Wednesday, June 15, 2011

No Slowing Speed Rey-cer

During the balmy, bright summers of yesteryear, when the sun showered a warm Technicolor-glow over every Big League diamond, baseball had a rough-hewn romance about it. Players were wide-eyed innocents who worked offseason jobs as carpenters and drank on the road with the newspapermen. Those sportswriters in turn treated ballplayers like heroes and had little interest in belittling or embarrassing them in the eyes of fans, who blissfully ignorant of advanced statistics treasure the RBI and the bunt. It was a simple time when the spitball was remembered fondly and the unruly, anything goes version of the game seems much closer at hand than the sterile, instant-replay iteration that exists today.

Back in the 1960s, as that era began to give way to this one, the Dodgers' Maury Wills was a terror on the basepaths, two-leggedly returning the stolen base to a place of prominence in the game. His 50 swipes in 1960 were the most by a player in season since the 1920s. Two seasons later, Wills stole an eye-popping 102 bags to break Ty Cobb's record of 96 set back in 1915. Those 102 stolen bases were more than any other entire team had to their credit in 1962.

Playing on a Los Angeles Dodgers team led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, Wills' speed often made the difference in low-scoring games. He was so feared that, opponents would do anything they could to slow him down. And I read (I believe in some coffee table book about the "greatest" ballplayers) that the rival San Francisco Giants had a particularly effective means of halting Wills progress between bases at Candlestick Park. As best I remember from whatever it was I read (ed note: that's a disclaimer in case it wasn't the Giants and was actually the Reds or some other NL club), they would soak down the infield dirt with water until it was just a muddy bog. While this bit of gamesmanship seems quaint in the context of a James Bond-era rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants it would likely seem out of place in today's game when a fleet of groundskeepers patrol the infield of each field at regular intervals throughout each contest. At least, that's what I used to think.

Entering last night's game in Atlanta, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes has been playing at a level that has sent the opposition scrambling to the scrapbook for answers. To counter the effervescent, dreadlocked speedster, who has been indomitable at the plate and relentless on the basepaths, the Braves allegedly soaked down the infield just like teams used to do when Wills was coming to town.

After leading off the game with a single, Reyes slipped rounding first. He would struggle with his footing as Braves starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens repeatedly attempted to pick him off. Perhaps out of spite or perhaps because he can't help himself, Reyes took off for second base all the same. He would slide in safely and soon come around to score on a Carlos Beltran single to center. The hit, steal and run that sprung from that first at-bat was the opening salvo in a 3-hit, 2-steal, 2-run and 1-RBI night. With his Major League–best 34th multi-hit game on the ledger, Reyes continues to rate near the top of the game in nearly every offensive category other than home runs.

While the wet track bothered the umpire and was the subject of an official complaint by the Mets' front office, Reyes took the challenge in stride. "It was a little wet," he told reporters after the game. "I don't know if they did that on purpose. ... I don't care if it's wet or not, I'm going to try to steal anyway."

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