This weekend, I attended a lovely wedding and was seated next to a man who described himself as a die hard Mets fan. He'd grown up in Tennessee, but his family was all from the New York area, and he now found himself back living in Staten Island of all places. We got to talking about the state of the team, what we expected of them, and what players they should keep going forward. He professed, "They should keep Reyes and get rid of Wright." I said I'd rather they keep both, if I had a choice. "Yeah, but if you could only keep one? Reyes, no question."
Time was, the average Met fan's response might have been the exact opposite. (Granted, this man may be more an exceptional case than an average one, given his unique route to Mets fandom.) And not all that long ago, either. I feel like even as recently as a year ago, the typical Mets fan would have been very down on Reyes. Now, he's beloved again. If you were at Opening Day at CitiField, you would've heard him get the biggest ovation of any player introduced that day. Bigger by far than David Wright, I'd say, if my ears are any barometer.
Though it's almost impossible to quantify such things, I feel it's important to try. So what follows is admittedly unscientific, but necessary, because the cycles of perception Reyes has been through in his career as a Met are pretty startling, and important in understanding both him and the fan base. His reputation has roller coastered over the years and is now cresting on a wave of sympathy and remorse.
For years, it seemed like Reyes' popularity had nowhere to go but up. When he debuted in 2003, he did so at a low point in the team's fortunes (yes, even lower than now). It didn't take much to capture fans' affections against the likes of Jeromy Burnitz and Roberto Alomar. But it was also plain to see that he was the team's most exciting home-grown offensive player since Mookie Wilson, another speed demon who played the game with an infectious exuberance.
Despite some leg/hamstring injuries in his early career and a brief, ill-advised move to second base to accommodate Kaz Matsui (drink that idea in for a moment), his popularity only grew as his prodigious leadoff skills blossomed. I remember the "Jo-se, Jose Jose Jose..." chants breaking out in the Shea stands as early as 2005, unprompted by any cues from the PA system. It was a simplistic but organic show of affection from the crowd that soon became an official staple of in-game cheerleading.
2006 was the year Reyes truly exploded, the top of the order for a team that steamrolled National League competition and cruised to a division title. It wasn't just Reyes' numbers, though those were impressive enough--64 stolen bases, 17 triples, 81 RBIs out of the leadoff spot. It was that he was seen as the soul of the Mets. Even on a team that had no shortage of superstars, Reyes was the person you thought of when you thought of the Mets: stealing second and coming up clapping, doubling to leadoff an inning and pointing at the dugout, dashing away from a base to try and induce a balk from a jittery reliever. If the Mets put together a rally, he started it.
Reyes was also the exemplar of the "Latinization" of the Mets. Omar Minaya as the GM was the most obvious symbol of this, but Reyes' brand of play--the unbridled exuberance of it all--was seen as the best of what such a change in team culture would bring to Los Mets. (That didn't sound any less clunky in 2006 than it does now; we just pretended it didn't.)
Then 2007 happened, and 2008 right after. In retrospect, the Mets were doomed by a lack of depth, a reliance on too many older, injury-prone players, and the front office's inability to multitask or maximize returns. But in the eyes of many fans, these were not sufficient excuses. The team's "core" had to be rotten. That included players like Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Carlos Delgado, but Reyes bore the brunt of the criticism (though Delgado came close).
Did Reyes change? If he did, he was trying to be more Reyes-ian. His stolen base attempts ticked upward in 2007 and 2008, as if he was trying to outrun the Mets ill forutne. But since he was the symbol of the team, he was the most frequent target for unfocused criticism when its luck took a turn for the worse.
Suddenly, Reyes' "act" was no longer seen as swagger, but arrogance, and unearned arrogance at that. His "dancing", both in the dugout and off the bases, was not a reflection of childlike enthusiasm, but a lack of seriousness about the game. The "Los Mets" attitude he symbolized, once hailed as a virtue, was now pointed to as a shortcoming. Legitimate concerns over Minaya's handling of the team were undercut by cryptoracist mumblings about how Reyes and the Mets were a little too...well, you know.
Then, he missed the majority of the miserable 2009 season with hamstring woes. A player who'd never played fewer than 153 games at the extremely demanding shortstop position from 2005 through 2008, and logged at least 160 twice was now having his toughness and drive questioned. He suddenly was pinned with the tag of "frequently injured," even though he'd spent no time on the DL since the idiotic second base experiments of 2004. It got to the point where Reyes had to address reporters, tears in his eyes, and say things he should never have had to say.
"Why do people think I don't want to be on the field with my team?" he told reporters, dumbfounded. "I love to play baseball." How on earth could you watch me play and not know that?, the unspoken, anguished undercurrent.
The next spring, when Reyes was felled by an odd thyroid condition, the narrative took an even darker turn: It's drugs! It's gotta be the drugs! What drugs? Reyes had visited Tony Galea, a Canadian doctor who'd been accused of illegal use of HGH. People connected these two widely divergent dots and concluded that Reyes must have done HGH, and that was responsible for his illness.
Not only was there no evidence Reyes had done HGH, but there is also no evidence that HGH can even cause thyroid issues. That didn't prevent people like Mike Lupica from writing snotty, baseless columns painting Reyes as completely at fault for his ailment, and comparing him unfavorably like Derek Jeter (who'd never played as many as 160 regular season games) and Jimmy Rollins (who, outside of his MVP year, isn't half the player Reyes is by any measure).
Reyes' stock could not have been lower, either among fans or as a trade chip, when the 2010 season began. But the funny thing about fans--and people in general, maybe--is that the only thing we love more than tearing down the mighty is building them back up again. Reyes played for most of last season, and if he didn't put up the numbers of previous years, he did show the same flashes that made him so popular.
The typical Reyes enthusiasm in the midst of a lost season might have been taken as misplaced cockiness. Instead, it was welcomed. It reminded fans of why they loved him in the first place, and cowed more than a few into realizing just how much they would miss him if he were gone. How much they did miss him when he was gone.
These feelings were exacerbated by the financial woes of Mets' ownership that came to light in the off season, and the perceived biases of the new front office regime headed by Sandy Alderson (i.e., OBP before all). Both factors lead fans to believe that resigning Reyes when he becomes a free agent at the end of this season will be difficult, if not impossible. This time last year, you would've heard call after call to Mike Francesa saying the Mets had to trade Reyes. Now you will hear the same callers insisting they have to resign him, or begging the host to reassure him that there is some way he can be resigned.
Reyes' reception on Opening Day was the sound of a fan base apologizing, and begging the front office to do whatever it takes to make him a Met for life. However, having been through this crucible, no matter what happens in the upcoming off season, he already is.
Should Reyes sign elsewhere for big bucks, I feel fans would resent the front office far more than the shortstop. Should he come back in a different uniform, he would be cheered (for a while at least, and contingent on the uniform in question). And if somehow he stays, there's very few things he could do to keep from being one of the most beloved Mets ever.
Pretty amazing for someone a good chunk of the fan base wanted gone in April of last year. But then Reyes is pretty amazing, too.