In eighth grade I wrote a poem about Jose Reyes, the Miami Marlins' new shortstop. The poem wasn't so good. I wrote it in Reyes's gregarious broken English, in which every third utterance is "you know" or "man." But I had to write something quickly for a class, and in April 2005, nothing captivated me quite like the Mets and their dynamo, the sinewy kid who hit ropes and slung bullets from his ear.
2005 was the first year I followed a good Mets team, and it was the first year Reyes crossed over from the hypothetical into the real. He had gotten hurt in 2003 and 2004, his age-20 and age-21 seasons, and the team had sucked both years. He sprained his ankle. They moved him to second base for Kaz Matsui. He hurt his hamstrings. They sent him to a running guru named Mackey Shilstone who was supposed to charm his hamstrings. The guru made him run like a toy robot with overloaded circuits. But in 2005 Reyes played in 161 games and led the National League in plate appearances. He didn't walk but he stole 60 bases and hit 17 triples. He ran like he wanted to and stayed healthy.
We can't think about Reyes too long, though, without also pondering David Wright, who remains on the Mets. Wright was the player Mets fans were supposed to love. He would be Piazza's heir and Derek Jeter's, too—a high-average righty who would drive the ball to the opposite field, a handsome, homegrown franchise face who would own New York for the next decade. He was the star most teams dream about, polished (save a few fielding hiccups) from the moment he was called up. Reyes, who was a little younger and couldn't walk or hit anything offspeed, would be the second coming of Rafael Furcal, a nice second fiddle on the Yankee-like club the Wilpons would build in Queens. They hired Willie Randolph, who had wanted to manage the Yankees, and Carlos Beltran, who had wanted to play for the Yankees. This all made enough sense in 2005.
That year was also David Wright's first full season, and he played much better than Reyes did. He finished fourth in the NL in offensive WAR, between Derrek Lee (who chased a Triple Crown that year) and Miguel Cabrera. While Reyes was a fawn, his game still rough and full of untapped potential, Wright looked like a franchise cornerstone. Today, the poles have flipped. Reyes is a well-compensated Marlin, and Wright is, improbably, the project he never was, even as a call-up. In the good years, Mets fans had the luxury of choosing between the two. Whom you chose said a lot about what you wanted most out of a baseball team—reliability or lightning. Now? Mets fans have neither.
Reyes got really good in 2006, and so did the Mets. He hit 17 triples again in 2006, and stole 64 bases instead of 60. He also hit 19 homers, instead of 7, and walked 53 times, instead of 27, and scored 122 runs, instead of 99. He made the All-Star team. He finished seventh in MVP voting. This was about the time the media started damning Reyes with selective praise, stumbling over themselves to call him baseball's most exciting player while simultaneously anointing Jimmy Rollins and Hanley Ramirez as the superior shortstops. Those voices were wrong, of course: Reyes had a better WAR than Hanley and Rollins in 2006, and he was really fucking fun to watch while doing it.
They were confused because Reyes came to the majors a raw, unfinished product with injury problems, and everything they had watched beforehand suggested he would remain that way. Few phenoms appear so flawed. David Wright hadn't. But Reyes arrived on the Mets at 19 years old with barely any time in AAA. It makes sense that he got better.
During the 2006 season, watching a now-blossomed Reyes, some of us learned that we could root for the Mets as outlaws. The team didn't need to look like the Yankees. They were better than the Yankees. Actually, both teams went 97-65 that year, and they split the Subway Series. Nonetheless.
Those outlaw Mets didn't necessarily need David Wright. We had Carlos Delgado, the man who wouldn't doff his cap for "God Bless America," and Paul Lo Duca, the gambler who was sleeping with a 19-year-old. We had Pedro, and El Duque, crotchety elders who finished first and second on the staff in hit by pitches despite neither throwing a full season. And we had Reyes, whose elaborate high-fives irritated the rest of the league. (We can't know whether opponents and media types who complained about the Mets' celebrations were really complaining about the team's Latinness, but I took all of the complaints that way, because fuck them.)
And although Wright looked like he was supposed to play for some patrician iteration of the Mets that never showed up, he raked anyway in 2006. During one week in August, the Mets extended both Reyes and Wright. Wright's deal was longer, which made sense at the time. Then came the collapses of 2007 and 2008, and rooting for outlaws became tiresome, as it always does. There's a reason The Replacements' Let It Be is only 33 minutes long.
A lot of people will tell you that Reyes's smile had dimmed by 2008. I'm not sure this happened. I do recall a few things. He stopped doing the Professor Reyes in-game segments on the video board where he'd teach the bridge-and-tunnel crowd how to speak Spanish, gently chiding them along the way. He got a spiderweb tattooed around one of his elbows. He stopped stealing as many bases as he used to. He bulked up. He got married. He walked more. He seemed less like a freakishly gifted kid and more like an awesome professional, which I suppose made sense. He was, after all, 25. Grown up, like Wright.
I have a tougher time remembering 2007 and 2008 than I do 2005 and 2006 because baseball never means as much to most of us as it does during our early teenage years. We find other things to do on summer nights. We find new interests that carry the novelty baseball once had. We get a little more tired of losing. And it doesn't help that, when we do pop back in, our favorite players look more wizened than before.
Reyes played only a month in 2009—the year Wright's power vanished and he struck out 140 times—and he had a middling 2010, with a 103 OPS+ and only 30 stolen bases. He missed more time with injuries. It wasn't a sure thing that the Mets would pick up Reyes's 2011 option: Omar Minaya's regime had been canned and replaced with Sandy Alderson's braintrust, the same braintrust that made the presumably fiscally responsible decision not to re-sign Reyes yesterday.
But they picked up the option and Reyes played like the player we had all gradually come to think he would never be. He won the batting title. He had the highest slugging percentage of his career, despite playing in Citi Field. He walked more than he struck out, which boggles the mind, considering what used to happen with breaking balls thrown at his feet. Sure, he missed games, but he returned healthy and aced the end of the season. That's more than Wright can say for himself. He hit .254 and never looked right.
At a press conference last night, Sandy Alderson was "particularly strident" about not trading David Wright. The Mets have an expensive ballpark and Jason Bay's contract to finance, and they need people to go to games. Wright's star may have dimmed but he still looks like a star. Moreover, the Mets' arbitrage-happy executives would never trade David with his value this low. He's stuck as the team's designated star in part because he played so poorly. And Reyes is leaving, never to question Wright's position as the brightest star, because he played so well.
It's painful but true that the Mets have cast their lot with Wright and a small-market-style rebuild instead of paying Reyes. The roster has its share of overpaid slop, so Alderson finally took a principled stand, about three mega-contracts too late. And Wright will earn only $15 million next year, so, with a comeback season and any luck, he'll give the Mets better bang for their buck than Reyes would have. But parsimony never inspired any poetry, you know, man.