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Favorites Never Wear Thin

[1]It’s September 2009. The last thing I want to do is give the Mets more of my money. But there I am, at Citi Field, in the team store browsing, when I see a sign advising me that player number t-shirts are on SALE.

See, this is why I’ll never be an effective participant in a boycott of all things Wilponian. The desire to support this ownership group’s product is Pavlovian. No, actually, it is Simpsonian. Homer Simpson couldn’t resist a half-price sale on chocolate even though he was already (in his imagination) in the Land of Chocolate, where everything was made of chocolate and he could take a bite out of everything without dropping a dime. I live in the Land of Met t-shirts. I don’t need any more, not at the tail end of 2009 when I’m far more fed up with the reality of the Mets than I am in love with the concept of the Mets. But there is a SALE — $28 marked down to $16 — so I could feel myself stepping up my browsing whether I wanted to or not.

Where do I go with this with this 40% or so discount? Who don’t I have? What’s available? The most plentiful inventory is for injured Mets.

Lots of PEREZ 46. I pass. It would send the wrong message that I’m in favor of his $36 million contract; should Omar see one fan in PEREZ 46, he’ll sign Ollie to an extension.

Lots of MAINE 33, too. I could have gone for one of these in 2007, but how do I know he’ll be back in 2010? I don’t feel nearly enough for Johnny to become a MAINE 33 martyr if he’s not on the team.

An ample supply of SHEFFIELD 10…I might have jumped in May when I was briefly enchanted by his presence, but it’s clear Sheff will not be cooking here much longer. And I’m no longer enchanted.

I look to see if maybe there’s SANTOS 9 available, but an investment in SANTOS 9 seems an invitation for fate to unconditionally release him five minutes and sixteen bucks later.

Then, in blue, with that neat-o alternate inaugural season logo [2] (the one with the rendering of the Rotunda, not the unspeakable Domino’s ad), I see what I want: REYES 7. I don’t just want REYES 7. I need REYES 7.

By September 2009, I need REYES 7 more than I need a t-shirt that says that.

No shortage of JoseWear in my drawers at home, mind you. There’s a blue REYES 7 from 2003, his rookie year. There’s an orange REYES 7 from early in the ’07 season and a black National League All-Star REYES 7 from that same summer. Though I officially condemn the existence of the World Baseball Classic, I added a Dominicana REYES 7 last March. So I’m pretty well set. But staring at REYES 7 in concert with the faux patch that links him to 2009…yes, it will make a handsome addition to my apparel library (as would, given that I’d just theoretically “saved” $12, the REYES UNIVERSITY tee over on the next rack that I snap up as well).

How much better would have the Mets been in 2009 with Jose Reyes playing his customary 153 to 161 games instead of the 36 to which his right hamstring limited him? Would have they been better than 70-92? Would they have been markedly better than hopeless, which is what they were not long after Jose limped away from the scene of the grisly accident that last season was? An extra 120 games of Jose Reyes and concomitantly less Cora, Martinez, Valdez, Hernandez, whoever playing short…I don’t need to check Wins Above Replacement to know that a lot more Jose would have made some kind of difference.

All things being equal, there may be no worse position from which to lose your regular player than shortstop. I base this assertion on two very strong sets of recollections.

• Whenever Bud Harrelson missed copious amounts of time, the Mets seemed to tangibly suffer.

• Whenever Rey Ordoñez missed copious amounts of time, the Mets seemed to tangibly suffer.

No disrespect to the likes of Teddy Martinez, Mike Phillips, Luis Lopez or Melvin Mora, all of whom put in yeoman work as fill-ins in seasons when Harrelson and Ordoñez were shelved by injury for lengthy periods, but a top-flight shortstop never seems easily replaced. At their peak, Harrelson and Ordoñez vacuumed up everything in sight — and in Ordoñez’s case, everything in general. Neither of these guys was an offensive force in the Ernie Banks or Cal Ripken mold, but you didn’t care what they hit when they were in the field. A ground ball at or near Buddy or Rey-Rey was one less thing for the pitcher, the manager and the fans to worry about.

Same could be said for Jose, except Jose at his best extended his anxiety-clearing qualities to the plate and all over the basepaths. In any given game from 2005 through 2008, he had a pretty good shot at being the Mets’ best all-around player. As a classic catalyst, he was unmatched in Met annals. Tommie Agee was power plus speed for a couple of great years as a leadoff hitter. Mookie Wilson could be literally unstoppable on the basepaths (see Mets Walkoffs [3] for just how unstoppable). But Jose Reyes…you know what he was when he was playing every day for four years.

Yeah, you know what I mean [4].

Subtract that Jose Reyes from any team, and it’s going to show. It was easy to forget as 2009 ground on, given that everybody was injured. It all became one big clump of missing players. Thus, it wasn’t until I stared at that t-shirt that the lack of Reyes in our midst really struck me. There had been so little intertwining of 2009 logos and Jose Reyes. He was the missing person, the kid who was absent when they took the class picture. I didn’t realize how much I missed him while Cora & Co. kept his position lukewarm.

I also glossed over it because of a nagging suspicion that Reyes had stopped being the Reyes I loved toward the end of 2007 and never really recovered his total Joseness thereafter. I know he put up numbers in ’08 that fit in nicely with what he’d been doing since emerging as a full-time player in ’05, but something was always just a little off once the rest of the world discovered how great he was. Not as off as the entirety of Wilson Valdez or Anderson Hernandez, mind you, but askew enough to diminish my innate Jose-loving ways, no matter how many REYES 7 t-shirts I kept wearing. He stopped hitting down the stretch in ’07. His stolen base total froze. He’d choose odd moments to not run to first [5] or to throw tiny, unflattering tantrums [6]. About the only thing I remember well about Jose actually playing in 2009 was the game-winning homer he thought he hit against Atlanta in the twelfth inning on May 13, the one that Citi Field’s daffily designed dimensions kept in play. Had Jose run out of the box, he’d have been on third easily. He broke into a trot and settled for second [7]. The Mets lost by a run.

A week later he was day-to-day, which, per Met medical procedure, kept him out for the rest of the season. Somewhere between May and September, as the ’09 Mets numbed my nerves, Reyes was just another DL casualty [8] in a lost campaign. Since September and that t-shirt, however, with every interview he’s given [9], every interview somebody else has given [10] about him and every stride [11] he’s taken toward — fingers crossed tight — full recovery, he’s become to me what he’d been since 2003:

My favorite player.

It dawns on me now one of the reasons I found 2009 so toxic, besides the losses and the severe and appalling lack of fundamental baseball skills applied by the Mets in compiling those losses (as their manager and coaches looked on with apparent disinterest), was I had no favorite player to get behind. I had Mets, sure, and I generally root for all Mets. I always find myself rooting a little extra hard for a while for somebody new (like Santos), somebody familiar but new to us (like Sheffield), somebody struggling gamely against adversity (like Maine) and sometimes somebody whom I couldn’t bring myself to completely turn against no matter how compelling the evidence that I should cut bait (like Perez). I was delighted to have Frankie Rodriguez on board. I deepened my admiration for Carlos Beltran before and after his absence. David Wright by now is part of the skyline logo. He’s a landmark. It’s easy to overlook the Woolworth Building, but you still have to root for it. And I do.

But none of them was Jose Reyes to me. None of them was my favorite player. I don’t care how long you’ve been at this rooting thing. You need a favorite player.

Tom Seaver carried that title for me as long as he was a Met or a Met in exile (and, of course, always will in the all-time sense). There was Tom Seaver and everybody else from ’69 until the middle of ’77. I made do with the Mazzillis and Hendersons during the interregnum, but Seaver was my favorite player even when he was a Red.

It took the second idiotic banishment of Tom Terrific and the rise of Doctor K to effectively replace him on a going basis. Dwight Gooden was my favorite player from ’84 until the middle of ’94. Then he was gone, and I was adrift, albeit for only about ten minutes.

Very quickly, I adopted Rico Brogna, who got me through the strike and had me revved up for when baseball returned in ’95. Rico was my favorite player until he was traded just before Thanksgiving 1996 (which gave Thanksgiving a bad name [12] around here for the next decade).

Edgardo Alfonzo came out of the shadows under Bobby Valentine in early 1997 and immediately cemented his place as my favorite player until he was allowed to walk away in December 2002. Not unlike Seaver in Cincy, Fonzie in San Fran retained his ranking for a while thereafter.

I couldn’t handle a long-distance relationship, though. I needed a Met as a favorite player. Not that Fonzie wasn’t still a Met at heart, but I wasn’t about to leave my heart in San Francisco. June bloomed soon enough and, with it, Jose Reyes was brought up from Norfolk. Steve Phillips said it was going to be temporary. Steve Phillips says a lot of things I wouldn’t trust [13]. Reyes was here permanently from June 10, 2003. By June 12, 2003, Steve Phillips was asked to remove himself from his place of employment.

I’d say both were the right call.

Reyes won me over right away, partly because I was dying to be won over, partly because he his good notices from the minors didn’t seem out of line with what he was presenting, partly because he just beamed from the outset. That’s a kid who loves to play baseball, I thought. Loves to play it and can play it well. A little raw, but he just turned twenty. Who wouldn’t be raw that young? It wasn’t a tough consumer decision when I wandered into the Mets Clubhouse Shop on 42nd Street and bought my first REYES 7 in July of ’03.

I was horrified when Jose ended his season in a heap of pain at second base in 2003. I was insulted when he was shuttled to the same base in the spring of 2004 in favor of Kaz Matsui, the Toyota of his time (a big-time Japanese brand whose operating problems should have kept it off the road well before its recall). I was horrified when I saw what the Met braintrust had done to Jose’s beautiful stride after he rehabbed from injury. I was protective of his ascent [14] in 2005, irritated no end when so-called experts [15] snorted that Jose Reyes didn’t walk enough. Not walk? Why walk when you can run like that?

When it all came together in the heart of the 2006 season, when the Mets were becoming Jose Reyes and the Mets…wow, that was gratifying. He was a celebrated prospect a few years earlier and now he and Wright and the rest of the Mets were celebrating a division clinching and a bright future [16]. I loved that my favorite player was the favorite player of so many Mets fans. I loved the serenading. I loved that there were about as many home runs as triples, and there were plenty of triples. I loved the All-Star selections, particularly his moment with Willie Mays in 2007 [17]. I hate the WBC, but I loved that his shortstop-rich country thought enough of him to make him a part of its team. Even as I found myself occasionally disappointed at how Jose was playing and acting, I loved him. He was my favorite player. You gotta have a favorite player. Baseball’s not the same without one.

My favorite player is coming back. I look forward to wearing my heart on my sleeve along with his name and number on my back.

And speaking of welcome comebacks, Mike Steffanos is returning to the blogging beat [18] after a winter’s hiatus. If I didn’t see all that snow outside my window, I’d swear spring is right around the corner.

Also, another Mike is reportedly returning [19]. Congratulations to our longtime commenter Jacobs27 for maintaining the same screen name since Mike Jacobs’ departure. Talk about keeping the Faith.