What’s the Deal with Everyone’s Deal with Jose Reyes?

reyes_espn.jpgIt’s hard to know why the media latches onto a particular narrative. Sometimes it’s a naked attempt to curry favor with the audience. Sometimes it’s to push an agenda (see: the entire Fox News Channel). Sometimes it’s just pure laziness, because it’s always easier to go
with what everyone thinks they think about something than it is to
actually research stuff.

Regardless of the reason, there’s usually a Point of No Return: a time after which it becomes virtually impossible to change the narrative, or temper it with another point of view. If everyone says the same thing, saying anything else suddenly sounds like lunacy. It’s a corollary of The Big Lie Theory. Repeat something often enough and it becomes true, at least in most people’s minds.

I feel like we’re on that precipice right now with Jose Reyes. If you read/listen to/watch any NY-based sports media–and even some not in NY–you will hear many different people beat the same drum. Its cadence goes like this: Jose Reyes is a malingerer who is not trying hard enough to come back from his hamstring injury, and the Mets should trade him because they’ll never win with him anyway, because he’s not a “gamer”.

Normally, I could care less about writers’ opinion of a player’s work ethic and whether or not he should be traded. But this line of reasoning seriously scares me for two reasons:

1) The frequency of these “Reyes must go” features makes me think that the Mets have already decided to trade him, and are feeding these stories to the press to soften the eventual blow.
2) The Mets are extremely sensitive to the media, and also not very smart. If enough people say “trade Reyes”, they may just bow to pressure and do it. Particularly since this narrative ties into another Mets-related media narrative: that the “core” of the team (code word for Reyes, Carlos Beltran, and David Wright) is not “tough” enough and therefore, one (or more) of them must be jettisoned for the good of the team.

For a prime example of what I’m talking about, see Jayson Stark’s recent column on the Mets–an infuriating work given an excellent takedown by Sam Page at Amazin’ Avenue. Ostensibly, Stark’s column is about the “impossible spot” the team will be in next year. (Peter Gammons does not see things quite as dimly.) But really, what Stark does is cherrypick through a series of quotes from anonymous baseball executives and scouts and use them to come to conclusion that Reyes must be traded.

Of course, every reporter uses anonymous sources. And this is an opinion piece, so it doesn’t have the same burdens as straight-forward reportage. But Stark doesn’t have a single on-record source, so I haven’t the slightest idea what agenda these nameless Baseball People might have. For all I know, these sources supplied quotes because they hope the Mets will be dumb enough to trade Reyes. (Amazingly, I find myself agreeing with Murray Chass’s critique of the piece; though Chass doesn’t explictly reference Stark or that column, it’s pretty clear who his target is.)

I don’t mean to pick on Stark. I chose his piece because it’s indicative of the Current Reyes Narrative: Reyes is not a hard worker and never will be one and therefore should be traded. The line has been repeated so often that it’s almost pointless to argue otherwise. The problem is, there’s no serious evidence to support it.

This is not like when Carl Pavano did several very stupid things to set back his injury rehab, then refused to take a minor league deal from the Yankees when he clearly deserved no better. All of the evidence against Reyes in this case is rumor and hearsay. Not some, or much of it, or even most. All of it.

Reyes hasn’t done anything–or failed to do anything–that should make anyone doubt his dedication. Hamstrings are tricky injuries. They can take weeks or months to heal. Nobody but Reyes and his doctor(s) know how much he’s injured. Nobody has any right or reason to question his ability to play.

Still, they do. There’s an oft-repeated rumor that his teammates think his injury might be more in his head than his hamstring. No one’s ever gone on record with that accusation. There’s no evidence to support it. But you hear this rumor on WFAN all the time, particularly on The Sports Pope’s show. It’s even alluded to often at MetsBlog. Site founder Matt Cerrone says “I’m not sure I believe that, but it’s an understandable conclusion”.

From 2005 to 2008, Reyes had played no fewer than 153 games at an extremely demanding position. He played in at least 160 games twice (Derek Jeter, who’s always praised for his grit, has never played that many games in the regular season). Someone who plays that many games plays through pain and fatigue. That’s a simple fact of baseball.

So why is it an “understandable conclusion” that Reyes could be milking his injury? Why did Reyes have to insist to the Mets’ beat reporters–with tears in his eyes–that it’s killing him to not play?

More importantly, why are there any Mets fans who want to get rid of Jose Reyes? I can understand that people associated with other teams might not like him. But how did we get to the point where a vocal segment of his own fan base has written him off? Before this
season, this team’s mantra was As Reyes Goes So Go the Mets. Now it’s Reyes Must Go for the Mets to Go Anywhere.

Peep the comments below that NJ.com link, if you can stomach them. The Reyes defenders are few and far between. Instead, you get comment after comment saying Reyes is soft. Saying he didn’t rehab properly, as if they’ve followed his every move or even know what constitutes proper rehab for such an injury. Saying he’s never come through in a big spot, which is completely untrue. Saying he’s never had a definitive “moment”, whatever the hell that means.

Read any other local newspaper’s sports site, and you’ll see the same kind of comments. Listen to WFAN, and you’ll hear tons of Mets fans chomping at the bit to say similar things to Mike Francesa, the baton twirler leading the anti-Reyes bandwagon. Or Joe Benigno, who, as a Mets fan, is a frightening barometer of mood of the fanbase.

They say Reyes has never “reached his potential” and never will. Keep in mind that he’s put up numbers that haven’t been seen since the days of Honus Wagner. I don’t know what potential these people think is unfulfilled, unless they expected him to raise the dead and heal the sick.

You can look at traditional stats or the new-fangled sabermetric ones. But by any
measure, he’s the best shortstop in baseball not named Hanley Ramirez–and is a better fielder than Ramirez by a mile.

By more ephemeral measures, Reyes is a joy to watch. There’s few more exciting things to see at a game than watching him toy with a pitcher, then steal a bag anyway. Or hit a ball in the gap and try for a triple. From a merchandising standpoint, I’m sure he’s one of the top jersey sellers for the team. He’s a Game Changer for this franchise in every sense of the word, on and off the field. Why is this even being discussed?!

Contrast this perception of Reyes with the general perception of Daniel Murphy. In most fans’ minds, Murphy is a gamer. Murphy guts it out. Murphy works hard. The fact that he’s one of the worst offensive producers at first base in the NL doesn’t bother most Mets fans (if they’re aware of that fact at all). Regardless of his output and overall talent–neither of which could touch Reyes’s with a 10-foot pole–they appreciate his work ethic.

I have no reason to doubt that Murphy works hard. But I have no reason to doubt that Reyes works hard, either. Like a lot of Dominican players, Reyes comes from humble origins and had to overcome cultural and language barriers as he advanced through the minor league system. And he did this at an age when most American kids’ biggest worry is the prom.

If you took a hundred teenagers, dropped them in a foreign land, and asked them to succeed in completely alien territory, how many could rise to the top of their chosen field? Maybe one?

But only Murphy gets glowing articles written about his work ethic. The other is labeled a “pouter” and a “faker”.

I can’t help but think that Reyes wouldn’t have this problem if he was a few shades lighter or didn’t speak English with such a heavy accent. As Can’t Stop the Bleeding tweeted earlier this week, “Anyone heard Francesca suggest that JJ Putz isn’t trying to come back from the DL fast enough?” The Reyes Myth has traction because it taps into stereotypes that have existed ever since Latin players first emerged in baseball. Roberto Clemente was
slandered as being “soft”, and that’s been a rap against Latin players ever since.

Here’s the thing about sportswriters: they’re mostly Big Doughy White Guys, writing their articles for a largely Big Doughy White Guy audience. (I write this as a fellow Big Doughy White Guy.) Very few of them speak Spanish. Very few of them have the slightest idea about the background Latin players come from.

Sportswriters don’t go out of their way to slight or misunderstand Latin players. It’s just that, for the most part, they have no clue about them. Nor does a large, vocal segment of their audience. JUST PLAY THE GAME THE RIGHT WAY, they say, without recognizing that what “the right way” is depends on where you’re from. For instance, Reyes is often slammed in the American media for his “dancing”. This is a take that would be inconceivable in the Dominican Republic, where cheerleaders dance merengue on top of the dugouts in between innings.

The Mets once had another superstar who was inexplicably slammed for being a complainer, with all the evidence coming from hearsay, rumors, and in some cases outright lies. After a while, it became simply impossible for this superstar to stay with the team.

That’s how Tom Seaver wound up traded to the Reds in 1977, and how the Mets lost their franchise player. They valued the vindictiveness of Dick Young over the good of their team. It was a move that sent the Mets into a death spiral, with hideous baseball and tens of thousands of empty seats at Shea. The team wouldn’t contend for another seven years.

Mark my words: A media-induced trade of Jose Reyes would be just as disastrous for the team’s future. The scary thing is, we may already be at the point of no return, where Reyes may find it impossible to stay here anymore.

There’s very, very little that would force me to stop following the Mets. But something this stupid, cowardly, and racially motivated might just be bad enough.