I still remember the day Jose Reyes began his Mets career. June 10, 2003. It was my 20th birthday. Reyes was 19, one day shy of turning 20 himself. He was the first major leaguer I ever saw who was born after me. This would become part of his lure to me and my younger brother, as we would always finish off his list of accomplishments with “dude, he’s younger than me!” Truth be told though, I knew who Jose Reyes was long before he showed up in Texas that day.
As a die hard Mets fan armed with a subscription to Baseball America, I would tell anyone who’d listen just how good he was going to be. Going into the 2003 season he was rated the best shortstop prospect in all of baseball. He was ranked number 3 in Baseball Americas annual top 100 behind only Mark Teixeira and Rocco Baldelli. Accompanied under his name was a blurb that read “Reyes is the Mets’ best everyday prospect since Darryl Strawberry blazed through the system in the early 1980s.” Who cared if the Mets were going through another irrelevant season, I was downright giddy about this kid.
Even as he hacked away at breaking balls in the dirt and fastballs 3 feet over his head that first season, you couldn’t help but notice how talented he was. Obvious was the speed. So was his defense and cannon arm. But not mentioned nearly enough was how quick his bat was. He got his hands around as fast as any Met player I’d ever seen. He seemed to be the rare athlete built entirely of fast twitch muscles. And raw as he was that first season he still managed to hit .330 in July, then .355 that August. “And dude, he’s younger than me!” With all due respect to Mike Piazza, Jose Reyes was my new favorite player.
By 2006, at the age of 23, he hit .300 with 19 home runs, 17 Triples and scored 122 runs. And yet, you still thought he could do more. He’d go 2 for 5, score 2 runs, and steal a base and you’d think “He could have went 5 for 5, he’s swinging at too many first pitches.” It’s a tribute to just how special he was. Watching him in his early 20′s you couldn’t put a cap on his ceiling.
But besides the excitement and talent he brought to the ballpark, his charm only added to his star. Reyes didn’t walk, he bounced. He had elaborate handshakes for everyone. While most players drudged through spring training he skipped around the field like a little kid. Smiling constantly, as though he was doing what he was always meant to. In a game that so many players treat as a job, you get the feeling that no person on earth, beer league softball players and little leaguers included, enjoy being on a baseball diamond more then Jose Reyes does. Even if you didn’t like his undisciplined skill set, he was impossible not to root for.
But still, good as he was, he frustrated you. After two disappointing years in 2009 and 2010, you wondered if this was the finished product. A very good, all star caliber player, but not great. He still swung at too many bad pitches. Made the bone headed play in the field, and would too often have mental lapses on the bases. It became harder to defend him from the people questioning whether he was a “winning player.” He had now been in the Major Leagues for 8 years. This was who he was. Until you remembered, “Dude, he’s younger than me!”
Statistically, a players prime almost always occurs from ages 28-32. Some begin a year or two earlier and some last a few years longer, but almost always, a player has his best seasons during that 5 year window. And like clockwork, Jose Reyes, during his age 27-28 season, finally became the player we always believed he could be. Through the first 3 months he was the favorite for MVP. He hit .354 the first half. Got on base at a .398 clip, finally displaying the plate discipline we had all but given up on. Even after his leg injury, he came back and hit .340 in September. He had finally mastered this game. Just in time to leave us.
As frustrating as it is being a Mets fan, I always appreciated the fact we could afford to keep our home grown players. And up until late Sunday night, the only conceivable tragedy involving Reyes and Wright’s careers would have been the Mets never winning a Championship with the two franchise players. You would never imagine either one of them leaving the team because of financial reasons. Certainly not in their prime. That doesn’t happen to big market teams. That’s a fate reserved for the Kansas Citys and Pittsburghs of the world. It’s why I always hated that there was a debate about re-signing Reyes in the first place. Because you don’t debate your home grown stars. You lock them up and get on with building your team. Reyes’ re-signing always should have been a tiny blurb buried in the sports section, a quick paragraph detailing the contract amongst other Mets notes. A 30 second snippet on Sports Center. Much like the Matt Kemp, or Jered Weaver re-signings. It never should have been big news. Because it was always supposed to happen.
Most players you draw a line in the sand with. Ollie Perez, Luis Castillo, Jason Bay, KRod. You tell them that this is what you’re willing to offer, and they can take it or leave it. You even do that with past their prime favorites like the Yankees did with Jeter a year ago. But you don’t do that with a 28 year old franchise player. You bend a little for him. The fact the Mets were willing to go 5 years for Reyes and not 6 is even more maddening. Wait, so it was O.K. to have a 33 year old Reyes but 34 was too old? “That jump from 33 to 34 is a real doozy.” Please! Stars are always given longer deals than you’d like. Because it’s the only way to get/keep them on your team, thats the nature of baseball contracts.
And while Reyes statistics may not have been worth 106 million (although his 2011 was) he possessed an intangible that could never be quantified in a statistic. He sold tickets. He sold Jerseys. He was the face of the franchise and most popular player. You didn’t miss a Reyes at bat. When the Mets were sitting 10 games out in September you’d always make sure to flip back every few minutes to see when he was batting. And in a game that has become less and less appealing to a younger generation, one that seems to prefer the fast pace of basketball and football, Reyes was an exception. Not only was he electric, but he was an absolute joy to watch. Whether it was him giving a pitcher fits on the base paths, legging out a triple, or gunning someone out, he was as exciting as anyone in the game. And the Mets were simply a different team with him on the field.
But I should have seen all this coming. For the 20 years I’ve been a fan of this team there is one thing that they’ve been consistent at year after year: the uncanny ability to screw things up. So it should’ve been no surprise that a franchise which has made a habit of signing players well past their prime, would allow their most talented player to leave just as he is entering his.
I know fans are supposed to root for the uniform and thats it. The players are interchangeable. And for the most part that is my thinking. While I root for guys like Murphy, Niese, Davis, and Duda, I can’t say I’ll be shedding any tears if they leave. But Reyes was always different. He was one of the few prospects that didn’t disappoint you. From the moment you saw him play you knew there was something special about him. The lightning quick hands, the sprinters speed, his ability to throw 90 mph while letting the ball go from his ear. And that million dollar smile of his, dancing around in the dugout. No player was easier or more enjoyable to root for. They simply don’t make many like him. He truly was a once in a generation talent. And thats why it’s so painful.
As a Mets fan I’ve become used to my place in the baseball universe. I long ago stopped hoping for top free agents. I never asked for Pujols or Prince, CC or Cliff Lee. I’m not asking to be the Yankees, Red Sox, or even the Phillies. Really, I just want my Shortstop back.
This Fan Shot was submitted by Noah Rainwater. Have something you want to say about the Mets? Share your opinions with over eleven-thousand Mets fans who read this site daily. Send your Fan Shot to GetMetsmerized@aol.com.