Come on Folks, It Wasn't All Bad

I’ll begin with something of a long, drawn-out disclaimer: I have a high tolerance for pain and an awful lot of patience.

For those who don’t know—I certainly don’t keep it a secret—my favorite football team is the Detroit Lions. And for those who don’t follow pro football, the Lions have been terrible for the longest time. In 2000, after a 9-7 season, owner William Clay Ford hired television analyst Matt Millen to serve as team president and general manager. From 2001 through 2007, Millen’s Lions went 31-81, good for a .277 winning percentage. When he was fired in 2008, the Lions were in the midst of the NFL’s first 0-16 season. Unlike some other terrible GMs you can think of—Isiah Thomas, Mike Milbury—Millen didn’t do anything right. He had no experience as an administrator or negotiator. He couldn’t draft, famously spending four of five consecutive first-round picks on wide receivers, and his track record after the first round was nothing short of hideous. He hired and fired head coaches left and right. He hired coordinators those head coaches didn’t want. He refused to accept advice from his coaches as to what kinds of players fit their schemes. He made bad free agent signings and bad trades. He once shouted a slur at a former player in front of members of the media. He was even terrible at showing up at the office. The reason? He commuted to work. From Pennsylvania. And for all this, Matt Millen was the highest paid executive in the sport, earning a salary of $5 million a season. By comparison, Bill Parcells made $3 million. He lasted nearly eight years. I cannot fathom it despite living through it.

Now, I’m not married, and I don’t have any kids, so I feel free to say this (if also a little guilty). The day Matt Millen was fired was one of more joyous days in my life. I had a smile a mile wide. I danced as I walked. People I barely knew congratulated me, wanted to shake my hand, told me how happy they were for me. It was a moment of liberation, one that almost any sports fan can appreciate even if they never experience it. For one day, everyone in America was a Lions fan.

But today is not one of those days, not for me. I began with the disclaimer, so here’s the confession: maybe it’s only because I had to sit through Millen, but I like Omar Minaya; I even think he’s a decent GM. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think he needed to go. Unfortunately, I feel the nature of the business—specifically the part where your performance on the job is the subject of extensive public discourse—makes it very difficult for a GM to be successful for a long period of time. The John Schuerholzes, the Theo Epsteins, the Billy Beanes, the Brian Cashmans are the exceptions, not the rules. Unless a William Clay Ford is at the helm, GMs just don’t get to disappoint for very long. There’s too much money at stake and too much ignominy for failure.

And unfortunately, I think an awful lot of Minaya’s strengths have either been forgotten or purposely ignored by his detractors. Things have been bad for long enough that no one has any interest in the positives anymore. Here they are.

He inherited a terrible team. At the end of the 2004 season, guys like Wilson Delgado, Eric Valent, Gerald Williams, Todd Zeile, Jason Phillips, Victor Zambrano, Kris Benson, and Kaz Matsui were everyday or semi-regular players. Braden Looper was the closer. Although budding superstars Jose Reyes and David Wright were in place, the rest of the organization was built around Mike Piazza, Al Leiter, and Tom Glavine. The farm system, Lastings Milledge aside, was dry. And the front office was an absolute joke: the Wilpons had hired a couple of babysitters to watch over GM Jim Duquette, guys who undermined his authority when it counted. This sort of confusion is what led to the disastrous 2004 trade deadline maneuvers.

And just two years later, the Mets were one strike away from the NLCS after treating the National League like its rag doll for most of the season. Omar Minaya brought in guys like Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, and Paul Lo Duca, and also made some savvy acquisitions in Jose Valentin, Xavier Nady, Duaner Sanchez, John Maine, Oliver Perez, Ramon Castro, Chad Bradford, Endy Chavez, Pedro Feliciano, Orlando Hernandez, and Darren Oliver. You can say it wouldn’t have been possible without the money. You’d be 100% correct. But Al Harazin can tell you that the money won’t do anything for you if you hand it to the wrong players or fail to figure out who’s going to fill out the margins.

And after 2006, when things started to fall apart, Minaya retained some of this ability. The Johan Santana trade was a steal. He acquired Luis Castillo for Drew Butera and Dustin Martin. He found Ruben Gotay, Damion Easley, Fernando Tatis, Nelson Figueroa, Angel Pagan all of whom excelled in various roles. Even the moves I didn’t like rarely hurt the team in the long run: Jeff Francoeur, Nady, Lo Duca, Doug Mientkiewicz, trading away Lastings Milledge. Some even helped. He had his blips, Heath Bell being the most obvious. I still firmly believe that Bell—and there weren’t many bigger fans of his than I—needed a change in scenery to blossom, so I don’t really blame Minaya for trading him away so much as trading him away for Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins.

But even beyond the personnel acquisitions, Minaya deserves credit for entering a potentially caustic work environment and stabilizing it, at least in the short term. He insisted on bringing his own people in, guys like the now infamous Tony Bernazard, Sandy Johnson, and Russ Bove. He revamped a medical system, bringing in Ray Ramirez to be the new trainer, who was very well respected, and that worked in the short term, though it is once again under fire. For a couple years the ship was sailing in a direction, and one I, at least, trusted. Minaya identified targets, he acquired them, and it like he was in control.

And for all of Minaya’s difficulties towards the end of his tenure, he rarely panicked, especially after the 2007 collapse. Many wanted him to trade the core. Minaya didn’t, recognizing the value of talents like Beltran, Wright, and Reyes. He believed in the power of the farm system, rarely trading guys away unless he got a star like Delgado or Santana in return. If anything, he was overly cautious with the youngsters, not trading a couple while their values were high. But after the willy-nilly recklessness of the Duquette and Phillips regimes, it was a welcome change.

In the end, how many better GMs have the Mets had? Believe it or not, Minaya has a higher winning percentage than any other GM in team history except Johnny Murphy, who had the good fortune to inherit some great work from Bing Devine and the bad fortune to only serve as GM for a couple years. Devine was great but only had the keys for 13 months. Frank Cashen is certainly the class of the organization. But after him? Minaya might be next. I suppose it's a little sad if that's true, but at the same time Minaya deserves some credit.

It’s true that I haven’t really felt confident in Minaya since the 2008-2009 offseason. There’s always going to be a part of me that thinks losing the 2008 race on the last day for the second consecutive season unhinged Omar a little. The Perez contract was an obvious disaster. Although he had always tended to hand out contracts that were a little too long, he inexplicably fell in love with the vesting option, which led to the disaster that is the K-Rod deal. The JJ Putz deal looks terrible in retrospect. And the moves didn’t look any better as the season began. Ramon Castro for Lance Broadway. Omir Santos. Alex Cora. Trading for Jeff Francoeur. And then there was the whole bizarre Adam Rubin press conference. For the first time, Omar seemed desperate. And it hasn’t gotten better.

So, no, I’m not sorry to see Minaya go. But I’m awfully glad he was here.

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