Last Friday morning Jose Reyes was happily smacking
batting-practice fastballs around Field 5 of the New York Mets'
minor league complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., when 40-year-old
righthander David Cone, who had fooled Reyes with a splitter
moments earlier, announced that a heater was coming. The high-70s
floater was more of a warmer, though, and Reyes, a mile in front,
flailed and missed badly. "Expected a little more on that, huh?"
Cone hollered, while Reyes turned to the mound, doffed his
helmet and flashed his omnipresent grin. No sense getting upset;
as is his habit, Reyes was merely ahead of schedule.
At 19 Reyes is a shortstop to make Ozzie Smith flip. He's a
smooth-swinging switch-hitter with power to all fields, the speed
to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and the
defensive range and grace to make New Yorkers forget Rey Ordonez.
After burning through his third professional season (in 134 games
split between Class A St. Lucie and Double A Binghamton, he hit
.288 with 58 stolen bases and 53 extra-base hits, including a
minor-league-high 19 triples), Reyes, who turns 20 on June 11,
has a chance to become the first teenager to start for the Mets
since Dwight Gooden in 1984. He inspires testimonials that are
infomercial-like in their enthusiasm: Mets general manager Steve
Phillips predicts, "It's not a matter of if, but when." New
manager Art Howe says that when he first saw Reyes take BP, he
"kind of drooled a little bit." Centerfielder Roger Cedeno simply
nods in Reyes's direction and says solemnly, "Superstar."
"I don't worry about that," Reyes says of the hype. "The only
thing [I can do] is play hard every day, get better day to day
and see what happens." Reyes is the oldest child of a
grocery-store owner and a housewife in Palmar Arriba, Dominican
Republic, a village 120 miles north of the capital, Santo
Domingo. He began playing at age 10 on a neighborhood dirt field,
where his soft hands were the strongest part of his game. A
natural righthander, he began swinging from the left side two
months before he signed with the Mets in August '99, so he could
take advantage of his explosive speed out of the batter's box.
Says Mets third baseman Ty Wigginton, Reyes's teammate this past
off-season on the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican winter
league, "One time he hit a single up the middle, right behind
second base, and the centerfielder dogged it a little, and next
thing you know, Jose's standing on second. It was so heads-up."
Says Reyes, "When I get to first base, I start thinking about
A scrawny 6'0", 160 pounds when the Mets signed him, Reyes has
grown an inch and gained 30 pounds. Daily weight-room sessions
are adding muscle to his legs and upper body. As he bulks up--he
wants to add five more pounds to his frame--the Mets are
confident that he'll develop 20-homer power. Reyes has more power
righthanded; when batting lefty, his open stance makes him more
of a contact hitter and allows him to use the opposite field.
From either side he tries to drive the ball into the gaps.
Phillips insists that he'll bring Reyes to New York only when
he's assured of regular playing time; a Triple A stint is likely
this spring while free-agent signee Rey Sanchez keeps the
position warm. Meanwhile, Reyes must sharpen his throwing
accuracy and improve his selectivity at the plate. He walked only
half as often last season after he was promoted to Binghamton in
June. "I think I need to go to the minors again," Reyes says. "I
need to work on my bunts, my basestealing, taking more walks, a
lot of things."
The addition of Reyes to the Mets' lineup, probably in the
leadoff hole, will provide a catalyst for a team that finished
13th in the National League in runs scored last year, when the
shortstop position, manned predominantly by Ordonez, was an
offensive black hole.
One consequence of Reyes's budding rep has been a furious effort
by the Mets to dial back his profile. Media access to him is
closely guarded, and bullpen catcher Nelson Silverio (who is also
the G.M. of the Gigantes) was tsk-tsked for telling reporters on
Reyes's first day of camp that "every 10 years a player [like
that] is born" and comparing him to Alex Rodriguez. "I want to
quiet the whole thing down with Jose," Mets owner Fred Wilpon
says as soon as he hears Reyes's name spoken. "I want Jose to
have a good spring, be a happy camper, and I don't want him to
have any unmanageable expectations."
That's a natural impulse for a franchise with a legacy of child
prodigies who have sputtered out like bottle rockets, from
infielder Gregg Jefferies in the late 1980s, traded to the Kansas
City Royals in '91; to "Generation K," the mid-'90s pitching
trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson, who
combined for 28 wins in New York; to outfielder Jay Payton, who
spent nine mostly injury-riddled seasons with the organization
before being shipped off to Colorado last July. "We've lived
through eras when there was a lot of hype about the young players
coming up," Phillips says. "In order to set somebody up to
succeed, you like to take the pressure off them, so it's better
to downplay expectations and comparisons as much as you can."
Whatever pressure those expectations carry is lost on Reyes, who
bounds around with a perpetual grin, assuring teammates that his
mood is tranquilo. "He doesn't understand how good he is," says
outfielder Esix Snead, Reyes's teammate in Binghamton. "He
doesn't understand how much he wows everybody." New York has
installed a support system for Reyes, assigning him a locker in a
Spanish-speaking corner of the clubhouse, next to Sanchez and
second baseman Roberto Alomar, who was a highly touted infield
prospect when he was 19. In addition to Silverio the Mets
retained Juan Lopez, a minor league instructor of Reyes's, as a
coach. After three years of thrice-weekly English classes and an
hour's study of an English workbook each night, Reyes no longer
requires an interpreter, though after a chat with a reporter he
shyly asks, "How was my English? O.K.?"
Despite all the attention Reyes looks like a high-schooler,
attired in a hip-hop uniform--beige Polo cap with C-curved brim
pulled low; baggy, cuffed jeans riding low; chalk-white
Nikes--and clutching his English workbook as he strolls out of
the clubhouse into the steamy Florida afternoon. "He's 19 and
taking the game by the horns," Snead says, shaking his head. "But
he's just a teenager having fun."