It was a rally or as close to a rally as the 2018 Mets could have conjured in the first week of June 2018. Wednesday afternoon against the Orioles, Todd Frazier singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Recently returned from a hamstring injury and representing the tying run, a pinch-runner was in order. One sprinted from the home dugout. Todd, with his back to his manager’s machinations, didn’t realize he as being replaced until his substitute put both of his hands on Frazier’s helmet. It was more direct than a tap on the shoulder. I’ve seen baserunners look disturbed to be informed they’re leaving the game. Not Todd. The man who brought salt and pepper to Queens got the flavor of the moment immediately. He and his successor high-fived and switched places. Frazier headed for the dugout. Jose Reyes took over at first base.
Jose Reyes , my favorite player. I was thrilled to see him in action and, from where I sat in right, applauded vigorously.
Jose Reyes, my favorite player. I was horrified that he’d get picked off and, in a voice not loud enough for him to hear, told him not to.
Brad Brach, the Orioles’ closer, threw to first immediately. Jose was safe. After a ball to Jay Bruce and then a foul, Brach threw again to Chris Davis, who did not tag out Reyes. Jose tried another lead, Brach tried another pickoff to no avail. Refocusing his concentration on Bruce, Brach threw two more pitches out of the strike zone. At three-and-one, Jay connected for a long fly to deep left field. If it traveled as far as it looked like it could, I’d have the best of all worlds: a Mets walkoff win with my favorite player not only scoring the tying run but not doing anything to keep the Mets from winning.
As Roger Angell wrote, he “has so far resisted the clear evidence that he should retire. He plays sporadically, whenever he is well and rested, and gives his best, but his batting reflexes are gone, and so is his arm.” Except Angell wasn’t writing about Jose Reyes in June of 2018. He was writing about Willie Mays in June of 1973, specifically a night when Mays chased down a double and, realizing he wasn’t up to making a sufficiently strong throw to the infield, flipped the ball to left fielder George Theodore, who was not expecting to be called upon in that situation. Who would? Who would think Willie Mays would need a cutoff man to hit the cutoff man? “The horrible truth of the matter,” Angell continued, “was that Mays was simply incapable of making the play.”
That was in the top of the fourth at Shea, against Willie’s old team, the Giants. In the bottom of the fourth, he grounded out to short, pulling his average below .100 for the year. “He has subsequently done a little better,” Angell reflected weeks later, “but his failings are now so cruel to watch that I am relieved when he is not in the lineup.”
This is what a Jose Reyes sighting is like for me these days.
The player whose promotion so delighted me this week fifteen years ago; whose reign as the Mets’ best-ever all-around shortstop elevated my spirits for nine seasons; whose absence from the Mets gnawed at me for the four seasons after that; and whose reacquisition in 2016 I embraced reluctantly but eventually…I’m thrilled to see him in action…and I’m horrified that he’ll get picked off. Or strike out. Or pop up. Or ground into a DP. Or be thrown out stealing. Or otherwise run us out of an inning. Or let a ball skitter under his glove. Or bobble a ball. Or drop one as it descends from the sky.
Yet I am instinctively thrilled to see him. When I saw him emerge from the dugout to run for Frazier, I definitely put my hands together, a little out of amazement that Mickey Callaway knew enough to take out a guy who’s not a burner even on sturdy hamstrings, mostly because the guy he put in is my favorite player. He was my favorite player almost immediately in 2003 and stayed my favorite player through 2011 and served as my favorite player in absentia until 2016. I never fully restored him to his most exalted place of pre-eminence after the circumstance that deposited him on our doorstep a second time, but I also never found another Met to fully supplant him. Nobody’s ever pinch-run for Reyes in my heart. He’s still my favorite player in the active sense, for as long as he remains active.
Which is no longer an open-ended proposition. I caught a flurry of tweets en route to the game Wednesday that reported an exit strategy was being concocted. “Mets officials,” according to the Post’s Mike Puma, had “discussed releasing Jose Reyes, but are conflicted given Reyes’ roots in the organization. Mets want Reyes receiving a proper sendoff.”
In the realm of Twitter, a medium into which patience was never programmed, the news was greeted by fast-fingered Mets fans with disbelief. Not disbelief that the Mets would be offing Reyes — Jose was routinely being typed out onto 126th Street when the club was 11-1 — but incredulity that the Mets were, for once, concerning themselves with making a player’s swan song as graceful as possible. This player’s swan song. This player who has been overmatched at bat, underskilled in the field and not much of an asset on the basepaths. Faster than Todd Frazier is basically the portfolio Jose brings to the table in June of 2018.
Had Bruce’s ball kept carrying, it would all be moot. Reyes would be running and, unless he allowed Jay to pass him, he’d be scoring. The Mets would be winning for a change. Nobody would have anything to complain about with Jose for a change. People have every right to complain, but encountering their complaints has bothered me all season. I’m not saying the complaints — that he shouldn’t still have a spot on the roster; that he shouldn’t have had a spot on the roster to begin with in ’18; that he shouldn’t have been invited back in ’16 considering the event that made him available — are without validity. I’m just saying they bothered me. Jose Reyes has been my favorite player for fifteen years. Once he’s done, I realized recently, that’ll be it. I will never again have a favorite player in the active sense.
I’ll like players. I like lots of them now. I like most everybody on the Mets. Several of them I wear t-shirts for. But none of the other current Mets has ever generated the kind of personal passion required for me to call him my favorite. Few Mets ever have. Tom Seaver did. Doc Gooden did. Rico Brogna and Edgardo Alfonzo did. Then Jose Reyes. Five players spanning fifty seasons, the first starting when I was six, the last lasting until I’m fifty-five. At forty, which is what I was when Jose was nineteen about to turn twenty, it was probably a stretch to select a favorite player. But the chemistry was just right and I went with it. I don’t see myself getting revved up for another in the latter half of my fifties or beyond.
Having a favorite player doesn’t mean blanket dispensation for what I might not like at a given interval. No. 41 will always be my No. 1 to me, but I cringe every time somebody tells me of a chance meeting in which the Franchise bristled at them. Doc is a case study in not putting too much faith in an idol. Brogna never did anything wrong other than wear the uniforms of teams I didn’t like, but the bad back that ostensibly motivated the Mets to trade him did indeed end his career prematurely and I acknowledge that (though swapping him for Ricardo Jordan and Toby Borland was hardly a solution). I’ve never forgiven the Mets for letting Fonzie walk as a free agent in December 2002, but I’ll grudgingly admit he was probably done being a superstar at that point.
I’ve had my issues with my last favorite player. Two months after I tingled that Jose of all All-Stars was the All-Star chosen to catch a ceremonial first pitch from Willie Mays in San Francisco , I thought he ran recklessly and stupidly in September 2007 and accelerated the worst collapse ever. I thought a couple of times at his peak that his maturity was maddeningly slow to develop. I didn’t mind him ferrying his batting crown to the bench ASAP on the last day of 2011, but I thought he didn’t have to take the right turn to the dugout so suddenly. What happened after that day — signing with an unpleasant division rival — I considered business. I’d have preferred the Mets had made him an offer. Maybe they weren’t crazy not to, seeing as how the Jose of Miami and Toronto was never quite the Jose of Flushing.
There was nothing to defend or rationalize when it was reported Jose threw his wife into a glass door in Hawaii, which led to his suspension from the Rockies and his reunion with the Mets. Talk about damaged goods. In retrospect, as long as his name keeps filtering through my consciousness, it reminds me of my first year collecting baseball cards, 1970. I really wanted to open a pack and find a Willie Mays. I never did. Five or six years later at a card show, I came across a 1970 Mays. Except it was a cut card. The top was lopped off and the bottom was the top of some mere mortal’s portrait. It wasn’t the Willie Mays I’d wanted when I was younger.
But it was there, it was affordable and I grabbed it. It was still Willie Mays.
And the free agent the Mets signed for the major league minimum in the middle of 2016 was still Jose Reyes. Jose Reyes with a domestic violence rap soldered to his reputation, but Jose Reyes. I still had him listed as my favorite player, same as I had Gooden when he tested positive for cocaine. Second chances. Compartmentalization. Deeply embedded sports fan loyalty. Wright was out for the year. We needed a third baseman. I had deleted some but not all of my REYES 7 shirts from rotation. And, business being business notwithstanding, he looked so happy to be home.
I got a kick out of Syndergaard. I grew fond of Cabrera. I admired deGrom. I loved that Cespedes decided to stay. But none of them was really my favorite Met by the summer of 2016. Reyes filled the role. Maybe not as he had from 2003 to 2011, but close enough. Though he wasn’t really a third baseman, he played the position as asked. He wasn’t the speedster he once was, but he ran as needed. The 2016 Mets sputtered and frustrated but, with REYES 7 again atop their batting order, they took off in late August, roared through September and, as they did with Willie Mays on their team in 1973, made the playoffs.
It’s not generally mentioned when people glibly refer to Willie Mays falling down in center field during the 1973 World Series and reflexively use him as their example of a player who resisted retirement to his own detriment that Willie was as good a player as the 1972 Mets had after he came home to New York in May. The team was riddled with injuries and falling apart, but Mays was rejuvenated. Nobody got on base more than Willie. Had he gone out as a 1972 Met, the New York coda to his career would have been sweet, hold the bitter.
But then we wouldn’t have had the night Willie said goodbye to America, despite hitting .211, despite Angell wishing he wasn’t still pushing himself onto the field a shadow of his formerly brilliant self. I was ten years old in 1973. I could decipher batting averages. But it never occurred to me to not want to see Willie Mays.
Jose Reyes, once the dust settled, helped the Mets win something in 2016. He batted more than any Met did in 2017. The results weren’t spectacular, but they steadily improved as the year went on. There were some stray good Jose moments in an otherwise dismal Met year. On the night of their final home game, some of us chanted the Jose chant as if a decade hadn’t passed. Had he gone out as a 2017 Met, the New York coda to his career would have been completed quietly and with minimal hard feelings. Those who didn’t want him back wouldn’t have been happy that he’d been here again at all, but those who were happy that he’d been here again could have finished their active relationship with him on a modestly upbeat note.
Instead, the Mets asked him back again, Jose said sure, and I’m channeling Roger Angell in that I’m relieved when my favorite player isn’t in the lineup. Never mind what impact he has on a given game. I just don’t want to see him fail and feed more fodder to those who never cease pointing out his myriad shortcomings. I love my Jose Reyes from when he was nineteen about to turn twenty. I love my Jose Reyes who set every speed-based record in Mets history. I love my Jose Reyes from when he caught a first pitch from Willie Mays. I love my Jose Reyes who batted .337. I love my Jose Reyes who homered to tie the Phillies late in an epic contest in 2006 and did the same in 2016. The Jose Reyes of today, the one whose age is about to be five times his uniform number, the one whose OPS is basically what you get for attaching your signature to the SAT, doesn’t perform remotely like that. But I saw how he greeted Frazier when he replaced him on Wednesday. I’ve seen how he high-fives teammates after they score when he’s in the on-deck circle. I’ve seen how once in a great while, when he has reason to smile on a baseball field, he brings it like few others have.
He doesn’t bring it much with his bat or arm or legs anymore. I held out hope in April, but in April he had only five hits. I looked for signs in May, but in May he had only five hits. He’s had none in June. Few at-bats, either, and little reason to be given them. Jose Reyes is more done than I’ve cared to admit. I will admit that he’s done, no matter that I haven’t cared to admit it whatsoever.
The last favorite player I’ll ever have didn’t get to cross the plate on Jay Bruce’s home run off Brad Brach, because Jay Bruce’s fly ball didn’t land over the fence. It was caught in left field for the first out of the ninth. Jose was back to being a baserunner at first, trying not to get picked off. For his sake. For the Mets’ sake. Though he’s never met me, for my sake.
Don’t get picked off, Jose.
He didn’t. He drew two more throws — once while Kevin Plawecki batted, once while Adrian Gonzalez was up. They made the second and third outs, not Jose. The Mets lost, 1-0.  While pinch-running for his baseball life on June 6, 2018, Reyes didn’t further facilitate his own demise.
It’s coming. It’s racing around third like Jose used to. I know that. Maybe it doesn’t matter how it’s arranged. Maybe the concept of a “proper sendoff” is tonally out of sync with these harsh what has he done for us lately? 27-32 times. If I had my way, the player with the second-most hits any Met has ever recorded, Reyes, would leave the field one final time alongside the player with the most hits any Met has ever recorded, Wright. They played next to each other for a lot of years, you might recall. I do.
It was a while ago.