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Archive for Friday, May 11, 2007

New York’s finest shortstop

So long, Jeter; Reyes is city’s new favorite

May 11, 2007

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— With future Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz starting to fade and the Braves holding a one-run lead in the sixth inning on this particular Sunday, the Atlanta ace digs in to try and retire Mets shortstop and leadoff hitter Jose Reyes.

The bases are loaded. There are two outs. More than fifty-five thousand rabid Shea fans sense blood and let loose with their signature roar: "Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se, Jo-se!" El Chombo's "Chacarron" - one of several Reyes at-bat anthems and certainly the funniest - blares over the stadium speakers.

Smoltz fires one pitch. Reyes smokes it into right field.

Before Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur can blink, Reyes has a stand-up triple, clearing the bases and putting the Mets ahead for the first time all game (they would eventually lose, 9-6). Reyes nearly runs over third baseman Chipper Jones as he rounds the base and briefly considers a dash for home plate before clapping his hands. Reyes finishes April with a .356 average, 17 stolen bases, five triples and NL Player of the Month honors.

"I just try to do my job," says Reyes. "Try to put this team in position to win."

"He can change the complexion of a game by himself," says Mets manager Willie Randolph.

Meet Jose Reyes, comedian.

Just before a game against the Rockies last month, Reyes and center fielder Carlos Beltran hatch a "Porky's"-like plan to douse backup catcher Ramon Castro with water while Castro heeds the call of nature. Reyes and Beltran race out of the clubhouse bathroom and stifle laughter as they sit in front of their lockers. Small problem: The intended target was in a different stall, and starter Mike Pelfrey gets the treatment. Reyes' eyes light up when he sees Castro emerge and then explodes into laughter at the error.

"I'm friendly with everybody," says Reyes.

"Jose and I, we're always joking," Castro says. "It's me and him against everybody. We have to make it comfortable in here (points to the clubhouse) before we go out to the field."

Meet Jose Reyes, dad.

"There is nothing better than being a father," the 23-year-old Reyes says of his two daughters, Katerine, 2, and Ashley, 10 months. "Sometimes you're 0-5 on the field and then you go to your house and see your kids. Everything changes. Nothing better."

Reyes and his girlfriend moved from a two-bedroom apartment in Queens to the comforts of a Manhasset, Long Island, home last year. It's still a short commute to Shea and often Katerine joins her mother in the stands to cheer "Papi" Reyes. "The big one, she's starting to learn the ('Jose') song," Reyes says with a laugh. "When she sees me on TV, she says, 'Papi, Daddy, Daddy,' all the time." There's a tattoo of Katerine's face on Reyes' bulging left shoulder. Ashley will soon adorn his right shoulder, though Reyes admits, "Yeah, it hurts a little to get one."

Meet Jose... next reggaeton star and catwalker?

"It's just for fun," Reyes says of his music hobby, which consists of a couple reggaeton songs he recorded in the last year.

"It's good," Castro says of his clubhouse neighbor's musical foray. "But he's not (Puerto Rican reggaeton star) Daddy Yankee. Stick to baseball."

Better than Jeter?

The smile and the good looks have already garnered Reyes a GQ spread and, just last week, a spot on the "50 Most Beautiful People (Los 50 Mas Bellos)" list in People Magazine's Spanish edition - People En Espanol - right alongside J-Lo, Penelope Cruz and Beyonce.

"Jose just beat me out," jokes Mets VP of media relations Jay Horwitz.

Sure, Derek Jeter's got the rings, the pinstripes, the endorsements and the famous romances, but Reyes is quickly endearing himself to New Yorkers by playing every bit as hard as his Bronx counterpart and just as competently. In fact, many believe that Reyes is the best player currently occupying the shortstop position in New York.

Fans are almost always guaranteed an edge-of-your-seat moment when Reyes is at the plate or flashing the leather. In the batter's box, singles can easily become triples. Walking Reyes generally means he'll end up crossing home plate before the inning's over. And, of course, there is the joie de vivre, the constant smile with enough wattage to light up half of Queens.

"Always, always I'm smiling. I got that from my dad (Jose Sr.). He's a funny guy who likes to smile a lot," says Reyes. "That's just the way I am."

"What stands out is the joy with how Jose plays the game," says Mets general manager Omar Minaya. "He's a pure baseball player. The only guy I've seen with that level of energy is (Angels outfielder) Vladimir (Guererro). Jose is like Vladimir at shortstop."

Early-career adversity

Few players underscore Minaya's vision of global branding for the franchise like Reyes. Not only is the Dominican-born Reyes one of the younger faces among the many Latin players on the team, he was one of the sparkplugs on the Dominican World Baseball Classic team. And following the Mets' heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals in the NLCS, Reyes joined his infield neighbor David Wright in Japan during an All-Star tour in November. At home games, Reyes teaches Spanish to the Shea crowd when he morphs into "Professor" Reyes between innings. He signs autographs, claps his hands after big hits and engages the public when he crosses the white lines.

"It's huge, that energy," Minaya says. "Especially to our fan base and the city. New York's an energy city and his energy and joy impacts others. Jose has won the people over from the first day he stepped onto a baseball field."

Adds Eddy Toledo, the former Mets' chief Latin American scout and the person who discovered Reyes as a teenage phenom: "Jose is special. You could see that the first time he was running around the bases here in the Dominican. Let me tell you, he's as exciting as it gets."

It is hard to remember that a scant three years ago, there were questions abounding about Reyes' nascent baseball career - and Reyes himself even considered giving up. Before the Mets opened the 2004 season, he was on the disabled list, dealing with a troublesome right hamstring. He didn't return until June. There was Reyes' ill-fated move to second base for 43 games so Japanese import Kaz Matsui could play short. In August '04, Reyes suffered a stress fracture in his left fibula. In 2003 - the year he made his major-league debut - he went on the DL in September after severely spraining his left ankle sliding into second base against the Phillies.

But 2004 was when the whispers began in earnest - did the Dominican kid have the toughness for the majors? Was he always going to be injured?

"I had heard of his overall talent and speed," says Randolph, referring to the days before he became the Mets' skipper. "But a lot of what I heard was that he's hurt a lot. The potential was there, but it was frustrating with the injuries."

Rising star

While rehabbing in Port St. Lucie in '04, Reyes says he often was reduced to tears as he watched his teammates play without him. Even worse, he was not immune to the media critics and doubters, despite not having a strong command of English at the time.

"Yeah, I read about it. I heard it," he says. "It's going to happen. You know, it was difficult for me. But I don't even want to think about what happened in the past for me. What was tough, everybody came to New York and I stayed there in Port St. Lucie. I don't recommend that to nobody. I cried a couple times. I talked with my father, my mother in the Dominican. They said, 'No matter what happens, sometime you're going to be good."'

Sandy Alomar Sr., the Mets' third-base coach, thinks Reyes will be more than just good.

"We've been talking a lot about what it will take to become the greatest shortstop," Alomar says. "I don't think there's going to be anybody better than him. I've seen a lot of shortstops - (Cal) Ripken, (Hall of Famer Luis) Aparicio, Ozzie Smith, (Dave) Concepcion. Probably the only one who has the same type of tools that Jose has is Jeter. The only thing that is keeping Jose (back) is the knowledge of the game."

Man of many parts

Reyes already has 18 stolen bases on the year and finished with 64 steals in '06 and 60 in '05. Although it might be tough to duplicate Henderson's feat of 130 steals in a season (1982 with the A's), Reyes can cause plenty of headaches with his arsenal of tools.

"I think any pitcher would look at our lineup and obviously one of the things that jumps out at you is you don't want to walk Jose," says Mets ace Tom Glavine. "You know what he's going to do and the havoc he's going to cause. That said, he's also increased his power numbers and production."

The team chemistry and talent propelled the Mets all the way to the cusp of the World Series last October. Had Reyes' liner in the bottom of the ninth with two on and one out in Game 7 of the NLCS fallen a few feet to either side of Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, maybe the Mets are off to Motown to play the Tigers.

"That was close, man," says Reyes. "But that's how baseball is. This year we try to do it again. That's the goal, make it to the World Series and win."

Along the way, the shortstop, part-time Spanish teacher, part-time musician, comic, father and New Yorker has one other baseball goal to fulfill: Continue to give the city something exciting to watch every time he slips on his uniform.

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