Monday, October 9, 2006
Updated: April 15, 3:25 PM ET
By Lindsay Berra
A smile is a simple thing. And powerful, too. It can open doors, build trust and lift heavy hearts. The wider and toothier and brighter the grin, the more infectious it becomes. At close range, a smile can recharge batteries. From far away, it can renew faith. And from the top of the lineup or deep in the hole, it can change the flow of a baseball game. At least it can when it's the gran sonrisa of José Bernabé Reyes.
His smile is the outward sign, visible everywhere from the field box behind home plate to the last row in leftfield, of the potential and kinetic and transferable energy that pours out of Reyes and sizzles through the lineup of the New York Mets. It is energy generated when the sheer joy of throwing a baseball combines with the freedom afforded by speed. And it is measurable in the myriad ways Reyes can single-handedly shift the momentum of a game—with a gap-busting triple, or a ground ball beat out in a blue-and-orange blur; with a headlong, dust-churning dive when the gravitational pull of first isn't strong enough to overcome the draw of second, or a brilliant defensive play made possible by the quickest of feet and the strongest of arms. Willie Randolph calls Reyes his igniter. And because of Reyes, the Mets have been on fire all season long.
Seven years ago, it was the smile that earned Reyes a job. Eddy Toledo, a Mets scout at the time, first saw him in August 1999 at a tryout camp in Santiago, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic. The boy was just 16 years old, but scouts from four other major league clubs had already checked him out, and all four had passed. He was nothing special across the board, they thought: a below-average hitter and fielder with below-average speed and a below-average arm. But Toledo was taken in by the grin. "There was something special in his face and eyes," he says. "He was so exciting to me." Toledo looked a little harder at the body the other scouts had dismissed as weak. Yes, it was devoid of bulk, but it was springy and elastic and loaded with potential. Toledo's boss back then, assistant GM Omar Minaya, valued raw athleticism. The Mets weren't hurting for cash, and Minaya, inherently aggressive, rarely shied away from risk. So when Toledo called and told him of the unremarkable skill set of the kid he thought could maybe, one day, be remarkable, Minaya gave him the green light. The scout invited José and his dad, a plumber named José Manuel, to lunch at the big Gran Almirante Hotel in Santiago. When the teen arrived with his arm slung over the shoulders of his papi, Toledo saw something special in the ease of his gait and the pride in his posture: "He had a halo over his head." A few hours and $13,000 later, Reyes was a Met.
Sure enough, he grew into his body, now 6'1" and a sinewy 195 pounds. He might look skinny from afar, but his frame is densely packed with muscle. His movement is fluid and stretchy, almost too liquid for a baseball player. In street clothes, Reyes could easily pass for a point guard or a wide receiver or an Olympic hurdler. The strength he gained from better nutrition and a weight-training program (he lifts three times a week in season, six times a week in the winter) helped to develop his legs and his arm and his bat. He became comfortable hitting from the left side of the plate (he didn't start switch-hitting until he was 15), moving himself a precious 10th of a second closer to first.
Once Reyes reaches first base, the pitcher's name is irrelevant, his anxiety universal. If the guy is blessed with a good pickoff move, lucky him, though it will likely just serve to keep Reyes close, not get him out. If the pitcher's move is merely average, watch out. "He has that fourth gear," says Marlins lefty Dontrelle Willis, who's avoided being victimized by Reyes the past two seasons. "And he gets from one to four real quick."
So what's a pitcher to do? He can slide-step to the plate, speeding up his delivery and increasing the risk of a bad pitch. Or he can hold the ball to make Reyes pause, preventing him from getting a good jump from a walking lead. The pitcher will count one, one-thousand under his breath before tossing to first or throwing a pitch. He'll count one, one-thousand … two, one-thousand the second time. Or he'll hold the ball indefinitely—one, one-thousand … two, one-thousand … three, one-thousand … four, one-thousand—until the batter calls time. Anything to be unpredictable, to keep Reyes on his heels, to freeze him in his runner's shimmy when his weight is on the left foot, making a crossover step and a takeoff for second nearly impossible; he might as well be stapled to the bag. "That pisses me off right there," Reyes says. "Because I want to go so bad."
And because if there's one thing he learned from Man of Steal Rickey Henderson, who was brought into spring training last March to tutor Reyes in the subtle art of thievery, it's how to read a pitcher—how to be patient and hold back when every fiber of his being says, ˇVaya! ˇVaya! ˇVaya! and every fan in the stands yells, Go! Go! Go!
"Sometimes I have to wait a couple pitches," Reyes says. "Sometimes I say, maybe I'm not going to go. Maybe I'll stay here. But if the pitcher does something wrong, if I see he's going to home plate, I'm going on his first move. And if I get a jump, forget it." Though Henderson will chide Reyes for falling short of his goal of 75 steals (he's on pace for 63), José's faster-than-the-ball attitude has Rickey convinced he'll swipe 100 next year. Come spring, Henderson will teach his protégé to be even more explosive by driving from his back leg to eliminate the crossover step, allowing him to reach top speed faster. Even now, Reyes has nearly an 80% success rate stealing second this season. Stealing third, he's 8-for-10. So pardon the smile that spreads across his face as he dusts off his uniform and spits the dirt from his teeth. Reyes doesn't mean to gloat—he just loves to run.
The immediate beneficiary of his two-step with the pitcher is Paul Lo Duca, the contacthitting catcher who bats second. If Lo Duca sprays a base hit because the preoccupied pitcher misses his spot, Reyes has won, stolen base or not. Or if the jittery man on the mound decides to help his catcher by firing fastballs—it would take a minor miracle to throw out Reyes on a breaking ball—that's fine too, because Lo Duca feasts on the hard stuff. And behind him, Carlos Beltrán, Carlos Delgado and David Wright all have more than 110 RBIs.
Once Reyes puts the ball in play, the anxiety shifts from pitcher to fielders. Reyes, legs churning, makes them rush, especially when he's flying around second or third. That leads to mistakes, and errors become compounded. "Speed forces the game," says Minaya, in his second year as Mets GM. "It forces the other team to play quicker." Booted balls, bad throws and mental lapses all lead to more runs and more victories for the Mets, who, with less than two weeks left in the regular season, had the best record in baseball.
Last season was Reyes' first as a full-time shortstop, the first year he was free of the hamstring and leg injuries that plagued him in 2003 and '04 and spooked the Mets into tinkering with his head and his stride. And though he hit .273 in 2005, with 17 triples and 60 steals, Reyes, like his team, was a work in progress, aggressive to a fault. "He was just swinging, swinging, swinging," Randolph says. "We got him to understand what it means to take his foot off the throttle a bit and let the game come to him. He just needed to calm down." That meant no more diving into first base, no more running the Mets out of innings, no more jumping all over the first pitch because he was just dying to get on base.
Physically, Reyes is faster than ever, but with experience, the pace of the game has slowed for him. Henderson hammered home the obvious— that Reyes can't steal if he doesn't get on base. Rickey preached plate patience and gave him another goal: get on at least twice a game. "I don't care how he does it," Henderson says. "He can walk, hit a single, get hit by a pitch, whatever. If he gets on at least two times a day, he has the chance to steal two bases a day."
Reyes has reached base at least twice in 77 games this year; he has multiple swipes in nine games. He works on laying off the junk, which ensures that he'll see the fastball—and he loves to hit the fastball. As a result, his batting average is close to .300, his on-base percentage is up from .300 to .352, and, thanks to his 19 homers, his slugging percentage has soared from .386 to .494. After a three-dinger game by Reyes on Aug. 15 in Philadelphia, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel looked on the bright side: "At least we kept him off the bases." Reyes is on pace for twice as many walks as he had last season, and he leads the league again with 17 triples. "When the ball is in the gap," he says, "I always think three."
And now, for the first time in six years, the Mets are in the postseason, looking over the wide gulf that separates them from the rest of the National League, with a legitimate shot to win their first World Series since 1986. Not that a championship would change life all that much for Reyes. In early August, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $23.25 million, but he plans on keeping the same living arrangement he's had while earning $401,500 this season. He shares a three-bedroom apartment in Bayside, Queens, not far from Shea Stadium, with his father, mother Rosa, girlfriend of three years Katerine, and the couple's two daughters, 20-month-old Katerine and 2-month-old Ashley. And when José's sister, Miosoti, and their Uncle Wilfredo visit from the Dominican, there's room for them, too.
For Reyes, nearly every day of a homestand is the same. He sleeps until 1 p.m. (unless there's a day game), often with little Katerine in the crook of his arm. Once awake, he's as fidgety in the house as he is in the dugout. "Oh boy," he says, "I still make my mama crazy." He lunches on rice and beans and fried chicken or whatever comida Rosa cooks up. Then he plays with the girls for an hour before making the eight-minute drive to the ballpark. After games, José finds it tough to wind down. Fast-twitch until the end, he's often awake until 3 a.m., watching SportsCenter, singing along to Daddy Yankee or playing his PSP.
Ask him how good he thinks he can be, and Reyes answers, "We'll see. Vamos a ver." (Only with his Northern Dominican lilt, it comes out as Vam-oh a ve-i. They do that—turn their r's into i's—in José's hometown of Villa González, on the top side of the island). But ask others how good Reyes can be, and they don't hesitate. Randolph, not one for hyperbole, says Reyes is faster than Willie Wilson, Bake McBride and Bo Jackson, and that he could be more complete than Derek Jeter. Former Mets pitcher-turned-announcer Ron Darling says Reyes will be better than Henderson. And Rickey himself believes José still has more speed—and just plain more—to give. "He has fun just doing what he's doing," Henderson says. "Any ballplayer who can wear that big ol' smile in the good times
and the bad can't be anything but great."
Eddy Toledo, now a scout for the Devil Rays, says he'll never be this right again. Ask him, and he'll produce his seven-year-old scouting reports, which predict with astonishing accuracy that Reyes will be a .300 hitter with 20 home runs, 20 triples, 70 RBIs and 75 stolen bases.
But what Toledo couldn't have predicted was how Reyes' energy would put the Mets back on the map. Or how the electricity in his game would have New York baseball fans (even some of the pinstriped ones) glued to their TVs. Or how Mets fans would bond with the happy-go-lucky Dominican kid who's not only leading the team into October but could also be the difference-maker who will have them all celebrating in November.
Reyes is often cause for celebration. With the Mets trailing the Cardinals in the bottom of the ninth on a hot August night, a crowd of earlyexiters massed on the Long Island Rail Road platform outside Shea. A teenager bounded down the stairs, shouting, "Reyes hit an inside-the-park home run!" The crowd erupted with hugs and high-fives and a chorus of M-E-T-S! Mets! Mets! Mets! It was wishful thinking: Reyes (whose first inside-the-park job would come two weeks later) had actually grounded to second. But that's beside the point. He makes fans believe.
And that's something to smile about.