Jose Reyes is my favorite New York City athlete. Other players are more dominating, more consistent, more statistically efficient, more likely to stay off the disabled list, but no one is more purely delightful to watch play. Reyes has moments, snapshots, that are transcendent and transporting in a way that no one else on the local sports scene can match. When Reyes is healthy and engaged,he carries himself with a joy that reminds you why you started watching sports in the first place. When he smacks a line drive into the left-center-field gap at Citi Field, streaking around the bases, limbs flying everywhere, it’s baseball as it should be shown off to alien beings, the Jerry West logo of what the game can be. Reyes is one of those players everyone can agree on, from the old-school baby-boomer hustle fetishist to the new-school sabermetric vorp slide-rule crowd. If you don’t like watching Jose Reyes play, you’re not much of a baseball fan.
Ask your kids about him: They love him too. Reyes has a way of conjuring up Little League innocence, that childlike exuberance, that I-can’t-believe-I-get-to-do-this-for-a-living giddiness of adults running around in circles and getting paid for it. My favorite Reyes play was during the 2006 National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. With a runner on first and one out, a Cardinal hit a line drive right at Reyes, who caught it instinctively. A split second passed, and Reyes, realizing a beat late that he could have dropped the ball and pulled off a double play, quickly let the ball fall to the dirt and threw it to second base. The umpires, sentient beings that they were, called the batter out, nullifying Reyes’s silly ruse. Whereupon Reyes, in one of the most important games of his baseball career, started laughing and cartoonishly shrugging his shoulders, a goofy “Who, me?” look on his face: the kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It was hilarious, just a kid playin’ ball, trying to sneak one past ya, can’t blame a guy for tryin’.
That was five years ago. Jose Reyes was 23 years old, and the Mets were a team on the rise, built around Reyes, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran. A team that came one key hit away from the World Series, a team that promised to be even more in the years to come. Those heydays never came; the past five years of Mets baseball have brought nothing but unrelenting pain for the Mets and for Reyes, who has battled countless injuries and lost. It didn’t turn out like it was supposed to.
But lo, Reyes is still here, and at last he is healthy and looks like Jose Reyes again—just in time for rumors to begin swirling that the Mets might try to trade him, a move that will say a lot about the direction the Mets’ new management plans to take this franchise in. Jose Reyes is a player any team in baseball would give just about anything to have. Everyone, alas, but the Mets.
The 2011 New York Mets—on the field, anyway—have not been the embarrassment they were expected to be, which is a far cry from saying they’ve been good. They’re in last place in the National League, playing in front of sparse crowds, but that’s not a major shock: The National League East has turned out to be one of the better divisions in baseball, and the Phillies, Marlins, and Braves appear unlikely to falter over the next five months. The Mets have had the predicted pitching woes and then some, thanks to the invisible injury snipers that have been living in Flushing the last three seasons. And while some of the Mets’ bigger-name stars like Wright and Beltran have been healthy and productive, it’s clear to everyone—not least of all the new Mets management group—that, as currently constituted, this is not a World Series–caliber ball club. Again, this is not a surprise: The Mets came into the season under construction, in a holding pattern, waiting for nearly $60 million of dead contracts to expire and the Wilpon-Madoff financial follies to be resolved in the off-season. The Mets are rebuilding. Considering what they have been through in the past five years and how much money they’ve spent for the privilege, this is precisely what they should do.
The problem is that Reyes accounts for $11 million of that potential payroll-shaving in October. For the first time since the Mets went from World Series contender to nightly Letterman joke, Reyes is 100 percent healthy, and he has responded by having the best year of his career. He currently has the highest batting average and OPS of any season since he entered the league, and he is on pace to steal almost 60 bases. He’s doing this while playing a premium position, shortstop, as well as anyone in baseball. He leads National League shortstops in hits, doubles, triples, and stolen bases and is second in batting average, OPS, and runs despite playing for a team that’s in the middle of the pack in scoring. He is, in short, having an All-Star season; odds are he’ll be leading off for the National League in July’s All-Star game in Arizona (presuming, of course, that some Phoenix immigration cop doesn’t try to spontaneously deport him).