They came up together.
One was a poor, skinny, black Dominican who grew up in a house with outdoor plumbing on a dirt road near a banana farm. The Mets – reluctantly – signed Jose Reyes in 1999, at the age of 16, with a $22,000 signing bonus. He was 6 feet tall and 130 pounds, with a smile to light up a night game.
The other was David Wright, the white middle-class son of a policeman from Virginia Beach, Virginia, a strapping high school baseball star who planned to study engineering at Georgia Tech. The Mets drafted him in the (supplemental) first round of 2001 and signed him, at the age of 19, with a bonus of $960,000.
Though Reyes is a year younger than Wright, the Mets brought him up to the major leagues first, in 2003. Reyes put up impressive numbers in his first few years. So did Wright, who made his debut in 2004.
Reyes was speed and Wright was power. They were both stellar defenders. It was the Omar Minaya period. An unusually high percentage of supremely talented Hispanic players were joining forces with supremely talented white players (and a very few African Americans) to lead the way to the Mets’ future. The left side of the Mets infield was both the symbol and the solid foundation of that pipe dream.
In 2006, both were starters for the National League All-Star team. The Mets had four starters voted to that team – the other two were catcher Paul Lo Duca and outfielder Carlos Beltran, one Italian-American and one Puerto Rican, one white and one Hispanic.
Wright hit 26 home runs or more in five straight seasons. He had more than 90 RBI’s in 5 of 7 seasons (2005 – 2011) and, although his power numbers declined after 2009, he managed to remain a dependable offensive threat throughout that period. His defense, meanwhile, only improved. No one was better than David Wright at charging a bunt and fielding barehanded or throwing runners out at first after diving to his right or left. At his best, he inspired breathless comparisons to Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt. (OK, he was probably never that good, but he was good.)
Reyes was at least as spectacular over the same period. He led the league in stolen bases three times and triples four times. His running game destabilized the opposition defense and pitching in countless, incalculable ways. When he walked, it felt like a triple. He won a batting title. He got more than 180 hits in 6 out of those 7 years. And Reyes was a top-drawer shortstop from every point of view – range, sure-handedness, arm. Not among the greatest shortstops in history, granted, but surely among the best of his generation.
Though Jose was irrefutably top-of-the-line on defense, he was asked to move to second base to make room for an established import, Kazuo Matsui of the Japanese Pacific League’s Seibu Lions. Reyes did so, without complaint. Matsui, it soon became painfully obvious to Mets fans, was nowhere near as good as Reyes on defense.
No one ever asked David Wright to change positions for the good of the team. Prior to 2016, the very idea would probably draw a laugh – even if the Mets had the chance to sign an established Asian star to take over the hot corner. Who could imagine doing that to a young star with so much potential, just as he is coming into his own?
Off the field as well, both Reyes and Wright were model citizens. Neither got into bar fights or took drugs or got accused of cheating or gambling. Neither name was mentioned in connection with the use of steroids, though a dozen New York Mets between 2003 and 2011 are strongly suspected. Both Reyes and Wright contributed to and participated in events for the Mets Foundation and other charities, said all the right things in interviews, showed up on time and in shape for Spring Training, made themselves available to the media before and after games, even after having a bad day. They lived up to everything a baseball club owner could wish for and they were both extremely popular with fans.
But when it came to celebrity, honors and endorsements, the equivalence ended. In a feature about David Wright for New York Magazine from 2007 titled “Mr. Clean”, David Amsden wrote:
Wright… is not… the most gifted athlete on the Mets—that would be Jose Reyes, the silky, Dominican-born 23-year-old shortstop. Wright and Reyes are often talked about in tandem, the young infielders who will lead the Mets into a new era. But much of the fervor has focused on Wright, for some obvious if unsavory demographic reasons.
Amsden didn’t spell out the “unsavory demographic reasons”. Are they truly obvious? The only “obvious” differences are their skin color and native language. Amsden doesn’t see fit to elaborate about that. He gives us a wink and leaves the rest to our imagination. But he did go on in glorious detail, practically gushing, about all the attention paid to Wright:
He receives hundreds of marriage proposals a year, and during any given home game, he can gaze into the stands at Shea Stadium and see countless young (and not so young) women wearing shirts reading MRS. WRIGHT. His hitting pose—arms flexed, stocky frame in a post-swing coil, tongue flapping—is currently featured on the cover of the popular PlayStation game “MLB 07: The Show”, and the think tank that advises Madame Tussaud’s about which celebrities to cast in wax—yes, such a thing exists—chose Wright to be the first Met to have that honor. In February, perhaps feeling the fever, or hoping to improve his image, President Bush invited Wright to dinner at the White House. (“Oh, man, it was incredible,” says Wright. “He didn’t take a single call the entire time.”) His endorsement deals include VitaminWater, Wilson, and Delta Air Lines, which christened a plane “The Wright Flight.”
The “silky Dominican” did sign an endorsement deal with SoNu, but there was no wax figure at Madame Tussaud’s and no dinner invitation to the White House, and no airplane named “Reyes”. When USA Today did an article praising his talent, energy, character and work ethic in 2007, they headlined: “Mets’ Reyes Stays Humble While Becoming the Best.” Reminiscent of the Jackie Robinson era, it seemed the best thing the media had to say about Reyes was that he knew enough to “stay humble”.
Jose Reyes married his long-time girlfriend Katherine Ramirez, also from the Dominican Republic, in 2008. The couple had been living together since Reyes’ rookie year and already had two young children who lived with them and Jose’s parents in a big house the shortstop later bought on Long Island. (They still live there.) Yet in a New York Daily News article about the wedding, a Mets fan was quoted as saying, “I think of him as a wild single guy, so it’s surprising… It may help him on the field. I calmed down when I got married.” There was no indication as to why this fan might think of Reyes as a “wild single guy” – and the quote was included in the article without comment.
Meanwhile, “Mr. Clean” remained a single guy (though by all accounts hardly wild) for a long time before he finally married the JC Penny model Molly Beers in 2013. So far, they have no children.
Wright and Reyes were comparably talented, had comparable off-field profiles, but they were also comparably breakable. Wright missed part of 2011 with injury, but still collected 99 hits, 14 homers and 61 RBI’s. Reyes missed most of 2009, finishing with 41 hits and 11 stolen bases in just 166 plate appearances.
Though he repeatedly missed time with leg injuries, Reyes had at least 586 plate appearances, 537 at bats, in every year except one, between 2005 (his first full year as an everyday player in the majors) and 2011. In every one of those years (excluding the injury-marred 2009) he stole 30 or more bases and hit 10 or more triples. Mostly batting leadoff, he finished with RBI totals no lower than 44 and topping out at 81. Over that same 2005-2011 period, David Wright averaged 148 games played per year, Reyes averaged 132.
In 2011, after Bernie Madoff was revealed as a fraud and the net worth of the team ownership took a major hit, the Mets felt they could afford to sign only one of these two “homegrown” stars to the long-term contract extension they had both earned. The other would become a free agent.
In an interview with Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker in May of that year, Mets owner Fred Wilpon made disparaging comments about both star players, probably at least in part in an effort to knock their price down. But his comments were not equally disparaging: He declared that Wright was “a good kid” but “not a superstar”. Of Reyes he’s quoted as saying, “He thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money,” a reference to the star outfielder who signed with Boston the previous December for 7 years and $142 million. Wilpon said that Reyes “had everything wrong with him. He won’t get it.”
Though Wright had “everything wrong with him” in 2011, missing two months with a back injury and finishing with a paltry .254 batting average. Though Reyes batted .337 that year to lead the league – with 16 triples, 39 stolen bases and 101 runs scored – it’s pretty clear that Wilpon and the Mets knew back in May which one they were going to choose.
They chose power over speed. They chose what they felt was a more reliable player over one who was “fragile” or “injury prone”. They chose the supremely eligible bachelor with an all-American boy persona suitable for video games and dinners at the White House, over the married guy who was supporting a six-person household and who had obviously unfortunate demographics. They chose a white player with “leadership skills” who could be their captain, over a brown Dominican with balky English who got himself some dreadlocks and, later, would get tattoos. They chose David Wright over Jose Reyes.
When Wright became eligible for free agency a year later, after batting .301 with 21 home runs in 2012, he got an 8-year $138 million deal. It wasn’t quite Carl Crawford money, but it was close. Guess the Mets thought he was a superstar after all.
Reyes had signed with the Marlins, whose owner Jeffrey Loria gave him a backloaded multi-year deal (6 years and $106 million overall, $10 million the first year, gradually increasing to $22 million in 2017) and he promised Reyes wouldn’t be traded. Then he got traded, the very next year. To Toronto, where the Rogers Centre artificial turf wreaked havoc on his legs. Reyes refused to complain about Loria and refused to blame the field for his leg pain.
After 2012, David Wright’s body started to break down. He hit 18 home runs in ’13, then 8 the following year, in 586 plate appearances. He hasn’t had a 90 RBI season since he signed the contract extension. Stress fracture, spinal stenosis, herniated disk… By the beginning of the 2016 season, Wright could no longer throw overhand after fielding a ground ball to his right. His 3/4 throws lacked both accuracy and zip and the league had begun to take advantage of him in embarrassing ways. He was no longer a significant power threat and hadn’t been for quite some time.
Wright missed significant time in 2013 and 2015. Then early in 2016, he underwent neck surgery which cost him at least two months and could keep him out for the rest of the year. At the age of 33, Wright may be done. Yet no one has ever questioned his work ethic. Before this year, nobody even vaguely suggested that any of his injuries might be – even partly – his own fault.
When Reyes got injured back in 2005 they decided to teach him a different way to run. Just imagine: For the Mets, when Reyes got hurt it must have been something he was doing wrong. They needed to find a way for him to correct his way of running the bases, so he wouldn’t hurt himself anymore. Of course, that didn’t work out and Reyes only returned to form once he abandoned this misguided advice.
No one ever blamed David Wright for the Mets’ failures either. Writing of their stunning collapse in 2007, The New York Times’ Ben Spighel singled out Jose Reyes: “Over the last two months, he batted .240 and committed the sort of mental mistakes that come with a gap in maturity.”
A gap in maturity. Not a “lack” but a “gap”? What exactly does that mean?
Later, the Blue Jays and their fans made no secret of how disappointed they were with Reyes’ performance. In 2012 with the Marlins he’d stolen 40 bags, with 184 hits, 11 HR’s, 12 triples, 57 RBI’s. Then he rebounded from – only his second – injury-hampered season in ’13 with a respectable 2014, batting .287 and 30 stolen bases. Not great numbers for Reyes, but not bad.
Finally, last year, Reyes was swapped out for Troy Tulowitski, a power-hitting white star shortstop with an even more cumbersome contract, and exiled to the rebuilding Colorado Rockies. Reyes was unhappy and he made no secret of that. But he showed up and he played the game the right way and finished the year batting a respectable combined .274 in 484 at-bats. Reyes stole only 24 bases last year, between Toronto and Colorado. He got only 2 triples. It was his worst year playing mostly healthy.
After the season, Reyes was arrested on domestic violence charges stemming from an incident in a hotel in Maui. After his wife, the victim, refused to cooperate, all criminal charges were dropped but Major League Baseball, with the approval of the Players’ Union, levied sanctions, including a 51-game suspension without pay and mandatory counseling.
Occasionally, Mets fans like to argue over this question: “Should the Mets have signed Reyes over Wright?” A case could be made that the best “moneyball” decision with hindsight would have been to let them both walk. But here is my question:
Would Jose Reyes have thrashed his wife in that Hawaii hotel if the Mets had signed him to a $138 million, seven-year deal instead of David Wright?
Or, to put it another way, is it only coincidence that – given their equivalent talent and concurrent paths – the brown kid from the Dominican was brought up on charges and accused of a shameful and cowardly act of violence and the white policeman’s son just cashed a $20 million buyout for his share of VitaminWater, when its parent company got snapped up by Coca-Cola?
Texas-born rookie Trevor Story started the 2016 season as the Rockies shortstop, while Reyes served his suspension. Story, 23, got off to a hugely successful, even record-breaking start with home run production off the charts. He is also on a record-setting pace for most strikeouts. When Reyes’ suspension was over, on June 23, 2016, the Rockies released Jose Reyes on waivers, essentially eating the $38 million remaining on the Loria contract. As fate would have it, the Mets are in dire need of offense and speed and signed him to a minor-league deal. They are now contemplating replacing the injured David Wright at third with his former infield partner.
Turns out, at least from a purely physical standpoint, the “humble” and “silky” Dominican was more durable than Mr. Wright / Mr. Clean. Reyes’ skills may be diminished, but he’s still standing. He still has legitimate upside, given his talent and experience. For the Mets, signing Reyes now is a relatively risk-free and potentially high-yield move. The only problem is one of (putative) conscience and perception – can we hire him back without implicitly forgiving him for what he did to his wife that day? And how will that look?
There is no excuse for a strong man, an athlete in his prime, grabbing his wife by the neck and shoving her – or anyone, especially any woman – into a sliding glass door. But when Sandy Alderson tells us that Jose “deserves a second chance” because he is a “good person at heart”… some part of me is crying out to know what Sandy Alderson looks like when he’s angry. Some part of me wonders what David Wright or Troy Tulowitski or Trevor Story might be capable of after being sufficiently exploited, disrespected, discarded, patronized, short-changed, lied to and blamed.