveal a small, elderly Dominican man with a mustache and a holstered gun. Behind him is the main diamond set against a backdrop of laurel and mango trees and, off in the distance, the Caribbean Sea.

Rafael Pérez has big plans for the Mets academy. For starters, he wants to improve the food -- the meal I ate there was a tasty though not particularly healthy plate of fried chicken, rice, beans and fried plantains -- and living quarters. Players currently sleep in dorm rooms that could easily be mistaken for those in a low-end youth hostel: bunk beds with flimsy, dirty mattresses, tiny cubbies for their clothes and no air-conditioning. He is going to upgrade the weight room and the rest of the facilities as well. There will be an Internet room for the players and satellite TV. On the walls of the cafeteria, which are now bare except for a few yellowed newspaper clippings of the big-league club, he envisions a colorful map of the United States with stars next to all of the podunk towns where New York Mets minor leaguers play -- the road to Shea.

But the most meaningful changes will be less visible. To Pérez, the academy should be as much a finishing school as it is a baseball factory. He expects a prospect to learn how to speak English and how to open a bank account and balance a checkbook. He will encourage more cross-cultural mingling by taking down American prospects for a few weeks every winter. (The Mets did this with four minor leaguers last year; they lived in the dorms during the week but moved to hotels on the weekends.)

Pérez, speaking the language of the new, international Mets, has total faith in Minaya's plan. ''What we're doing is no different from what I.B.M. has done for years,'' he told me. ''It's part of the globalized marketplace.'' But not everyone in baseball is convinced that spending more money down here is the best way to remain competitive. In 2003, the Milwaukee Brewers shut down their Dominican academy. At the time, the team's general manager, Doug Melvin, told the media that it wasn't a good use of their resources. Instead of keeping the academy stocked with players who were never going to make it to the big leagues, Melvin said the team's scouts would be more selective, and their Dominican prospects are now sent directly to rookie camp in Arizona.

There is something anachronistic about investing so heavily in unproven Dominican players. Since the emergence of Billy Beane, the Oakland A's G.M. who built a successful team by trusting statistics over his scouts' intuition, G.M.'s have looked increasingly to numbers to project the future success (or failure) of a prospect. Even promising high-school players in the States are now encouraged to join competitive summer leagues so they can generate more meaningful statistics. But Dominican prospects remain unquantifiable.

Yet in another sense, what Minaya is doing isn't so different from what Beane has done -- and, indeed, what the head of any company in any competitive business tries to do. By drafting unathletic players who wouldn't have rated a second look from most scouts but who nevertheless managed to post consistently solid numbers, Beane was looking to exploit a market inefficiency. With his emphasis on international prospects, Minaya is doing the same thing. Consider Fernando Martínez: while $1.3 million is an unusually high signing bonus for a Dominican prospect, it is still only about half of what a top first-round draft pick in the United States can expect to get.

The Mets probably wouldn't have landed Fernando Martínez had they not signed Pedro Martínez first. During spring training, when Fernando Martínez came to Florida to work out for several clubs, his buscón told Minaya that his client was especially excited about the Mets because of Pedro. To Minaya, this was his global-development program in action. Of course, if and when Fernando Martínez makes it to Flushing, Pedro Martínez may be gone. By then, though, Minaya expects the New York Mets to be, as he puts it, ''a brand that will be wanted throughout the world.''