Jose Reyes just can't wait
Marlins' shortstop greatly anticipating his return to New York to play against Mets
On the day Jose Reyes signed with the New York Mets, his father was working in a factory building toilets. The 16-year-old Reyes had been asked by several Mets scouts to work out. In those days, scouts rarely ventured up north to Reyes' hometown Santiago region, which is almost three hours north of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. But in Reyes, Mets scouts had seen something special. Only four hours after finishing the tryout, Reyes received word that the Mets wanted to speak to his father. Quickly, word was sent to the factory. Losing a day of pay was no small favor to ask of the poor Reyes family. But this was important. A meeting was set up at a local hotel where, under his father's supervision, Reyes signed a professional contract. Reyes' father proudly boasted that his son was now a New York Met.
Inevitably, and quite expectedly, Jose Reyes' voice, during the natural course of a conversation, rises above room level, and teammates who are several feet away turn around to see what the whole fuss is about.
Granted, Reyes has different variations of smiles and laughs, and he stirs so often that he's like a 5-year-old kid after binging on candy, so that any conversation he has usually ends up this way. Reyes, 28, is not the personification of the dated stereotype about happy-go-lucky Dominican players. He acts in that manner because, well, he's Jose Reyes and that's the way he lives life, always seemingly content and never encumbered by the notion of an "inside voice."
Except this particular conversation with Reyes seemed different from all the others. When Reyes tells you that he's genuinely excited about something, you take notice because you always assume that he's excited about everything.
He paused, then repeated, "I'm going crazy thinking about going there."
On Sunday night, Reyes arrived in New York with his Marlins teammates and for the first time in months he slept in his own bed at his house on Long Island. He spent his off day on Monday hanging out with his New York friends and family. Then on Tuesday night, the reunion that Reyes has awaited for months will arrive. Shortly before game time, Mets fans' love affair with their former shortstop will officially come to an end, if it hasn't already. Reyes, wearing the Marlins' fluorescent colors, will step into the batter's box and face the team with whom he spent almost half his life.
"I know he's excited about coming back and seeing how he's received," said Peter Greenberg, Reyes' agent. "I know he's had the date circled since he saw the schedule. I don't think honestly he can say it's another game. It's going to be emotional for him."
Reyes won't even pretend that it's another game. He won't pick and choose clichés from the athlete's handbook to describe the game as just one of 162. It isn't and he knows it. And he wouldn't want it to be. Perhaps nobody in baseball feeds off the emotion of the crowd like Reyes, and for certain, Tuesday night will be emotional.
About the only uncertainty for Reyes is how fans will receive him.
"I don't have any control about how fans will react," Reyes said. "Something I will say, is that in the time I spent in New York and was healthy and was able to be on the field, I played and gave every bit of my heart and soul to the team and played with 100 percent effort so that we could win. I can say that I left satisfied knowing that when I was on the field I gave them everything. You'd think [there wouldn't be a reason to boo me], but one never knows."
The ambiguity about Reyes' reception comes from the fact he willingly left the team to sign a six-year, $106 million contract with Miami -- though some may argue he wasn't given much of a choice at all, since the Mets never seriously thought to re-sign him.
In New York, Reyes played for four different managers and four different general managers, the surest sign of a rudderless ship. Yet many Mets fans will hold a grudge because there were more losing seasons (five) during the Reyes era than winning ones (four).
"Why would they boo him?" Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He played so well there. That kid gave everything for that organization and for that city. To boo him would reflect badly on the fans. The fans of New York should feel proud of the way he played for that franchise."
On the day Jose Reyes was called up by the Mets he had spent most of the time in a bad mood. When Reyes had arrived at the ballpark on June 10, 2003, he noticed that he wasn't in the Norfolk Tides' starting lineup. Immediately, Reyes became angered. He walked into manager Bobby Floyd's office and asked why he had been benched. Floyd gave him no reason. Reyes sulked back to his locker and spent most of the game brooding. Reyes simply loved to play. After the game, Reyes was called into Floyd's office and was told he had been called up to the majors. Reyes couldn't believe it. He was so excited that he called his mother and father even though it was late at night. "Can you believe it," he told his parents, "I'm going to be a New York Met!"
No player embodied the Mets more than Reyes during his nine seasons with the team.
His various leg and hamstring problems foretold a period of medical misfortune that sent many of the team's stars to the disabled list. The dubious move to second base in 2004 to accommodate Kazuo Matsui spoke of the team's inability to adequately identify talent. Reyes was the face of Los Mets, a collection of Latin players acquired by former general manager Omar Minaya that competed for division and league titles, but ultimately faded and drew the ire of fans. Most painful, Reyes' departure signaled the era of the cost-cutting Mets, a team hampered by financial problems due to ownership's ties to convicted swindler Bernie Madoff.
"There were so many crazy moments," Reyes said. "Remember when they tried to change the way I run?"
I'm going crazy thinking about going there.” -- Jose Reyes on returning to New York
Reyes giggles at the memory of the time in 2004 when the Mets tried to change his running style to minimize leg injuries. It's not an evil cackle, but a lighthearted laugh that says he'll remember even the weird times fondly.
His favorite Mets moments are some that are likely to ring true for fans of that era: His first home run, a grand slam on June 15, 2003, against the Angels; the time he hit for the cycle on June 21, 2006, and 49,758 fans at Shea Stadium roared louder than Keith Hernandez had ever remembered (many Mets fans will also painfully recall that Billy Wagner blew the save and New York lost the game, which probably also says some things about the fortunes of the Reyes era); and, of course, the day when the Mets clinched the National League East in 2006, earning Reyes his only postseason appearance.
"I have a lot of good memories," he said. "The only unfortunate thing was that we never were able to win a championship when we had teams with the talent and potential to win a championship."
The Mets from 2003 to 2011 were a better team when Reyes was on the field. New York was 493-435 when Reyes played and 90-116 when he didn't. Despite the constant criticisms about his time on the disabled list, Reyes still ranks 10th in games played (1,050) and second in at-bats (4,453) in franchise history.
Minaya's most memorable Reyes moments speak to how important it was for the team to keep him on the field. Each time Reyes hit a ball into the gap, Minaya cringed as he watched Reyes blaze around the bases for a triple; each step, the former general manager feared, could cause one of his hamstrings to pop.
But that's what the Reyes era was like. No matter what happened, it was never boring.
"He was probably one of the most exciting players the franchise has ever had," said Minaya, who was one of the Mets scouts who helped sign Reyes as a teenager. "He was a homegrown player, a great teammate and he'll always be remembered for how he ran the bases and for his hitting. He always played hard. Those teams of the mid-2000s did very well and he was a big contributor and the catalyst. He's the best leadoff hitter the franchise has ever had."
On the day Jose Reyes knew he would not return to the only team he had ever known, he truly realized that baseball was a business. The Marlins had courted him with phone calls, a trip to visit the new ballpark and a fancy dinner. The Mets hardly had even made a phone call. There was never an offer. In reality, it was not the day he signed a contract with Miami that he understood a new chapter was starting in his life. The first few days of free agency had showed him a harsh reality because the Mets never aggressively pursued him. When he did sign the Marlins' contract, not even New York general manager Sandy Alderson called to say goodbye. It really sunk in then. He was no longer going to be a New York Met.
Initially, Reyes appeared stung by the Mets' decision not to offer him a contract. It was a curious decision when the team didn't trade him last season at the July trade deadline. It seemed unlikely the Mets, in financial distress, could ever match what Reyes could earn on the free-agent market.
Keeping him last year left a tiny window open for his return long term. But it wasn't meant to be, and in the end, the abrupt and impersonal send-off seemed harsh.
While his introductory news conference with the Marlins during the winter meetings was full of optimism and new beginnings, he couldn't help but mention that he felt unwanted by his former team. Mostly, Reyes has moved on. But he hasn't forgotten.
"I think those feelings have passed," Reyes said. "I can't be playing here with this team and be thinking about how the Mets never made me an offer. That's passed. Now we're focused on this team. At first, it was very difficult. But after I signed with [the Marlins], I said to myself that if [the Mets] didn't make me an offer it's because they no longer needed my services. I belong to another team and I need to think about what I need to do to win games."
The video tribute the Mets have planned for Tuesday has at least mended some hurt feelings.
"I was very happy to hear about it because it means they valued the work that I did there," Reyes said.
Only recently his family has come to terms with the switch. In the first few weeks after he signed with the Marlins, Reyes' wife and father casually referred to Reyes' upcoming season with the Mets. Quickly, Reyes corrected them. He was a Marlin, not a Met.
He also genuinely seemed unbothered when told that the Mets were now rumored to be preparing a contract extension for third baseman David Wright. In essence, the Mets could be choosing Wright over Reyes.
"I know David Wright is a tremendous player," Reyes said. "When he's healthy he's one of the best third basemen in the league. I think it's probably a good idea that they try to sign him."
The two had always been linked. Both played on the left side of the infield. Both came up at relatively the same time. Both were usually the youngest on a team full of veterans. But one stayed and the other didn't.
I want to see Jose do well. We're as close to baseball brothers as you could possibly be.” -- Mets third baseman David Wright
The two remain friends, an unlikely pairing that bridges cultural boundaries. It's astounding how a boy who grew up dirt poor in Villa Gonzalez, Santiago, found a bond with a another boy who grew up middle class in Virginia. But that was the beauty of Los Mets.
These days, Wright will often sneak a peek at the newspaper to see how Reyes played the previous day. Wright says he will root for him in every game he plays except, of course, against the Mets.
"I want to see Jose do well," Wright said. "We're as close to baseball brothers as you could possibly be. You're with somebody for 10-11 years. You come up with somebody through the minor leagues. You hit some bumps in the road, you taste a little bit of success, and you develop a relationship with guys like that. Obviously, I was sad to see him go."
On the day Jose Reyes arrives at Citi Field for the first time as a member of the visiting team he will be anxious and nervous. He doesn't quite know what to expect. There were days when the New York crowd carried and pushed him toward success. Reyes fed off the crowd, and the crowd fed off him. He was undoubtedly the Mets' most charismatic player of that era. But that wasn't true anymore, obviously. He left and many fans were hurt by his departure. Because while New York fans loved Reyes, he knew more than anybody, they hate anyone who isn't a member of the Mets.
Of course it was weird for Reyes to head to Jupiter, Fla., for spring training and not to Port St. Lucie. But ultimately, it's still baseball no matter where Reyes plays it. Hanley Ramirez and Emilio Bonifacio, friends from the Dominican Republic, helped Reyes integrate into his new team. But really, Reyes hardly needed help. It's almost impossible to dislike Reyes. He was not going to become a problem in the clubhouse.
Reyes has so easily transitioned to being a Marlin that it almost seems natural to see him in the Miami clubhouse. Sure, there is that weird-looking uniform, the strange faces next to him near his locker and, most distinctly, the orange, close-cropped haircut he styles these days (Reyes was forced to shed his dreadlocks per team rules). But it's still the same old Reyes.
During a lull in the pregame while in the clubhouse on Friday, Reyes and Bonifacio spent almost a half hour watching music videos on an iPad. Once the music stopped, Reyes focused his attention on Ramirez.
"Hanley, I had no idea that you ate so much," Reyes told him.
During the course of an hour, Ramirez had grabbed a sandwich, thrown back some chicken and now he was preparing himself a bowl of yogurt and granola.
"Jose, this stuff makes you strong," Ramirez said. "You eat some of this granola and you'll hit nothing but line drives."
Reyes looked at Ramirez and laughed uncontrollably. The uniform and city have changed, but the shortstop's personality haven't.