Stealing Mickey’s Mantle


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 that José 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?”

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.”

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 smile—two-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, which—if he continues to score runs at last year’s pace—could result in carpal tunnel syndrome. Beyond that, the facts are skimpy. He was born in Villa Gonzalez, and his father, José Manuel, is a plumber—or 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’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 music—Latin 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 Mets—a 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 today—Sid Fernandez’s waistline alone inspired enough dumb jokes to keep radio talk-show hosts employed—but 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.

Perhaps José Reyes smiles so easily now because he does not yet understand the burden his fans are putting on him.

How good is José Reyes? How good can he be? In the October 9, 2006, ESPN The Magazine, the Elias Sports Bureau’s Steve Hirdt wrote that Reyes had just completed “a season the likes of which has never been seen. Start with his signature statistical category. With 17 triples in 2005 and the same number [in ’06], Reyes became the first major leaguer with consecutive seasons of that many three-baggers since Paul Waner, Earle Combs, and Heinie Manush (Hall of Famers all) did it in 1927 and 1928 . . . no player in the history of the major leagues“—emphasis Hirdt’s—”has ever had a season with as many runs, as many hits, as many homers, and as many steals as Reyes has produced in 2006.” (Reyes’s final numbers were 122 runs, 194 hits, 19 home runs, and 64 steals.)

And yet, Reyes has his skeptics. Steven Goldman of Baseball Prospectus regards Reyes’s high totals in all of those categories as “more of a sign of how unique he is than how valuable. The hits are impressive, but one of the reasons he gets so many hits is because he swings at so many pitches. If he’s going to be a legitimate leadoff hitter, he’s got to get more walks. As it is, he uses up too many outs. If he doesn’t get on base more often, all the speed in the world won’t help him.”

Goldman reflects a concern that many analysts have for Reyes’s relative weakness in the most important of all hitting categories, on-base percentage, which measures how often a player reaches base by hits, walks, and being hit by pitches. Last year Reyes reached base safely just slightly over 35 percent of the time he came up to the plate, and his career average is just over 32 percent. “To be a really effective hitter,” says Goldman, “he’s got to get up at least in the .370 range.” Goldman has yet another concern: “His career average as a leftie is just .272, with only a .310 on-base average. (He’s much better batting right-handed against lefties: a .310 BA and a .343 OBP.) But the problem is, he’s going to see at least three right-handed pitchers for every left-hander, which mean he’ll be batting left-handed nearly 75 percent of the time—maybe more if opposing managers figure out he has a weakness.” (Reyes has only been switch-hitting since the age of 15.)

Is José Reyes as good as Derek Jeter? Since about midway through last season, this has been the number one sports topic in New York bars, radio call-ins, and chat rooms. To put it as simply as possible, the answer is: No, or at least, not yet.

As base runners, they are almost exactly even. Reyes is faster than Jeter, who, at 33, has lost a step, but Jeter is regarded by many as the smartest base runner in the game. Reyes steals more bases, but Jeter plays in a league where power overshadows speed. Even in the National League, the value of stolen bases isn’t all that great. In any event, both players have had just about exactly the same success rate, slightly more than 80 percent, an indication that under the same circumstances, they’d have about the same number of steals—or at least the same number of meaningful ones, as Jeter, who plays in a power-laden lineup, seldom attempts a steal unless the game is late and the score is close.

Reyes is a superior fielder with more range than Jeter, but the advantage isn’t enough at present to counter Jeter’s sizable advantage as a hitter. Last year Reyes had a slugging percentage that was a fraction higher than Jeter’s, .487 to .483, but Jeter’s advantage in the most important of hitting stats, on-base percentage, was eye-opening: 63 points (.417 to .354).

Perhaps the question should be framed another way: Is Reyes as good or better than Jeter was at this point in their careers? Below are Reyes’s stats going into this season, and Jeter’s at a comparable point in his career, through the 1998 season.

At Bats Runs HR RBIs BA OBP Slg

Reyes 1,837 301 33 185 .285 .321 .427

Jeter 1,900 352 39 239 .308 .374 .436

In this comparison, Jeter had 63 more at bats, and the difference in power is slight, though tipping in Jeter’s direction. The gap in batting average and on-base percentage is significant **.

And there is yet one more important statistic on Jeter’s side of the ledger: After playing three full seasons, he already had two World Series rings. Yes, you’re right, that’s not a fair comparison, since one player can only do so much to put his team into the World Series. But this is New York, and all comparisons here sooner or later go to the bottom line. Ask Alex Rodriguez. New York fans were ecstatic when A-Rod came here, but he hasn’t produced any championships, and they are no longer enthralled. José Reyes is expected to make World Series winners out of the Mets, and if he doesn’t do that soon, the enchantment he has brought to New York baseball may soon dissipate.

How long has Reyes got before the fans and the media start to become a bit disillusioned? Put it this way: By the time Derek Jeter was 24, people were no longer talking about his potential, they were talking about what he had done. If José Reyes is going to be great, now is the time. Vamos a ver.

**Editor’s note: This online version was revised 03.29.07.

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