Luis Rojas’ formal introduction as Mets manager — in a Citi Field news conference at 3 p.m. Friday — is a big-time promotion widely considered well-earned, a big-time decision from leadership received warmly by the players and a big-time climax to his nearly decade and a half with the organization.
As Jeff Wilpon and Brodie Van Wagenen mulled their options in recent days and selected Rojas to replace Carlos Beltran, it was that longevity and institutional knowledge that emerged as a deciding factor.
So it is worth asking: How did Rojas come to join the Mets?
The answer involves a virtual nobody of a minor-leaguer, Omar Minaya’s front office and the way you behave when maybe nobody is watching.
“We knew he was going to be good,” said Ismael Cruz, a longtime scout who was central to Rojas’ hiring. “This good? We found out what he was during the years [since].”
Rojas became a Mets employee ahead of the 2006 season, but the story really starts in 2003, when he signed with the Expos, the third and final franchise of his playing career. Among the bosses in that front office: general manager Omar Minaya, farm director Adam Wogan and Cruz, the international scouting director.
Parts of three seasons with the organization didn’t yield many highlights for Rojas. In the grand scheme of a player-development system, he was not important enough for Minaya or Wogan to know him well, outside of his being part of the Alou family.
But the way Rojas conducted himself as a person — not necessarily as a player — earned the attention of Cruz.
“As a player, you saw he was treating everyone the right way,” Cruz, now the Dodgers’ vice president of international scouting, said by phone Thursday. “Being Latino in the United States, you look for a guy that helps others, kids who don’t speak English. He did that well with the Expos. He had all the good qualities of a coach — and more than that.”
After Minaya became the Mets’ GM, he eventually brought on Cruz to oversee international operations. And it was Cruz, Minaya said, who strongly recommended that they hire the 24-year-old Rojas as a coach for the club’s Dominican Summer League team.
That was Rojas’ first full-time coaching job.
“Luis was a smart kid. Bilingual, came from a great baseball family,” Cruz said. “He had the administration part down. The work on the field, that’s what he needed. He started from the ground up.”
“From the ground up” is not hyperbole. A job as a DSL coach is about as entry level as it gets for someone who wants to work in pro baseball coaching, and some of the duties are unglamorous.
“In the Dominican, it’s everything,” Cruz said. Rojas was a utility coach of sorts at the Mets’ Dominican facility, doing everything from making sure Mets minor-leaguers were sleeping and eating enough to throwing batting practice for unsigned pubescent prospects.
“That didn’t come with being a coach, but he did it anyway,” Cruz said.
Rojas wasn’t long bound to the Dominican complex. Like Cruz, Wogan had joined Minaya’s Mets in the same role he had with the Expos/Nationals: farm director. And Wogan wanted Rojas to start climbing the ranks at the team’s Port St. Lucie complex, so they brought him stateside for the 2008 season.
Helping teenagers who often were away from home or even in the United States for the first time, Rojas’ responsibilities were as much about life as they were about baseball, Wogan said. But he also was “a really good instructor who knew his stuff and was able to help his players get better.” Among Rojas’ miscellaneous duties: shuttling minor-leaguers from the hotel to the facility in a van.
“There are oftentimes just guys who stick out as someone to keep an eye on and hope you can find a role for so they can grow and help the organization,” Wogan, a Cubs pro scout, said by phone Thursday. “Because you know they’re destined for more responsibility and bigger things as they mature.”
Rojas bounced around the lower minors as a coach and got his first managing gig, guiding the Gulf Coast League Mets in 2011. Wogan called it “a natural progression for him.”
That natural progression hasn’t stopped. Three Mets GMs have had five managers since Rojas first joined the Mets, and now it is his turn.
“I’d love to look back now that he is [a major-league manager] and say, yeah, we knew all along,” said Wogan, who couldn’t claim such foresight. “But our staff prioritized him as a guy we wanted to be around our players. He’s done the right thing at every step, and it’s led him to a place where he’s ready to do this now.”