Stealing Mickey's Mantle

José Reyes could be the greatest—if he doesn't figure out just how much Mets fans want from him

You wouldn't think someone named José Reyes would be envious of anyone, but he is envious of a teammate. A couple of weeks ago, while watching the dazzling power at bat and speed on the bases of a fellow Met, he shook his head in wonder. "I would like," he said loud enough for several beat writers to hear, "to be as good as thatJosé Reyes."

The José Reyes who said that was a catcher, born, like José Reyes the shortstop, in 1983, and also in the Dominican Republic. José Reyes the catcher isn't likely to be on the New York Mets' roster when the season opens. God was generous enough to give two players the same name, year of birth, country of origin, and profession. But when he asked, "Who wants to be José Reyes, the one and only?" José Ariel Reyes apparently didn't raise his hand fast enough.

Only one José Bernabe Reyes to a century, please, and the Mets have got him—and now, with his new contract extension worth $23.25 million, they have him through 2010 with an option for 2011. He is, to listen to his teammates and others who watch him on a day-to-day basis, the game's new Superman, or at least Superboy. "He's our igniter—offensively and defensively—especially on offense," said Mets third baseman David Wright during last year's National League Championship Series. "As he goes, we go."

Carlos Beltran, the Mets' best slugger, is fond of telling his young teammate, "You have the potential to be one of the best players in the game." Mets announcer Gary Cohen calls Reyes "the most fabulously gifted player in the game, and the most exciting player baseball has had so far in this century." Reyes is also, to listen to the swarms of radio talk-show callers and bloggers, an antidote to the city's weariness of the ongoing dialogue over Alex Rodriguez's psyche.

These are great notices for a show that, for all intents and purposes, is still on the road. José Reyes is just 23 years old—he will be 24 on June 11—and has played only two full seasons of Major League Baseball, fewer than 440 games overall. He has never won a Most Valuable Player award and in fact has never led the leagues in any major category except stolen bases, a stat regarded by most baseball analysts as more gaudy than meaningful. The list of things that José Reyes has so far not done is quite long: He has never hit as many as 20 home runs in a season, driven in more than 81 runs, or batted as high as .310. But if greatness is measured in potential, many of Reyes's contemporaries are ready to vote him into the Hall of Fame right now.

"I can't remember the last time I saw such a combination of power, speed, and enthusiasm," says his manager, Willie Randolph, who played with Reggie Jackson and coached Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. "I ask myself what his limits could be, and I don't know the answer. He might have more sheer talent than any player I've ever seen."

The number of great players Reyes has been compared to is staggering. To begin with, there's that No. 7 on his jersey—no New York baseball fan has to be told that was Mickey Mantle's number and that no ballplayer of consequence in this town has worn it since Mantle retired at the end of the 1968 season. Now, when you see someone walking around New York wearing a baseball jersey with a "7" on the back—and it might be New Rochelle's own Matt Dillon, who has been spotted not only at the ballpark but on movie sets wearing his Reyes shirt—the jersey is less likely to be blue and white than blue and orange. Like Mickey in 1951, Reyes is reputed to be the fastest player in the game, and like Mantle, he is a switch-hitter, which conjures up all number of possibilities. "As he gets older and stronger," says Mets broadcaster (and former player)Ron Darling, "you wonder where he's going to fit in the batting order. Right now, with his speed, everybody wants him to be a leadoff hitter. But suppose he turns into a guy who hits—I don't know, 30 to 35 home runs. And I can easily see that happening. Wouldn't you bat him in the third or fourth spot if he were on your team?"

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Illustration by James Bennett

Rickey Henderson—the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history, the game's all-time leader in runs scored and stolen bases, second only in walks to Barry Bonds, and collector of nearly 300 home runs—pays Reyes what, considering its source, might be the ultimate compliment: "He might end up being as good as me." (It can't hurt Reyes's chances that Henderson was brought in by the Mets before the 2006 season to work with him on fundamentals.)

For a young man who hasn't won anything yet, José Reyes is an awful lot of things to an awful lot of people. Tim Wendel, author of The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America's Favorite Sport, regards Reyes as one of the game's brightest hopes. "There are some people who look at the ratings of the World Series relative to the Super Bowl and proclaim that baseball is in decline. What they don't take into account is the day-to-day devotion which baseball inspires in its fans, which is greater than that of any other sport. The new blood, the new excitement in baseball over the last couple of decades has been the Latin superstar. If Reyes makes it big in New York, if he can showcase his skills in the playoffs and World Series, he will be the new symbol of Latin domination of the game."


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