9:45 am Sep. 30, 2011
On August 16, 1999, back when Mike Piazza was in the first year of his seven-year, $91 million contract, the Mets signed a 16-year-old amateur free agent from the Dominican Republic named Jose Reyes.
Since then, throughout his dozen years in the Mets organization, it has seemed like Reyes' New York story would end one of two ways. One possibility was that he would ultimately fail to fulfill his brilliant potential because of injuries that sapped his production and robbed him of his extraordinary speed. The other possibility was that Reyes would become the star everyone expected him to be, spend his career as a driving force behind the Mets until he retired, and have his number seven placed alongside the retired numbers of Tom Seaver, Gil Hodges, Casey Stengel and Jackie Robinson.
It simply never occurred to anyone that a player as spectacular as Jose Reyes would end up leaving New York for a bigger paycheck elsewhere. New York teams aren't supposed to let popular, homegrown stars go.
Which is why the Mets' season finale at Citi Field on Wednesday—and quite likely Reyes' final game in a Mets uniform—was so shocking.
Reyes left the game after laying down a bunt single in the first inning, preserving the batting average that would earn him this season's National League batting title. That was it.
It took the fans a few moments to figure out what had happened, before a few of them, denied the chance to give Reyes the emotional ovation they'd gone to an otherwise meaningless game to give him, booed.
The reporters in the press box expressed disbelief, too. Discussion followed: What was Reyes' finishing average? (.337.) What did the Brewers' Ryan Braun need to catch him? (3-for-4 or 4-for-6.) Why didn't the Mets at least let Reyes run out to his position the next inning, so he could come off the field to an ovation? (Silence.)
After the game, Reyes said all the right things. A group of reporters had left manager Terry Collins' teary post-game news conference and walked the sterile white corridor underneath Citi Field that leads to the Mets clubhouse. There, at a locker near the entry, Reyes reminded everyone that he hadn't officially left yet.
“I want to be here,” Reyes said into the beat guys' outstretched recorders. “Of course, we don't know what's going to happen.”
But Reyes, whose default aspect is an almost implausible cheeriness, delivered his statement the way a dying patient resolutely vows to fight on.
The thing is, he's eligible for free-agency after the season, and is in a position, according to some estimates, to ask for a multi-year contract paying him in the neighborhood of $20 million a year. The Mets, meanwhile, are strapped, as team owner Fred Wilpon and his partners attempt to stave off a several-hundred-million-dollar claim on their money from the trustee for the victims of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme.
LONG BEFORE FRED WILPON TALKED about Reyes' limitations to the New Yorker in what was supposed to have been a Madoff-related-damage-containment exercise, he compared Reyes to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
"His smile lights up a room," Wilpon said of Reyes back in January 2003. "He's a nice kid. That's very important. If he plays well, and that's the biggest thing, he's going to be very good."
The Mets had actually tried to trade Reyes once by then, offering him to the Cleveland Indians in 2001 for a washed-up Roberto Alomar. Thankfully, Cleveland passed.
But the Mets had started to realize what they had, and thereafter started refusing other teams' solicitations for Reyes.
By 2002, Jose Reyes was an idea; he meant that things would get better tomorrow. He still hadn't been in a major-league game, so most Mets fans had never seen him play. But he was the sum of the eye-popping stolen-base totals and offensive stats they read about in the paper or on the Internet.
Reyes said then that he'd challenge for the starting shortstop job that year, and it had seemed brash. A year later, the incumbent, Rey Ordonez, was traded away expressly to give Reyes that chance.
He got his chance in June 2003, thanks to an injury to stop-gap shortstop Rey Sanchez. The talk was that Reyes would stick around just until Sanchez got back, but Reyes made himself indispensable, with two hits in his first game, a grand slam by the end of his first week, and a .307 batting average and 13 stolen bases by the end of the 2003 season. The Mets had their Jeter. They didn't have the team around him, but that would come next. They even had a young third baseman to play alongside Reyes, one who looked like he'd be ready by the middle of the 2004 season: David Wright.
Having built a left side of the infield that was the envy of all of baseball, the Mets proceeded to wreck it. They took the 20-year-old Reyes, a tremendous defensive shortstop, and asked him to change positions, all while learning how to hit major-league pitching, so they could sign a Japanese star named Kazuo Matsui to a three-year, $20.1 million contract.
Two frustrating years followed. Matsui was an unmitigated disaster.
The Mets returned Reyes to shortstop in 2005, but he continued to show the inconsistency at the plate of someone who'd been rushed to give fans something to cheer for. Reyes struggled with leg injuries, and Mets doctors tried in vain to get him to run in a different way. Only when he scrapped that plan did his speed and health return. It wouldn't be the last time the team's medical staff negatively affected Reyes' career.
But the team around Reyes had begun to take shape. Wright performed as a star almost from the day he arrived in the majors. Carlos Beltran signed prior to the 2005 season, as did Pedro Martinez. The Mets looked ready to compete with the Yankees for the city's attention, something fans had been waiting more than a decade for.
Right around his 23rd birthday in 2006, Reyes appeared to make the leap from burgeoning talent to superstar. From June 13 to June 25, Reyes had 32 hits in 57 at-bats for an incredible .561 batting average. Thirteen of those 32 hits were for extra bases, giving him a slugging percentage of .912. He stole seven bases in 13 games. He played spectacularly in the field. His OPS jumped from .722 to .856, from adequate for his position to one of the best. It was his graduation as a player.
For a few months, the concept of Reyes as the future gave way to Reyes as the present. The Mets won the most games of any team in the National League, 97—just as many as the Yankees. They were the heavy favorite to advance to the World Series. And unlike the Yankees, they were young: Reyes 23, Wright 23. The team's two best players, following baseball's typical aging curve, would only get better.
The Mets didn't win in 2006, of course, but fell to the Cardinals in the NLCS, a team with only 83 regular season victories. Management failed to put adequate secondary players around Reyes, Wright and Beltran, who then took the brunt of the blame for late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008.
And then the injuries returned. The Mets handled them recklessly, sending Reyes back out onto the field quickly instead of taking extra precautions with him. It seemed more important to them to convince everyone that Reyes was OK than to ensure that that was actually the case.
And just like that, Reyes was the future again—the Mets would be alright, maybe, when he got back to full health. Tomorrow came and came and came again, each of them with the disappointing news: he's not ready yet. Not for the rest of the 2009 season. And then, not for a chunk of the 2010 season, when the team incredibly sent him out to re-aggravate an oblique injury, even though the switch-hitting Reyes was in too much pain to swing left-handed.
It took fellow star David Wright to make the call to take Reyes out of a game in July 2010.
"I'm not even claiming to be a doctor, or anything of a doctor," Wright said at the time. "It's obviously a little surprising. But, again, I don't know what he's feeling. And I don't know what the pain threshold is like. And I don't know exactly what is wrong with him, or if it can get any worse. Hopefully there's a plan in place, and hopefully they're following the plan. But the bottom line is I want to see him healthy in the second half."
Finally, in 2011, Reyes became the star everyone expected him to be. He won a batting title, something no Met had ever done.
And, sadly, that may have been it. The future that Mets fans have been waiting for all these years has come and gone.
Between the top and bottom of the fifth inning of Wednesday's game, a couple in their 20s stood in front of one of the picnic tables near the Shea Bridge, each one wearing a Jose Reyes t-shirt. The man's arm was around the woman, and they stared at the field like it was a sunset, not moving, and not saying a word.