Growing up a Mets fan in Southern California is not optimal, but it may be the best place outside of the Northeast to be one. The schedule will guarantee a series every year in Los Angeles and another in San Diego, and the interleague schedule will also take them to Anaheim once every few years. No one really hates the Mets down there, either, so the live experience is generally pleasant. All things considered, having the ability to see your favorite team live—within a reasonable driving distance—six-to-twelve times per year is pretty cool.
2003 happened to be one of those years where the NL East and AL West matched up for interleague play, giving me a chance to see my team against the Anaheim Angels for the first time in my life. It should be noted that Angels games were somewhat of an event at the time, with the team coming off a World Series win and playing in one of the most competitive and exciting divisions. They didn’t draw as much excitement in Los Angeles as the Lakers, mind you, but basketball season was over, and the Dodgers were mediocre. For at least that moment in time, the Angels were hot.
The Mets, however, were not. The team was coming off a season where star free agent signings Roberto Alomar, Jeromy Burnitz, and Mo Vaughn combined for 0.2 bWAR. The team had just parted ways with its colorful manager Bobby Valentine and signed the comparatively greyscale Art Howe to take his place. New signings Cliff Floyd and Tom Glavine provided some major league competence to the roster, but it became clear early on that the Mets had little shot at the postseason. If ever there was a rebuild season, this would be the one.
And unlike other rebuild seasons, the Mets had plenty to look forward to. Future franchise cornerstones Jose Reyes and David Wright awaited their eventual call-up, while major league talents Aaron Heilman and Scott Kazmir prepared to bolster an unimpressive pitching staff. And with Opening Day shortstop Rey Sanchez injured, Reyes got his opportunity first, debuting against the Texas Rangers in Arlington on June 10. He went 2-for-4.
Five days later, I joined my Pony League team for Little League Day at Edison International Field, now Angel Stadium. We got to dress up in our Anawalt Lumber-sponsored uniforms —shoutout to Montrose, CA—and paraded around the field an hour before first pitch, waving at our admirers in the scorching sun. The online farmer’s almanac claims Anaheim experienced a high of 80 degrees that day, but I remember it being at least 130 degrees in the uncovered right field bleachers. I reapplied sunscreen at least twice. Many of my half-melted teammates and their parents left early to brave the Sunday traffic back home, but I stayed with my dad because the Mets were playing.
My dad, a lifelong Mets fan, was excited to see Reyes in action for the first time. I knew Reyes from a Topps rookie card I unpacked months earlier, shining in the growing Mets section of my collection book. The back of that card listed him as the club’s top prospect, a speedster with an above-average glove who was destined to be their leadoff hitter. I had never seen him play, nor had most fans at the time, but the baseball world was about to find out what kind of a player he was.
Reyes started his major league career batting in the ninth position, which on paper seems reasonable for a rookie with average minor league hitting numbers. But in retrospect it looks really funny to see Reyes batting ninth with Roger Cedeno, Timo Perez, and 35-year-old Roberto Alomar at the top of the lineup. In fact, he hit ninth for all six of his interleague games and moved up to eighth only when the team resumed National League play. Did Howe really think him a worse hitting option than Jason Phillips, Tony Clark, and Vance Wilson? Whatever the case may be, Reyes stayed at the bottom of the lineup for nine games until he hit leadoff against the Marlins on June 19.
But back to Anaheim. In the top of the second, Angels starting pitcher Jarrod Washburn struck out two of his first three batters. A one-out walk to Phillips, a single from Wilson, and a two-out walk to Tyoushi Shinjo brought up Reyes in the ninth position with the bases loaded and the score still 0-0.
On the tenth pitch of the at-bat, Reyes broke the scoreless tie with a grand slam to left field from the right side of the plate, marking the first home run of his career. I have no visual evidence of this happening, but in my head I remember the ball just curving around the base of the left-field foul pole, less than a hundred feet from our sun-drenched seats. I had to double-check the scoreboard to see if the batter responsible for this masterpiece was indeed the future star I was promised, and yup, there was Reyes trotting around the bases for the first of his 145 career home runs. I was pumped. After all, when the first at-bat you see from a player results in a grand slam, your expectations rise precipitously.
Reyes added two more singles, a stolen base, and an RBI groundout to his coming-out party. Incredibly, his five RBI game wasn’t the best performance of the day. That distinction belongs to starting pitcher Steve Trachsel, who pitched a 1-hit complete-game shutout in one of the few Steve Trachsel games to ever finish in under three hours. But even in one of his best-ever performances, Trachsel couldn’t outshine Reyes at the plate, on the field, and on the basepath.
Some other fun facts about this game: Jeromy Burnitz hit two home runs, accounting for 11% of the home runs he would hit for the Mets that season. Trachsel’s gem came with the incredibly rare nine innings pitched, one hit, four walks, one strikeout line, which looks simultaneously odd and fitting for him. But Reyes was undoubtedly the star, accounting for three of his team’s eight hits and five of their eight RBI.
Reyes went on to have a very good rookie season, amassing 2.3 bWAR (behind Trachsel’s team-leading 4.4 bWAR) and finishing eighth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. And though the Mets finished 66-93, good for last in the division, they finished the season with high hopes for the future.
Of course, Reyes’s relationship with the club and its fans would later become tumultuous. He left the club to sign a free agent deal with Miami after winning the batting title in 2011, and spent his next few years with the Marlins and Toronto Blue Jays. In October of 2015, Maui police arrested Reyes after he allegedly grabbed his wife by the throat and shoved her into a glass door. Though police dropped the charges, Reyes all but admitted his crime to the public and served a 51-game suspension to begin the 2016 season. He returned to the Mets in late 2016 to a mix of objections and fanfare, and he spent the last two-and-a-half years of his career on a farewell tour in the shadow of gruesome domestic violence charges.
I bring all this up because Jose Reyes became my favorite player that day in Anaheim, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who fell smitten by his talent. He was an electrifying leadoff hitter who swung and ran and threw as fast as any human could possibly swing and run and throw. He also likely assaulted his wife and dodged any legal ramifications and was even allowed to play three more seasons with the team that first gave him a shot. Adult me knows that making heroes out of baseball players doesn’t make much sense anymore, but ten-year-old me didn’t understand that the baseball men are just people, and some of them do very bad things.
When I think of Jose Reyes, the first things that come to mind are the cycle he hit in 2006, his 2011 batting title, and his grand slam in Anaheim that landed within throwing distance of me and my dad. Eventually I will remind myself of the domestic violence charge and settle on a sobering realization, but that event doesn’t pop up first. Perhaps it’s time to reframe my thinking to focus on more important matters, because while it doesn’t make the joyous events disappear, it at least provides subtext to the heroes I used to recognize.