- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- New York Mets fans, the ones who were booing Jose Reyes, either did not get the memo or did not care to review it. As a free agent, Reyes was not offered a contract by his only big league employer. He had no choice but to play shortstop for someone else.
Before the Miami Marlins lost 2-1 to his former team, before he went 0-for-4 in his return to Citi Field, Reyes correctly pointed out that no offer from the Mets "means they don't want me to play here. That's why I play for another team now."
But on Tuesday night, something was lost in translation. When Reyes was done absorbing a thanks-for-the-memories video tribute from the dugout rail, the shortstop stepped into the box in the first inning, faced his good friend, Johan Santana, and listened to the sounds of a 70-30 split that didn't work in his favor.
"It's not a surprise to me at all," Reyes said as he stood against a wall outside the losers' clubhouse, "because I play for another team now. No hard feelings."
Reyes looked a little hurt, a little stunned, even as he swore he understood where Mets fans were coming from. On a raw April night, this was a cold welcome home for a star who deserved better, a leadoff man last seen here bunting for his batting title and then running off to hide, one of only a couple of bad judgment calls Reyes made across nine seasons in the sun.
Tuesday night, he played angry in his first at-bat. Reyes blasted the second pitch he saw from Santana to deep center, where Kirk Nieuwenhuis ran it down near the 385-feet sign.
"I thought I had it," Reyes said on a night when Santana pitched like the Santana of old. "But I guess not."
What a shame. The catch deprived all fans, those for and against Miami's shortstop, from seeing the most exciting play in the sport, the kind of Reyes triple that would've reminded everyone why the Mets should've never let him go in the first place.
In fact, the Mets would've been better off building their near future around the 28-year-old Reyes rather than 29-year-old David Wright, who suddenly has general manager Sandy Alderson talking in long-term terms.
"No, that wouldn't hurt me at all," Reyes said of the prospect of the Mets paying Wright the money they wouldn't pay him. "That's good if they bring David Wright back. Wright is a fan favorite here. I don't know if it's going to be important to [ownership], but I think it's a good idea if they can afford to bring David back."
Reyes and Wright are what the third baseman called "baseball brothers," prospects who were raised in the same system and who nearly helped the Mets to the 2006 World Series. They still check each other's box scores. They still wish each other a season's worth of helpful bounces.
But facts are facts: The Mets have picked Wright over Reyes, and not for the first time. In 2006, a few days after they gave their young shortstop a four-year, $23.35 million extension, the Mets gave their young third baseman a six-year, $55 million extension.
This time around, they should've gambled their money on Reyes. The six-year, $106 million contract he signed with Miami didn't approach the absurd deal scored the year before by Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million in Boston), and appears semi-reasonable when measured against today's standards.
Of course, Alderson was forced to slash tens of millions from the payroll in anticipation of the calamitous hit the owning Wilpons were expected to take in the Bernie Madoff case, a hit that never came. But the Mets could've spent part of the winter shedding the $31 million they're paying Wright this year and next, including a team option, by trading him for the kind of high-end prospect they got for Carlos Beltran (Zack Wheeler), and then some.
Even if such a trade nullified the option and granted Wright free agency at the end of this season, hey, Beltran was a two-month rental who brought back a young pitcher the Mets positively adore. Wright's $31 million could've been applied to the Reyes investment, and the vacancy at third would've had its benefits.
Daniel Murphy, who plays the kind of defense coached by Mike D'Antoni, would've at least been allowed to play his natural position. Ruben Tejada, a good player who lacks the explosive athleticism of Reyes, could've stayed put at second, a more accommodating position.
With Wright gone, the Mets would've needed their young sluggers, Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, to do much more than what they're doing now (though Duda did manage the winning hit against Miami). But then again, the Mets would've had Reyes wreaking havoc at the top of the order, making everyone's life a lot easier.
Assuming Reyes is largely the player he was last year, hitting .337, and not the guy pressing under the weight of his new contract and hitting .215.
"What's going on here?" Reyes' manager, Ozzie Guillen, asked a group of reporters following the shortstop to his pregame news conference. Told about the scheduled session, Guillen smiled and said, "Yeah, ask him why he's so [expletive] horse-[expletive]."
No, the Fidel Castro thing didn't reduce Guillen to a quivering wallflower for long.
"I never saw anyone who brings so much enthusiasm and excitement as [Reyes]," Guillen said. "I've been around a lot of players, but I'm telling you Jose is special. If I had to pay to watch one guy, I would pay my money to watch him."
The shortstop Guillen called "the heart and soul" of the Mets showed up in Queens with sideburns and short-cropped hair (his dreads were cut and sold for charity to conform to Miami's dress code). He arrived at Citi Field unsure where the visitors' clubhouse was located, and unsure how the crowd would receive him.
Some fans gave him the "Jose, Jose, Jose, Jose " treatment as he stretched during pregame warm-ups, and Reyes appeared primed for a lovefest as he hugged Terry Collins, Justin Turner and other Mets near the batting cage.
But he was booed before every at-bat, even called a "traitor" by one loudmouth in the sixth. Too many bitter Mets customers forgot what Reyes kept repeating in the dugout before the game.
"I can't say if I was going to stay here or not," he said, "because they didn't offer anything."
The Mets should've fought for Reyes in free agency, rather than rolling over and playing dead for a division rival. A good-to-very good shortstop is more valuable than a good-to-very good third baseman. Reyes' speed and energy would've been a better bet than Wright's streaky pop at the plate.
But the Mets made their choice. They're the ones who ended the marriage.
Hopefully Wednesday night's fans will read the divorce papers before the first pitch.