Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Phrase, Fred, Is Jose Reyes Money

I know a lot of Mets fans have been hard on Fred Wilpon since his asinine comments about his own team earlier this year. But the man hit on at least one point correctly – Jose Reyes isn't worth Carl Crawford money.

If you're a Mets fan born after 1980 (meaning you don't remember 1986), your time spent rooting for your team has been a constant, continuous wave of disappointment. I went to my first Mets game in 1988. The team was still the same juggernaut, basically, as the team that won the World Series in 1986 and there was a feeling of invincibility about the team. During my first game in person, Darryl Strawberry hit a home run that to my six year old eyes looked like it had been launched into space. It may have just cleared the right field fence. It may have cleared the old scoreboard at Shea. All I can vividly remember is the sound of the ball being destroyed and losing sight of it because it was moving too fast and too far. Those were my Mets. They were going to win it all in 1988. Probably win at least one more. With Gooden and Strawberry, they were a dynasty. Only they weren't.

And thus began the Mets grand tradition of not meeting expectations. Take your pick. The Bobby Bonilla Mets? The pitching phenoms of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson? Or even more recently, the David Wright/Johan Santana Mets? Even when the Mets tried to overachieve, they still managed to underwhelm. In the 1999 NLCS, they captured the city during a thrilling series with the perennial NL champion Braves...only to lose when Kenny Rodgers couldn't throw a strike. In the 2000 World Series, they had the favored Yankees on the ropes in a crucial, series-defining Game 1....only to blow it when Timo Perez forgot how to run the bases. In the 2006 NLCS, Endy Chavez made a catch for the ages and the Mets had everything looking like it was about to fall in place...only for Carlos Beltran to stare at strike three with his bat on his shoulder. And there's 2007 and 2008 but I don't want to write 5,000 words about how the Mets cripple me emotionally on a yearly basis.

No, this article is about a man who is in the process of putting together the finest season by any New York Met position player in the team's history. About a player who heard for years from the doubters in a vicious New York media that preys on the weak – and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Whether athletes from other cities want to hear it or not, you have to be different to succeed in New York. You need to be stronger. You need to be tougher. But mostly, you need to produce. Ask Derek Jeter, aka The Captain, about how quickly they can turn if the production slips.

For Jose Reyes, the production could almost never meet the lofty expectations because we all could clearly see the flashes of brilliance. The way he stole second with ease. The way he stole third with ease when he wanted. The way a line drive to the gap became the most exciting play in a Mets game. The way his arm would deliver rocket after rocket across the diamond to nail a runner at first. He was almost too good for his own good because we kept waiting to see more.

So when Jose lallygagged to first on a sure out, we hung our heads in disappointment. When he continued to swing at any ball throw in his general direction as a leadoff hitter, we shrugged our shoulders. As the Mets drifted down the standings the past few years and Reyes did nothing to stem the tide, we grew accustomed. Mets fans, unfortunately, have experience with guys wasting talent. We saw two of the game's greatest talents, maybe in its history, throw it all away for cocaine. We've seen guys with tremendous show up on the Mets as ballyhooed free agents (ahem Jason Bay ahem) only to watch in horror as they seemed unable to complete the simplest baseball task, namely making contact with a curveball. Yet Jose still had the talent and still flashed his brilliance. That's what made him so frustrating. That's what made it so unlikely he'd ever turn it around.

The world may never know if Fred Wilpon's words actually fueled Jose Reyes this year, as he was playing well before that. Is the contract sparking him? Is he fed up of the criticism? I don't think anyone has any true idea, save for Reyes, why the light bulb went off. We just know that it did and it's about 5,000 watts.

Jose Reyes, as we approach the halfway mark on the season, is on pace to breaking or tying FIVE franchise records for a season – batting average, hits, doubles, triples and extra base hits. It's insane how good he's been this year. It's almost impossible to describe. At one point, he had gotten 10 hits in his last 11 at-bats. Over the span of three games, he was batting .900!! For that brief span, he was the equivalent of Dirk Nowitzki shooting free throws. And he was hitting major league pitching!! How many guys could go 10 for 11 off of a pitching machine??

Baseball is a game about numbers but Reyes, in his greatness this season, has actually surpassed his gaudy numbers. Let's go back to last week. Top of the first, and Jose gets a single. Then he steals second. Stays on second during a groundout to short. Then he moves to third on a flyout to right field. Scores on a wild pitch. Suddenly, the game is 1-0, the Mets have the lead and it is literally all because of Jose Reyes. He did everything to score that run. Would a home run have been easier? Sure, but what's the fun in trotting 360 feet? There are manufacturing runs and then there are manufacturing runs in the most entertaining way possible. Watching Reyes do his thing is exactly that.

As I write this the Mets are above .500 and firmly entrenched in the wild card hunt, even if they will not catch the Phillies for the NL East crown. The fact that I can write that is not just surprising, it is a full-blown miracle. The Mets were supposed to be terrible. When people predicted the Mets would even hit .500 at all this year, pundits scoffed. Mike Francesa made it a point during spring training to tell Mets fans hoping for .500 that they were out of their mind. Now, the season isn't half over and the Mets, as is their way, could finish 20 games under .500 still. But the fact it's going to be July and the team is in the playoff hunt is another testament to Jose Reyes.

Yes, the Mets have had good pitching. And they've gotten help. But Reyes is driving the bus. The Mets aren't within shouting distance of the playoff hunt without him. Manager Terry Collins has praised Reyes over and over again for the way he's handled and led the multitude of young Mets rookies thrust into playing time because of injury. David Wright has been out for months. Jason Bay still can't hit. Angel Pagan was hurt. Ike Davis, arguably the team's best player in April, could be done for the year. Let's not forget the closer is still he of the painful blown save, one K-Rod. Yet through all of it, Reyes has been a constant. When the team fell early in the season and fans were giving up hope, Reyes turned it on and the team followed suit.

And that's why Jose Reyes has not only been the best player on the Mets, or in the National League, but in all of baseball for the first half of 2011. He has dragged the Mets, kicking and screaming, to over .500 and the playoff hunt. It's a common thing in sports. We see it all the time in sports like hockey, basketball and football. One superstar goes off and everyone feeds off of him. Just take the aforementioned Nowitzki and his jaw-dropping performance in the NBA Playoffs. And read the quotes from his teammates afterward – they want to be great because Dirk was being great. It's far rarer in baseball, due to its nature, for one player to so completely will his team to victory. Well, talents like Jose Reyes are rare too.

Today, the Mets are playing the Tigers. The Mets are down 4-1 and Justin Verlander is pitching. It's the sixth inning. I'm not a stat geek but I know the odds of the Mets coming back to win this game are slim to none – why do you think I'm writing this right now? So with the Mets down, Josh Thole is at first and Reyes is up. He's already had a hit. He's already been walked. He lines a shot down the right field line foul but suddenly, I'm little closer to the TV than I was on the last pitch. Almost on command, Reyes lines another shot to right field, this one right over the first baseman's mitt and the Mets have the tying run coming to the plate. It's one of those little things that crystallized why Jose Reyes is the best player in baseball now, and why he's a million miles away from the player he was, because he hadn't packed it in yet. He wasn't looking for stats with that hit. He wasn't trying to justify his huge contract he's sure to get this offseason. He was trying to help the Mets win.

And if you're wondering, no, the Mets didn't tie the game. Without going into detail, let's just say Pridie and Beltran didn't get the job done. Oh my Metsies, even when they're overachieving, they still manage to get me to toss the remote in disgust. Aw hell....let's go Mets. I have a ninth inning to watch.

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1 comment:

  1. It would seem easier to be a Pirates fan than a Mets fan. The Pirates always meet expectations.

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