By Zachary D. Roberts
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The Mets' Omar Minaya, the first Latino GM in the major leagues, himself born not far from Reyes's hometown of Villa Gonzalez in the Dominican Republic, calls his shortstop "one of the players people back home stay up late to catch on the TV highlights and get up early to read about in the morning papers." Constantino Viloria of El Diario thinks "he has a great chance of bringing people together in this town as no Latino player ever has."
For a guy from whom so much is expected, very little is known about José Reyes. Every Mets fan recognizes that smiletwo-thirds beatific altar boy and one-third imp (does anyone remember the last Yankee known for his smile?). Fans are familiar with his elaborate, almost comic, handshakes in the dugout after every run scored, whichif he continues to score runs at last year's pacecould result in carpal tunnel syndrome. Beyond that, the facts are skimpy. He was born in Villa Gonzalez, and his father, José Manuel, is a plumberor was, before the family moved to Queens to keep a better eye on their boy. For the time being, at least, he lives in Bayside with his girlfriend, Katarine, and their two daughters. When asked about the future, his favorite expression is "Vamos a ver""We'll see."
He was signed by a scout named Eddy Toledo who first saw him play at a camp in Santiago in the late summer of 1999. A swarm of other scouts had passed him up as too slight of build, but Toledo, like Yogi Berra, observed a lot just by watching, and concluded that José had the speed and arm of a prospect and his 16-year-old frame could, with time, acquire weight and muscle. If Reyes develops the way his boosters think he will, Toledo, now a scout for the Florida Marlins, will go down in history beside Tom Greenwade, the discoverer of Mantle.
Reyes has given very few interviews, and in those he has granted, his answers are usually shorter than the questions. Sample from SNY.tv's series of interviews with the Mets' Latin players for last year's Hispanic Heritage Month:
sny: Who's your favorite athlete?
reyes: Juan Marichal [a/k/a The Dominican Dandy, the first from the DR to make the Hall of Fame]
sny: Favorite thing to do in the off-season?
reyes: Listen to musicLatin reggaetón. And sing a little bit.
sny: What's your favorite movie?
reyes: Bad Boys II.
sny: What's your favorite food?
reyes: Fried chicken and red beans.
sny: Other than baseball, what was your first job?
reyes: Playing baseball.
sny: Where did your first kiss take place?
reyes: I don't know.
And perhaps most significant:
sny: Something most people don't know about you?
reyes: I think they know everything.
To understand the whirlwind of excitement building around Reyes since he came to New York is in part to understand the history of frustration and disappointment that has surrounded the New York Metsa frustration more highlighted than alleviated by last year's gallant run for the National League pennant, which saw the Mets lose their World Series shot in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the NLCS with both Reyes and Beltran leaving the tying runs on base.
Incredibly, for a franchise in the country's largest market and one that is the inheritor of a National League tradition that produced more than two dozen Hall of Famers with the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, the Mets have never put a non-pitcher in the Hall of Fame who played most of his career with the team. Gary Carter's plaque is in Cooperstown, but he was a Met for just five of his 19 seasons. Tom Seaver, the only Mets pitcher in the Hall, was here for 11 full seasons out of 20. All other Mets with Hall of Fame credentials were either passing through on the way up (Nolan Ryan) or grizzled veterans on the way out (Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra, Eddie Murray). The more you say it, the more amazing it sounds: The Mets have never had a regular player make the Hall of Fame. If José Reyes is being overrated, it may be in large part because Mets fans want to will him into being the first truly great everyday player in team history.
Not only haven't the Mets produced any Hall of Famers besides Seaver, but they have to live with the memory of the crash-and-burn Mets who won the franchise's second and last World Series 21 years ago. No team in baseball history had so many great young players who, at their peak, looked like good bets for Cooperstown than the New York Mets from 1986 through 1988: Ron Darling, Howard Johnson, Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Jesse Orosco, Sid Fernandez. A couple of those names still produce chuckles when recalled todaySid Fernandez's waistline alone inspired enough dumb jokes to keep radio talk-show hosts employedbut in three seasons he held hitters to the league's Lowest Batting Average Against, which Whitey Ford never did even once.
And, of course, in Dwight Gooden (who pitched his first game as a Met 10 months after Reyes was born) and Darryl Strawberry (who took his first at bat 35 days before Reyes was born) the Mets had probably the two greatest young players in history never to make the Hall. The memory of their amazing early achievements hurts more every time you turn on the YES Network and see highlights of their late-career comebacks as Yankees.