DUNEDIN, Fla. -- This will eventually be a Jose Reyes story, but first, a quick aside.
In 2004, the Record of Hackensack, N.J. assigned me to cover the Mets. I went into spring training hardly knowing what to expect -- I had covered baseball the previous season, but I had never covered spring training, and I feared the rigors of six weeks of continuous coverage without a day off would be overwhelming. I was right. The hours were long and the work was constant. There were dizzyingly lengthy drives from Port St. Lucie, Fla., to wherever the Mets were playing that day.
Yet in those early days of spring training, my demeanor was always improved while I spoke to Jose Reyes. Even short conservations with him were enough to boost anyone's energy level. He spoke rapidly, moved even more quickly and laughed easily. Nobody made himself laugh quite like Reyes. There was hardly a serious conversation to be had with him, and that was often a welcome relief.
That spring was a time of transition for Reyes. The Mets had moved him from shortstop to second base after signing Kazuo Matsui. Yet Reyes never complained, either on or off the record. If he was bitter, he never showed it. He happily went about his work, even though reporters -- and I suspect some in the front office and the coaching staff -- thought moving him out of his natural position was a silly move. Reyes clearly was the superior shortstop, but Mets ownership believed Matsui was pivotal toward building a contending team, so they did everything possible to accommodate him. Each day Reyes eagerly took the field and took grounders at second base, and he even developed a good rapport with Matsui. The two often joked with one another, as much as they could across the language barrier.
Watching Reyes play was an even bigger pleasure. He was dynamic in every way. Anyone could see he was a remarkable player, and he made you believe that one day he would be considered one of the best in the game. He also seemed to be the type of player Major League Baseball could market to a young Latino audience: hip, gregarious and without controversy. Reyes had never been entangled in any steroid scandals, nor had he ever feuded with teammates or opponents. Most everyone seemed to like him. It seemed at the time that Reyes was destined to become one of the most important players of his generation.
He appeared to be headed in that direction in the subsequent years as he helped guide the Mets to several winning seasons. He even won the batting title in 2011. And then, in 2013, the seemingly impossible happened -- in the midst of an injury-marred season with a last-place team, Jose Reyes became completely irrelevant.
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The Toronto Blue Jays' spring training clubhouse was eerily quiet on a recent weekday morning. Most Blue Jays, weary after having played a night game the previous evening, arrived late to the ballpark.
Reyes arrived shortly before the allotted reporting time, and the clubhouse's dynamic changed almost immediately. Reyes shouted to Jose Bautista, who was in the other corner of the clubhouse, and the two engaged in a very loud conversation. Soon Brett Lawrie emerged from the other side of the clubhouse wearing dark sunglasses and loudly proclaimed himself to be the wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage. Several young players gravitated toward Reyes' locker. Reyes made a joke and bellowed a laugh that boomed from every corner of the clubhouse.
Almost exactly 10 years after I had first met him, Reyes -- now 30 -- brought a smile to my face. We reminisced, and then he got serious for a few moments.
"I think it was the most difficult year of my career," Reyes told me of his 2013 season. "I came to this team with huge expectations to win. I wanted to do so well to help the team. I only played a few games before I got hurt and missed two months. The people of Toronto never had an opportunity to really see me play like I know how to play."
In fact, the last two years of Reyes' career have been tumultuous. Surprisingly, and probably a bit unwillingly, he left the Mets to sign with the Miami Marlins prior to the 2012 season. The Mets never made a serious offer (it was reported that they never made him a formal offer at all), so Reyes had to move on, even though nobody -- least of all Reyes -- really wanted that to happen.
"I never thought I'd leave New York," Reyes says. "That was my team. That's where I started my career. But things in baseball happen for a reason."
The Miami experiment was disastrous. Marlins management had built a team of high-profile free agents and trade acquisitions that badly flopped on the field, leading to a massive dismantling that sent Reyes in a trade to the Blue Jays. (His stats from that year, though, weren't bad: 40 stolen bases, along with a batting average and on-base percentage in-line with his career numbers.)
The Blue Jays also performed badly after Reyes joined them. They were supposed to contend for a playoff spot last season but ended up in last place, in large part because Reyes spent most of last season on the disabled list with an injured ankle.
Reyes returned to the team this year determined to prove himself. For the first time since 2011, he entered spring training playing for the same team with whom he'd ended the previous season.
"When I signed with Miami I had the belief that we would compete," Reyes says. "I think we had a good team there in Miami, but we just didn't have the success we should have had, and as a result, well, here I am with Toronto. When they traded me here, the expectations were incredibly high. We had a team here that we believed would be able to compete. But it hasn't worked out that way. As a player you don't feel satisfied with that. As you get older, you reach a certain point where all you want to do is win and earn a ring. The last two years have been difficult… last year we finished in last place, and same thing with the Marlins."
Reyes says he's the healthiest he's been in years. In contrast to previous offseasons, he took several weeks off to rest his ankle, which he fractured during the first month of the 2013 season while sliding into second base on a steal. Although he returned late in the season, he was never fully healthy.
"I was playing with pain in my ankle," he admits now.
When he finally began training this offseason, Reyes took up a routine that helped strengthen his lower body and back. Reyes has always had problems with his legs. During his time with the Mets, Reyes was prone to hamstring injuries. But he says he hasn't had problems with his hamstrings for the past two years. And the ankle feels normal again.
So despite being 30, despite the fact that speed is one of the first things that abandons an older player, and despite coming off a year of injury, Reyes vows he can be the same dynamic player he was with the Mets. He's so emphatic that you want to believe him. But the odds aren't good. Speedy players don't age gracefully.
Reyes was supposed to be better than the average athlete. He was supposed to be impervious to all the things that hindered the common player. He was supposed to be one of the best, and the best usually find a way to excel past their primes. So maybe, just maybe, it's not too late for Reyes to become one of those defining players of his era.
"The goals for me?" Reyes says. "I have so many, since last year essentially was a lost season because of injuries. There were so many things I couldn't do, like steal bases or hit triples, things that are part of my game and my identity. I ask for health. If I'm healthy, I know I can put up numbers and do the things I've always done."
As he dresses in front of his locker, Reyes puts on a Superman undershirt. The Man of Steel is Reyes' favorite superhero, and he owns several shirts with the iconic "S" insignia. Not coincidentally, Superman was someone whose powers were unaffected by age and time.
* * *
It's unsettling to think of Reyes as a veteran now, since he was always the kid in the clubhouse. To remember that Reyes is now older is to remember that you're now older too. But once someone is on the other side of 30, the "veteran" tag is unavoidable. Reyes doesn't look particularly different from his rookie days (although he now has a beard) and he doesn't act differently, but his teammates view him differently, and he knows it.
While Reyes' locker was always a place where young Latino players congregated -- he was the life of the party in the clubhouse, with a sound system that often boomed salsa, Dominican bachata music, or reggaeton -- rookies now head to Reyes' locker to seek advice. Whether he wants it or not, Reyes is expected to be a team leader.
"I don't think my role has to change at all," Reyes says. "I'm still that loud kid who likes to liven up the clubhouse. I still talk to all the guys, always with the same energy I've always had. If there's young players around, they can always feel comfortable to approach me and speak with me. But I stay the same. I don't try to change what I do because I'm a veteran now. I just concentrate and do my work like I've always done."
If the Blue Jays expect to compete this season, they will need a successful year from Reyes. They will need him to be healthy, to be lively, to lead.
This year, the baseball world seems to have mostly forgotten about the Blue Jays, which may work in Reyes' favor, even if he's never been one to shun the spotlight. Although he was surrounded by players such as David Wright, Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez during his time with the Mets, Reyes was always the one who seemed to get all the attention. He celebrated the most, shouted the loudest and was most beloved by fans.
"I came from having played in New York -- that's the place where you'd have the most pressure, and yet I still never felt pressure there, so I'm certainly not going to feel pressure now," Reyes said. "I'm calm here. We realize we don't have the attention on us this time. Definitely not the attention we had on us last year. Now that we finished last, nobody is paying attention to us. Maybe this year we'll finish first."
But it seems as if part of Reyes misses all the fuss. He was always a player who enjoyed the interaction with fans, and he hasn't developed a close relationship with Toronto fans yet. He might not get to if things go badly again.
Another losing season might bring massive changes to the front office, the coaching staff and possibly the clubhouse too. Although Reyes says he would like to finish out the remaining four years of his contract with the Blue Jays -- all the moving around has been difficult for his family -- the reality is that the shortstop may be one of the first players traded should Toronto falter again.
Neither the Blue Jays nor Reyes can afford another year of irrelevance.