The New York Mets have hyped a lot of young players over the years only to end up with egg on their faces. Jose Reyes looked like the real deal—until he spent almost a year on the disabled list. For four brilliant seasons, however, his quick hands, blazing speed, live bat and contagious optimism kept New York baseball fans on the edge of their seats. A year on the shelf sent those fans right to the window ledge. As Jose enters the prime years of his career, he finds himself at a crossroads. That’s because the path he follows may ultimately determine the fate of a franchise. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jose Bernabe Reyes was born on June 11, 1983, in Villa Gonzalez in the Dominican Republic. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.)He grew up in the nearby village of Palmar Arriba, on the outskirts of Santiago, in the northern part of the country. From his father, Jose Manuel, the youngster inherited his baseball genes and work ethic. From his mother, Josefina—known to her friends as Rosa—he got his long legs and million-dollar smile.

Jose and his parents lived on a dirt road near a banana grove. They were not wealthy—their only bathroom was an outhouse—but Jose and his younger sister, Meosote, always had food on the table. When Jose began to show signs of becoming a special athlete, his parents stuffed him with fruit, rice and meat to make sure he grew.

Baseball did not captivate Jose at first. His father played in town, on a crude diamond carved in the foothills of the Pico Diego Ocampo mountains. Jose’s friends played too, but he was not interested in the sport until he was 10-years-old. After he got the bug, he began hanging around his father’s games, begging to get in on the action.

Around the age of 12 or 13, Jose started to take baseball very seriously. Since he didn’t own a glove, and his father did not have the extra cash to buy him one, he fielded his position—usually shortstop—barehanded. Sometimes, he also made a mitt out of a milk carton. By age 15, Jose was without question the best player in town. When his youth league team traveled for tournaments and away games, dozens—and sometimes hundreds—of his neighbors would follow to root for Jose.

The Dominican Republic was a hotbed of future major leaguers, but not one had ever risen from the Jose’s village. The Reyes family did not own a television, so Jose never patterned his game after anyone in the big leagues. He was an original in every sense of the word. Months before his 16th birthday, Jose began to tinker with the idea of switch-hitting when his father told him that the skill might make him more appealing to scouts.

Jose stood six feet tall and weighed 130 pounds when he wandered into a tryout camp for the Mets during the summer of 1999. It was held in Santiago, not too far from his home. Scouts Eddy Toledo and Juan Mercado recognized a future star the instant they spotted him. Jose distinguished himself from the other boys with his strong arm, terrific range and incredible coordination. He also had real charisma. Toledo, known as a scout who goes with his gut, says it was like Jose had a halo around his head.

Jose had worked out for several other clubs, but he failed to grab anyone’s attention. Toledo—who had also discovered Octavio Dotel and Quilvio Veras—urged Omar Minaya, who headed up New York’s international scouting, to let him sign the scrawny teen. Minaya consulted assistant GM Jim Duquette, but he hesitated after seeing Jose’s height and weight. When Duquette heard that the Chicago Cubs were sniffing around, however, he had a change of heart. Toledo received approval to offer a $22,000 bonus, and Jose signed in mid-August. His parents used the money to open a small bodega.

As a rule, the Mets send kids like Jose to their Dominican baseball academy to start their pro careers. In Jose’s case, Duquette decided he would test him with the Kingsport Mets of the Appalachian League for the 2000 season.

Manager Edgar Alfonzo, the older brother of Mets third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, needed a utility infielder, so he planned to play the teenager on a regular basis. Duquette, still concerned that Jose would be overwhelmed, told Alfonzo that he didn’t want the youngster on the field that often until he proved he could hack it. The Kingsport manager called Duquette three days later and said forget it—he was going to put the 16-year-old out there every day.

Jose was relieved to find himself part of a team with more than a dozen Spanish-speaking players. The key figure in his first pro season was hitting coach Juan Lopez. Lopez found housing for Jose and the other Latinos on the roster in the same complex. He took an apartment there, too. Lopez was a father figure to the teenagers, driving them to the ballpark in a van for each game, helping them cash paychecks at the bank, and walking them through the local grocery store.

Lopez also worked with Jose to make him a better switch-hitter. Batting lefthanded felt awkward at first, but under the coach’s tutelage, Jose made steady progress. He did all right in the short-season rookie league, hitting .250 in 49 games.

ON THE RISE

In 2001, Jose was assigned to the Class-A Capital City Mets. He was pleased to find a few familiar faces on the club, including Lopez, who scouted out an apartment for him and arranged for third baseman Enrique Cruz to be his roommate. Cruz had been a teammate in Kingsport the year before.

Jose flourished in the field and at the plate, hitting .307 with 42 extra-base hits and earning the organization’s Player of the Year honors. He was remarkably steady at shortstop, committing only 18 errors.

That winter, Jose was asked to play for Los Pollos, the worst team in the Dominican Winter League. A reserve, he held his own against major-league-caliber pitching.


 

 

 


Jose Reyes, 2003 Baseball America

     
 

Jose’s reward for his breakthrough ’01 campaign was an invitation to the big-league camp in the spring of 2002. There he impressed everyone who saw him. He watched and learned, peppered the veterans with questions, and handled the press very intelligently. As the only five-tool minor leaguer in the organization, he was constantly questioned on when he thought he would reach the majors. Jose told one reporter that he hoped to challenge Rey Ordonez for the starting job sometime in 2003. Realizing his breach of etiquette, he refused to repeat this claim when pressed by others in the media. Smartly, he kept his mouth shut the rest of the way.

Ordonez didn’t seem to take it personally. He worked with Jose, explaining that the keys to fielding wizardry were to relax, be confident and let the game develop at its own pace. Roberto Alomar worked with Jose as well, sharing some of the fine points of playing second base, a position where Jose knew he might end up some day. Alomar also talked to the teen about the mindset he’d need to develop into a successful hitter. A quick study, Jose started swinging a hot bat. In one spring-training game, he doubled and tripled.

Jose was sent to New York’s minor-league camp after a few weeks. The big leaguers he left behind were unanimous in their fondness for Jose, whose personality won them over. The coaching staff liked how easily he picked up on their advice. Manager Bobby Valentine said he was the best player he’d ever seen at that age. To no one’s surprise, Jose was named the team’s top rookie in camp that spring.

Jose was assigned to St. Lucie in the high-A Florida State League. Most everyone agreed his fielding was already good enough for the majors. The uncertainty was his stick. The organization felt the FSL was a good place to start him, with the idea that he would be promoted as soon as he proved he could handle the pitching there. St. Lucie manager Ken Oberkfell, a lefty-hitting infielder in his playing days, continued to work with Jose on his switch-hitting.

Jose liked Florida. In his first two years, there were virtually no Spanish-speaking people in the towns in which he had played. By contrast, the St. Lucie area was home to thousands of Dominicans and Cubans.

In the first three months of the ’02 season, Jose hit consistently, showed flashes of power, and stole a ton of bases. That was all the Mets needed to see, as they promoted him to Class-AA Binghamton. One of only a handful of teenagers ever to play in the Eastern League, he collected five hits and four RBIs in his first game. A few days later, he was named to the World Team for the 2002 Futures Game in Milwaukee's Miller Park. For Jose, this was a tremendous honor—he remembered hearing about how his countryman, Alfonso Soriano, turned heads with his performance in the 1999 contest.

Jose started at second base and came up in the third inning with the bases jamme. He lined a triple to right-center off Aaron Cook, a hot prospect for the Colorado Rockies. As Jose stood on third, he soaked in the roar of 37,000 fans—more than four times larger than any crowd he had ever seen. Jose’s three-bagger keyed the World’s 5-1 victory over the U.S. squad and earned him the Larry Doby Award as the game”s MVP.

Reporters immediately asked Jose whether he was ready for the majors. The Mets had imploded, and it was only a matter of time before the call-ups started. Jose acknowledged that he had his eye on the situation in New York and said he was confident he would do well if given the chance. He added that the more important thing on his mind was simply improving day to day.

Jose played out the season in Binghamton, where the pitchers eventually caught up to him. Still, in 65 games, he hit .287 with 26 extra-base hits and 27 steals (which gave him 58 swipes on the season). Overall, he had 19 triples, which led the minor leagues. Jose also learned a lot about the game from catcher Jimmy Gonzalez, who took him under his wing and acted as his unofficial interpreter. Manager Howie Freiling couldn’t believe how quickly Jose—who was just weeks past his 19th birthday and performing on the same level as guys in their mid-20s—got his bearings.

MAKING HIS MARK

At this point, Jose had reached his full height of 6-2 and had beefed up to 180 pounds. More advanced at the plate than other top shortstop prospects like Wilson Betemit and Brandon Phillips, he had fanned just 58 times in nearly 600 at-bats in '02—a stat that screamed “leadoff hitter.” Jose’s fielding skills and instincts were gaining the polish required to make the jump to the majors, while his arm was getting stronger and more accurate.


Rey Ordonez, 1997 SI for Kids
     
 

After the season ended, the Mets went shopping for a new manager. Lou Piniella seemed to be a terrific fit, but the Seattle Mariners blocked his way to New York. When Piniella went instead to Tampa Bay, the Mets were still interested. The Devil Rays agreed to let him go, with one catch: they wanted Jose as compensation. That ended the conversation.

Jose, an unknown a year earlier, was one of the most closely watched players in the Dominican Republic during the winter of 2002-03. He was now the everyday shortstop for Los Gigantes del Cibao.

On December 15, the Mets announced a trade of Ordonez—who had called Mets fans “stupid” that summer—to Tampa. With no other shortstop in sight, it looked like they were handing the job to Jose. But two weeks later the club signed veteran Rey Sanchez to a one-year deal. The plan was to let Jose mature in the minors while Sanchez kept the spot warm for him. The move also made sense because Sanchez was a solid utility player, something Ordonez was not.

Jose finished out the winter with a .270 average and led the league in triples and stolen bases, despite a strained quad muscle that finished his season prematurely. Coach Luis Natera was amazed at how graceful and easy Jose made the game look. He called him the most exciting player in the Dominican Republic that winter, marveling that he acted like he was just fooling around in his backyard.

Jose arrived at the Mets spring camp in February and was given the locker next to Sanchez. Accompanying Jose was Naleson Silverio, the GM of Los Gigantes, whom the Mets hired as a bullpen catcher. Juan Lopez, Jose's old hitting coach, was also hired by the team.

The New York brass allowed that Jose might go north with the team if he had a huge spring, but in all likelihood he would begin the year at Class-AAA, with the Norfolk Tides. New Mets manager Art Howe, who had developed Miguel Tejada in Oakland, looked forward to working Jose into his lineup sooner rather than later. He knew that, at the same age, Jose was a better player than Tejada.

As planned, Jose was optioned to Norfolk, where after six weeks he had nothing left to prove in the minors. He was hitting well, fielding brilliantly, and on pace to steal 100 bases.

Howe’s desire to have Jose on the big club grew as the season progressed. Despite the addition of Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd, the Mets were going into the toilet for the second straight year. Major injuries to Mike Piazza and Mo Vaughn sapped the lineup of its power and eventually convinced management to start playing the team’s younger talent.


Lou Piniella, 1978 O-Pee-Chee
     
 

On June 5, Sanchez strained his left thumb and later went on the DL. Jose was called up just in time to celebrate his 20th birthday in a major league uniform. He made his debut against the Texas Rangers, going 2-for-4 with a pair of runs in a 9-7 loss. Jose grabbed the ball after the game and sent it to his parents.

The Mets eschewed any changing-of-the-guard talk after the game, promising Jose would be sent back to Norfolk as soon as Sanchez was healthy again. But Jose had another scenario in mind. A few days later, against the Anaheim Angels, he broke up a pitcher’s duel with a grand slam off Jarrod Washburn. He collected three hits in all, leading the Mets to an 8-0 victory. Against the Florida Marlins three days later, Jose went wild again, hammering a triple with the bags full and adding a run-scoring double in a 10-5 win.

When Sanchez came off the DL in early July, fans at Shea Stadium prayed that Jose would stay in New York. The Mets answered those prayers by keeping their rookie in the lineup. Jose’s average took a dip the second time around the league, but by the end of August, he adjusted and saw his production climb. On August 27, against the Atlanta Braves, Jose hit a righthanded homer off Mike Hampton and a lefthanded homer against Trey Hodges to become the youngest player in history to do so. In that same game, he made a great backhanded stop in the hole, then gunned out the runner at first—from his knees.

Jose’s season ended a few days later when he sprained his ankle breaking up a double play. His final numbers were impressive for a rookie of any age. In 69 games, he batted .307 with 32 RBIs and 13 stolen bases.

After the season, the Mets went shopping for a hitter to team with Jose at the top of the lineup. They ended up with Japanese import Kazuo Matsui, whose only condition upon signing was that he get first crack at his regular position of shortstop. Jose had always known that he might have to shift to second, but he never figured it would happen this way.

Second base can be a tricky position to learn in a hurry, especially at the major league level, but the Mets seemed confident that Jose could pull it off. If so, the team figured to have an impressive up-the-middle defense, with Mike Cameron manning center field behind Jose and “Little Matsui.”

Matsui knew he was ruffling some pretty important feathers, and he said all the right things about Jose in the press. He did not ask for #7 (Jose's number), which he wore in Japan, a peace offering that was not insignificant among players. The pair reached out to each other on the field, learning common phrases that would allow them to communicate effectively during games.

The expectations for Jose in the Big Apple were astronomical heading into 2004. But they were tempered early on when he suffered a strained hamstring, an injury that prevented him from playing until June 19th. The longer Jose spent on the DL, the more the media and fans questioned him. Some wondered whether he was secretly angry about his position change, and this was his form of protest. Others were puzzled how someone so young could be so brittle.

When Jose did return, the Mets were in the midst of a heated race in the National League East with the Marlins, Phillies and Braves—a development that had the faithful at Shea on Cloud Nine. Management reacted by pulling the trigger on a pair of deals that brought two quality arms, Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano. But the promising campaign quickly turned sour, as New York was beset by injuries and a dismal lack of production. Jose was among those who went down, this time with a bad back. Others joining him on the DL were Matsui and Zambrano, while Piazza and Floyd struggled to put up their usual numbers.

Jose eventually wound up on the 60-day disabled list. He came back in late September, when the Mets were fighting to stay out of the basement in the division. With little to gain from his activation, he collected just seven hits in the final nine games. By that time, the Mets were pondering what went wrong. After the season, Howe was relieved of his duties, and GM Jim Duquette was demoted in favor of Omar Minaya, who assumed control of all baseball operations.

One of Minaya’s first executive orders was to flip-flop Jose with Matsui for the 2005 season. Jose was also anointed the team’s leadoff hitter. Despite the typical ups and downs of a young player handling this responsibility in his first full, healthy season, Jose’s final numbers were superb. In a league-leading 696 at-bats, he collected 190 hits for a .273 average. His 17 triples and 60 stolen bases were tops in the NL.

The Mets played winning baseball under their new manager, Willie Randolph. They got solid contributions from David Wright, Floyd and free agent signee Carlos Beltran. New York finished tied for third in a surprisingly tight NL East, which saw all five clubs play .500 ball or better.


Jose Reyes, 2003 Bowman
     
 

The 2006 edition of the Mets had championship written all over it. Jose was a year older, wiser and better. His new double-play partner, Jose Valentin, provided stability at second base. Wright and the two Carloses—Beltran and Delgado (acquired in a trade with the Marlins)—drove in runs in bunches. A veteran pitching staff led by Glavine, Steve Trachsel, Pedro Martinez, Orlando Hernandez and Billy Wagner won 97 games, good for first place by a whopping 12 games.

Jose was spectacular. He batted an even .300, scoring 122 runs and knocking in 81 from the leadoff spot. He showed more patience at the plate, boosting his on-base percentage by 54 points. And he was dynamite on the basepaths, leading the NL is steals again with 64 and in triples with 17. Jose also showed good power, clubbing 19 homers.

In June, he became the ninth Met to hit for the cycle. Two months later, the team inked Jose to a four-year extension worth over $20 million. They also wrapped up Wright with a similar contract. A few days later, Jose had a three-homer game against the Phillies. At season’s end, he finished seventh in the league MVP voting.

The Mets were odds-on favorites to win the pennant as the playoffs began, even without Martinez, who had a damaged shoulder. Prior to the opening round, the team learned that Hernandez would also be unavailable. Even so, the Mets swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in three straight. Jose drove in the winning run in Game 2 with a ground out and the tying run in Game 3 with a bloop single. As they moved into the NL Championship Series against the surprising St. Louis Cardinals, the Mets seemed to have everything breaking their way.

It was an exciting see-saw battle, notable for the stellar pitching performances of late-season pickup Oliver Perez and young John Maine. The series went the full seven, with the finale providing several unforgettable moments. The Mets appeared World Series bound after Endy Chavez reached over the left field wall and snagged a Scott Rolen drive to preserve a 1–1 tie in the sixth inning. But Aaron Heilman gave up a ninth-inning homer to Yadier Molina, and the Mets failed to deliver a clutch hit against rookie closer Adam Wainwright in their final at-bat. Jose played reasonably well during the series, batting .281 with a double, triple and homer, and five runs scored. He was one of three Mets who came to the plate in that fateful ninth inning with a chance to do some damage. Jose hit a shot right to the center fielder; Floyd and Beltran both took called third strikes.

Jose produced another fine season in 2007, leading the NL again with 78 steals. But he also fell in love with his home run swing from time to time, the result being fewer homers and a lower batting average. This became an issue in the final month, when the Mets saw a comfortable lead over the Phillies evaporate. Jose seemed intent on winning games with one swing, getting away from the things he did best. There were many reasons for the Mets’ historic collapse—they missed the playoffs entirely—but Jose’s .205 average in September was high on the list. And needless to say, his animated handshakes and dugout jigs didn’t endear him to the frustrated fans at Shea.

The 2008 season saw the Mets wither again under the strain of a September stretch drive. They lost six of their last nine games to finish behind the Phillies for the division title. To make matters worse, the Milwaukee Brewers overtook them for the Wild Card.


Jose Reyes, Black Book Partners archives
     
 

Jose finished much stronger than the year before, and it showed in his final numbers. He led the NL with 204 hits and 19 triples, while raising his average to .297. He swiped 56 bases, second in the league to Willy Taveras. Although Jose missed out on his third straight All-Star appearance, he did receive votes as MVP for the fourth consecutive season. At 25, he was being called one of baseball’s Top 25 players.

A career in bloom took a surprising turn for the worse in 2009. After four injury-free seasons, Jose logged major time on the DL. He strained a calf during a May game and then tore a muscle in the same leg during a rehab stint. The Mets gave him time to mend before sending him back on the field, hoping he might be available for the last month or two of the season. But during his time away, the team foundered and Jose tore his hamstring, ending any hope of a return. He played just 36 games, and the Mets christened their new ballpark by losing 92 games.

Jose came into spring training hoping to get himself and the ball club back on track in 2010. The surgery to repair his hamstring appeared to be a success, but he seemed out of sync as he played his way back into shape. In March, the Mets announced that their young shortstop had been diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. The condition was not considered overly serious; it was treatable with rest and medication.

Jose began the year on the DL, and the Mets started slowly. Upon his return, the team came to life and surged into contention in the NL East. Ironically, the club ’s shaky pitching was keeping them in games. New York’s hitting—considered by experts to be the strong suit—was not playing up to par. At one point, manager Jerry Manuel moved Jose into the three-hole hoping to shake things up and rein him in a bit on the basepaths. Although it was not the first time the Mets toyed with the idea of relocating Jose’s live bat into the middle of the lineup, the experiment failed to produce the desired results.

The Mets have been a hard team to figure since Jose joined them as a teenager. Sometimes they look unbeatable on paper and are a disaster on the diamond. Often, it’s the other way around. One thing is certain. When the Mets take their cue from Jose and his exuberance becomes contagious, they are fun to watch and no fun to play.

JOSE THE PLAYER


Jose Reyes, 2008 Heritage
     
 

The first thing baseball people notice about Jose is that he clearly understands the game. None of his natural ability goes to waste—when he makes a play or gets his pitch, he knows exactly what to do. Unlike many skinny shortstops who fill out in their 20s, Jose has maintained his great quickness and coordination.

His range has improved, his glovework is exceptional, and his throwing accuracy—once a concern—is now up to snuff. So too is his footwork. Given his great hands, Jose had paid little attention to this part of his defensive game. Now it is a priority.

As a hitter, Jose has the quality of rising to the occasion. When there are runners on base, or the game is on the line, he becomes much more dangerous at the plate. He has gap power and then some, although teammates would rather see him keep the ball on a line.  

Jose’s base running is world-class. He has already led the league in the two speed categories (steals and triples) multiple times. Whether the leg injuries of 2009 sap his speed—or make him more judicious—remains to be seen.

 


Jose Reyes, Black Book Partners archives


 

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