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Funnest Met Ever

“When I’m finished, I’ll get the best seat to see him play. I’ll pay whatever price to see him play.”
—Pedro Martinez on Jose Reyes, July 23, 2005

Somewhere in the midst of the conference call Sandy Alderson held with some of us bloggers last Thursday night, the Mets’ general manager used an unremarkable phrase that caught my ear nonetheless. His front office, the GM said, was out to put a “better product on the field — better and more entertaining”  in 2012.

I was instantly reminded of Mike “Meathead” Stivic’s reaction to a grocery item label that promised “NEW AND IMPROVED!” on All In The Family. What, he asked, were we using before: old and lousy? Whatever the Mets’ missteps over the years, it never occurred to me they were intentionally going for worse and more torpid.

What got me was the use of the word “entertaining,” as if it was a disparate competency from “better”. If winning is colorless, sign me up for the Monochromatic Pack at once. If the Mets are winning consistently, the fun generally reveals itself therein.

But embedded in Sandy’s well-chosen words, I supposed then (and feel certain of now), was a cushion of warning for Mets fans…as if we hadn’t figured where things were inevitably heading [1] for ourselves. The Mets, he seemed to be saying, will strive to be entertaining next year, even if it doesn’t involve a ton of winning, let alone the presence of the most entertaining player we’ve ever employed.

No matter how drab the Mets turned post-2008, one colorful character leapt out from their tedious tableau. No matter what kind of film with which you metaphorically shot him in these digital days, there’s no way Jose Reyes would print in black and white.

I’ll miss that sense of dazzle. I’ll miss the runs, triples and stolen bases, of which he collected more than any Met in franchise history. I’ll miss the production at the plate and the prevention in the field (whatever your defensive metric of choice [2] indicates). I’ll miss not having to wonder who would bat leadoff. I’ll miss the 1,300 hits and how somebody was finally going to catch Eddie Kranepool while wearing Eddie Kranepool’s number. I’ll miss that the last of the 2003 Mets was the one 2003 Met whose sudden presence and instant impact in 2003 cheered me up when I was as down as I’d ever been about the state of the Mets.

But that doesn’t even get to what I’ll miss most. Call it entertainment value if you like, though when you’re a fan of a team, you don’t worry about being entertained. You’re far too engaged for such superficial concerns. You want to be entertained? Download Adele. Go see George Clooney. Subscribe to the MLB package and watch the Miami Marlins. That’s dispassionate entertainment.

What it was to me was Jose being Jose. Jose lashing. Jose dashing. Jose gunning. Jose grinning. Jose and the Mets winning, Maybe not as much as they had been when they were an annual 89-win proposition (on average) for four straight years and he was leading off virtually every day, but enough so you could put together his legs and his arm and his bat and their fortunes. Gosh, it was fun to be in your seat by the start of the bottom of the first if you were going to the game or at your TV no later than 7:11 if they were on the road. Gosh, it was comforting crossed with exhilarating knowing the game couldn’t commence until Jose had the first of his ups. Gosh, he relished being a baseball player, and he did it as a New York Met.

Who else ever made us sing not just his praises but his name? Repeatedly? To say Jose was the most fun Met ever doesn’t quite get to his essence. It was more like he was funnest. You felt like a kid [3] watching him play, so it’s only fitting to express yourself that way, too.

I joined in a knot of media last month at the event the Mets held to unveil their altered uniforms so I could hear what Ike Davis and David Wright each had to say about Jose Reyes. Ike was almost bubbly talking about how “excited” he was to have been Jose’s teammate. I asked David to share his thoughts on Ruben Tejada, noting he’d probably been asked plenty about Jose. I have to admit I wondered how much of a company man he’d be if given the opportunity to move on to the next shortstop. But David, bless his Metsian heart, didn’t bite. Jose was “one of a kind,” David said (before adding some respectful boilerplate about Ruben).

These tidbits occur to me because one of my favorite images from Jose Reyes’s nine years as a Met come from a game he didn’t play, the final Saturday night of last season [4], the second half of a day-nighter against the Phillies. The Mets won it with Jose on the bench, yet after the final out was made and the SNY cameras captured the lads funneling toward their clubhouse, the guy leading the charge — and the guy more ebullient than anybody else at having won an allegedly meaningless game — was Jose Reyes. You would have thought it was the Mets, not the Phillies, getting ready for the playoffs. In that moment, the notion that somebody was “just happy to be here” shone through as it rarely does. And this was no scrub. This was our star.

The Mets are fun to us because they’re the Mets; it’s the same reason the Mets are a pain to us. But some guys are just more fun and more meaningful than the rest. That was Jose. Jose made leading off a happening. Jose made his staying through the trade deadline a cause, even if it turned out to be a reprieve more than a pardon from the governor. Jose was a sunshine rod. If things were working even a little for him, you were having a better day because of it. You might not have trekked to Shea Stadium or Citi Field specifically to see him, but he was the one who drew you in once you were there.

It’s good to have that. It’s good to have someone to depend upon as a constant in your life as a fan. It’s a more sacred sensation than “entertainment”. If you’re caught up in the development and evolution of a player from the beginning of his career in your midst to the end, the entertainment takes care of itself. Your equity with your team tends to be tied up predominantly in a few special players at any one time. If you’re lucky enough, you have those players with you 100%, from hotly anticipated callup to final tip of the cap. Their ride is your ride.

Of course we never, ever have that over the long term, save for the aforementioned Kranepool and maybe Ron Hodges, depending on your definition of special player. I would have loved to have had it with Seaver, with Strawberry, with Alfonzo…but I didn’t get it. I won’t get it with Reyes, either. There are reasonable explanations for why this has come to pass, whether you count them to 70 million or 106 million [5], but it doesn’t make them feel any more legitimate.

I feel, on the most basic of levels, as if my trust in my team has been violated. For whatever reason I became a Mets fan at the age of six, it wasn’t to be calmly understanding of ownership when it led the club down a path of competitive ruin. And it wasn’t to make rationalizations on behalf of vague nods toward a better, more entertaining day after tomorrow. I’m pretty sure it was to root for a whole lot of players who played for my team and to fall in baseball love with one or two of them in every Met generation. Reyes was that guy for most of the past decade.

I have no idea who will be the next one or when/if it will happen again.

A little more recommended reading…

Last week’s Sandy Alderson conference call, still instructive despite being a little dated by now, was courteously transcribed by Amazin’ Avenue here [6].

Marvelous encomium to Jose Reyes from Patrick Flood, here [7].

The big picture, broken down stroke by insightful stroke by Metstradamus, here [8].

And one of my favorite Faith and Fear pieces, wherein Jason eavesdrops on a contentious conversation between scout and sabermetician as regards a young shortstop on the rise, here from 2005 [9].