The Year of Jose Reyes

reyescollage The Year of Jose Reyes

Jose Reyes, running off the field after a great play with a grin on his face that makes Tom Sawyer look like Mickey Rourke, seems to have no idea of the burden he carries around.

Major League Baseball has become, largely, a Latin game. Other great Latin players came here after All-Star careers on other teams, but we’ve had Jose since age 20. Dominican-born Reyes is the first great Latin superstar to begin his career with the Mets. He’s ours, and with any luck he will never wear anything but orange and blue.

That is if Jose Reyes is a superstar.  A great many baseball analysts say he is.  For instance, in Baseball Prospectus 2009 he is called, simply, “The Most Exciting Player in Baseball.”  Now you can’t really be that and not be a superstar – can you?

Though his career so far is running neck-and-neck with Derek Jeter’s at the same age, a lot of Mets fans still aren’t sure. One wonders what their hesitation is.  Last year he hit .297 with 16 home runs, stole 56 bases in 71 attempts, led the National league in hits, and had 19 triples. That’s a pretty good season.  Reyes hits with consistency, knows how to get on base when he doesn’t hit (career on base percentage of .336), is a dazzling fielder at shortstop, and is flat-out the best base stealer in baseball (258 steals in his last four seasons).

So what are Mets fans waiting for?  Well, for one thing, that superstar breakout season that all great players are supposed to have. A World Series ring wouldn’t hurt either; getting to the World Series might do for starters.  

“He’s our igniter,” said Mets third baseman David Wright two years ago.  “As he goes, we go.”  Well, for the last two years, Reyes has gone with the Mets down to the wire, only to fade at the end.  His BA for the last two seasons from September on has been a hugely disappointing .223 over 52 games.

It would be ridiculous to blame the team’s collapses at the end of the 2007 and 2008 seasons on Reyes – but a super star is supposed to be able to prevent something like that from happening, isn’t he?  At least that’s the way the Mets’ following looks at it, and they’re not likely to see it any way different until their team wins the World Series. In New York that’s what a superstar is supposed to – ignite the team in important games.

It would be wrong to say that Jose Reyes isn’t a fan favorite; he’s one of the two or three most popular regulars in New York baseball right now. But in a very real sense, New York fans are still waiting for him to arrive.  Reyes isn’t so much competing with great players of the past as with himself – the Jose Reyes of his potential. In 2007 Mets announcer Gary Cohen called him “the most fabulously gifted player in the game, and the most exciting player baseball has had so far in this century.”  I don’t care what century you’re talking about, that’s a lot of potential to live up to.

Willie Randolph, a few months before his departure from the Mets, told me, “I can’t remember the last time I saw such a combination of power, speed and enthusiasm. He might have more sheer talent than any player I’ve ever seen.”  Constantino Viloria of El Dairio thinks that Reyes “has a great chance of bringing people together in this town as no Latino player ever had.” Meaning if the Mets win. 

No one put anything like that on Derek Jeter’s shoulders. But by the time Jeter turned 26, he already had three rings.   Or, stated another way, by the time Jeter was 26, no one was talking about his potential, they were talking about what he had already done.

Over the winter, Mets manager Jerry Manuel stirred things up by hinting that during the season, Luis Castillo might lead off instead of Reyes.  As is usual with Manuel, there was no really coherent reason offered for the possible switch – a few vague statements about needing to “rein Jose in” and make him “a more viable team player.” Exactly how batting later in the order, which would result in fewer runs for the team, would make Reyes a better team player was not explained. To the relief of Mets fans, Manuel seems to have abandoned the idea, and Jose can, happily, continue his progression towards future comparisons with the greatest leadoff man in baseball history, Rickey Henderson.

Meanwhile, the window of opportunity to win that World Series may be closing. Johan Santana is probably the best pitcher in the league. But he’s 30, and who knows how much longer he can continue to carry an increased workload (his 234 innings pitched last season were a career high). David Wright, like Reyes, is 26 and may be just hitting his peak.  But Carlos Delgado is 37 and Carlos Beltran turns 32 in a couple of weeks, and it can’t be assumed that they will continue to perform at superstar level.

Perhaps Jose Reyes smiles so easily now because he does not understand the burden on him. But it looks like this is the season for Reyes to be the player he can be and to erase the humiliations of the last two years.  The chance may never come again.