PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — At its highest level, baseball is a game driven almost equally by the whims of billionaires and the actions of its players. Both forces shaped the composition of the 2020 New York Mets – and what they will be in the future.
At 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, 90 minutes before the sun rose above the Treasure Coast, Luis Rojas pulled into Clover Park, intent on getting in a workout before the biggest day of his professional life. Oh, he knows the re-branded facility plenty well – Rojas toiled for 13 years as a coach or manager in the Mets’ system before spending 2019 as the big club’s quality-control coach.
This, however, was his first morning as manager of the Mets, the consummate good-guy-gets-big-break tale that brought a particular sense of renewal to the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers at spring training.
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Hardly a soul seemed to remember, or particularly care, why Rojas was helming the Mets on this day. That were it not for a group of ballplayers three years ago who decided to bang a trash can with a bat to cheat their opponents, it would not be Rojas firing up the squad in a morning meeting.
It would have been Carlos Beltran, hired as Mets manager in November, cut loose in January and, in between, claiming the club had little to worry about his connection to the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing scandal even as Major League Baseball probed the matter.
A nine-page report proved otherwise, going out of its way to finger Beltran as a ringleader, and now the Hall of Fame-caliber player may never manage a game in the big leagues.
Instead, it will be Rojas helming the Mets, and if MLB and its fans truly want to move past one of the ugliest scandals in its history, one that tossed Beltran and World Series-winning managers A.J. Hinch and Alex Cora aside, it could do worse than put its faith in leaders like Rojas, a 38-year-old Dominican Republic native who makes no qualms about expectations in Queens.
“I think that he speaks the truth,” veteran reliever Justin Wilson told USA TODAY Sports. “He feels like this team is built to win. And we do, too.”
Mets manager Luis Rojas talks with pitcher Jacob deGrom during a workout Wednesday. (Photo: Jim Rassol, USA TODAY Sports)
A handful of first workouts unfolded across the game Wednesday, but this was the only one featuring a two-time reigning Cy Young Award winner. Jacob deGrom’s freakish frame topped one bullpen mound, soon to be supplanted by veteran righty Rick Porcello, part of a six-deep rotation that gives the Mets significant hope they can win a few more than the 86 games they did last season.
It was a tumultuous 86 wins, boosted by a late-season run that briefly stoked playoff hopes but could not save manager Mickey Callaway’s job. Beltran was supposed to be the balm to that squad.
Instead, he and close friend Cora are sidelined, maybe for good, and as further details emerge from the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal, the oft star-crossed Mets look wiser for cutting ties.
Porcello was a Boston Red Sox in 2017, facing Beltran as a player as the Astros ambushed the Sox at Minute Maid Park, winning the American League Division Series in four games. The Astros hit three home runs off 308-strikeout man Chris Sale in the first of 11 playoff victories that resulted in their first World Series title.
He never played for Beltran, a concept he never really had a chance to ponder, so brief was Beltran’s tenure as Mets manager.
“That’s a great question,” said Porcello, who was racked by Beltran for 10 hits in 27 career at-bats. “I have a lot of respect for Carlos and who he was as a player. I faced him a decent amount of times. He’s a helluva hitter. He’s extremely intelligent. You can tell he has a high baseball IQ. I don’t really have an answer; I just haven’t thought that deeply about it.
“I’m playing for Luis Rojas and the New York Mets right now. That’s what I’m focused on and privileged to be a part of.”
Porcello, a 149-game winner and 2018 World Series hero for Boston, said he “loosely” followed developments in the Astros flap, acknowledging he’s more of an unplug kind of guy come wintertime.
The Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers all have grievances worth airing. Porcello chooses not to peek too far under the hood.
“Whatever they were doing, you don’t actually know how much of an impact it has on the field,” he says. “It’s really hard to quantify it and say, ‘Well, so-and-so got a hit or hit that home run because of a certain thing,’ I mean, we don’t actually know the exact nature of what happened. To beat yourself up over it, or beat them up over it, and look into the past, doesn’t do anybody any good.
“You have to move forward, figure out how to clean that stuff up and get back to an even playing field.”
MLB is expected to release refreshed guidelines on electronics use and real-time video monitoring – the fourth consecutive year it has stepped up such counter tactics – and extreme measures may heal some wounds even as backlash reverberates through spring camps.
The Mets will have their own mini-reckoning. Third baseman J.D. Davis was briefly an Astro in that 2017 season and reserve outfielder Jake Marisnick filled a similar role with Houston from 2014-2019.
Outfielder Michael Conforto said Tuesday that there will be “conversations about it. But there’s not going to be any animosity toward them. When you’re in a team setting, any these guys that are in here now, they’re our guys. That’s the way winning teams are.”
The Mets certainly believe that’s their identity, despite a winter of uncertainty.
In addition to the Beltran flap, a $2.6 billion deal to sell controlling interest in the club to minority owner Steve Cohen collapsed, amid reports owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon changed the terms of the deal in its late stages. Cohen released a statement that he was “disappointed” in the deal dying, while the Mets reiterated their intent to sell the team.
Mets manager Luis Rojas warms up with the team on Wednesday. (Photo: Jim Rassol, USA TODAY Sports)
For this group of veterans, such flux is almost expected. And in Rojas, they see a face they know well.
He has won a championship – guiding the 2013 Savannah Sand Gnats to the South Atlantic League title. That squad included current Mets pitchers Steven Matz, Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Paul Sewald, and outfielder Brandon Nimmo.
That made Wednesday’s morning dissertation all the more special.
“It was a lot of fun for me this morning to address them and have an engaging conversation,” says Rojas. “We all participated, the other coaches got involved. It was a working collaboration, so that was fun for me.”
Rojas said it was largely logistical, letting everybody know where to be and what to do and maximizing workouts and other such minutiae. It was also probably a lot more than simply logistics.
“Everyone was pretty fired up after he spoke,” says Porcello.
And so the Rojas era begins, a manager tapped in an emergency yet already wielding a steady hand for a veteran club that likely won’t require a heavy one. While baseball’s mercurial winter consumed several careers, there is one, at least, that may yet blossom in its aftermath.
“Absolutely,” says Porcello. “I’m always of the school that everything has a path and happens for a reason.
“Maybe that’s why that stuff happened, to give Luis this opportunity.”
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