Wednesday, June 29, 2011

El Caballero del Santiago

Last night, New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes played in the 1,000th game of his career. The 28-year-old from Santiago in the Dominican notched four hits in a single game for the fourth time this season. He also scored three times and stole a base as the Mets routed the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Such a stat line is turning into a pedestrian night at the ballpark for this player whose churning legs propel him around the bases like one of those thin, streamlined Top Fuel dragsters that needs a parachute to stop before it bursts into flames.

Just outside Detroit's picturesque ballpark is a statue Tigers Hall of Famer Ty Cobb sliding, presumably into third. Widely considered the greatest ballplayer in the Deadball Era and arguably the most devastating non-power hitter that the game has ever seen, Cobb is a big enough deal that the one and only Tommy Lee jones portrayed him in a biopic. Such honors are not accorded to just any Texas Ranger sharing a house and learning life lessons with collegiate cheerleaders person.

Among Reyes' four hits was a triple in the fourth. It was his 98th career triple. The swipe was the 360th of his career. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only other player with as many triples and stolen bases in his first 1,000 career games — since 1898, when the modern stolen base rule was enacted — was that very same Cobb, who had 106 triples and 391 steals.

Let's just take a moment to consider this fact: Jose Reyes, the very same player who becomes a free agent at the conclusion of this, thus-far, entertaining campaign, has begun his career with statistics that had previously only been achieved by Ty Fucking Cobb, the guy who earned the most Hall of Fame induction votes among the inaugural class to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

The signature image of Cobb - nicknamed the "Georgia Peach" in honor of his home and talent - is one of him recklessly tearing into third base with dirt flying and his spikes sharpened. According to Wikipedia, the Detroit Free Press (or the FREEP for those in the know) once referred to Cobb as "daring to the point of dementia." And, I'm pretty sure that the New York tabloids have said mostly the same about Reyes over the years. Fittingly, the increasingly recognizable freeze frame of Reyes is also one of him taking third like a flash flood. Except Reyes is coming, dirt still flying, arms extended and head first. Unlike the cantankerous Cobb, Reyes is joyful and effervescent in his play. He isn't trying to spike the third baseman to clear his path. Rather, he's going to pop up and throw his claw or whatever his celebratory hand gesture de jour is back to his wide-eyed teammates in the dugout. Cobb's critics didn't like him because they claimed he was a sonufabitch whereas Reyes' claim that he reminds them to much of their own overzealous and overconfident sons. Given the choice of head first or spikes first, I'd rather root for the smile.


For all his irrepressible athleticism and the deluge of base hits that got him to this point, I was particularly impressed by the patience Reyes showed in the final at-bat of his 1,000th game. I hope it points towards the player that Reyes will continue to become for whomever he plays the next 1,000 games of his career. With the Mets staked to a 13-2 lead in the 7th inning, Mets manager Terry Collins let Reyes take one last at-bat before pulling him from the game. With two singles, a double and a triple already scratched into our scorecards, he was one home run from the cycle. Collins only let him come to bat to try for that longball.

Reyes showed a modicum of patience by taking three balls that weren't particularly close to open the at-bat. Sitting 3-0 and sitting on the cycle, I'd have to think that he had the greenlight, or, at the very least, would be forgiven for running the red. But Reyes stood, bat on shoulder, and watched a strike come right down the middle. The count was 3-1 and it was clear that he was never, not even for a second, tempted to impulsively hack at that pitch. The next offering was another ball. Reyes took it, contentedly. He trotted down to first base with a wide smile on his face, where Ruben Tejada came in to pinch-run for him. That walk was Reyes' 26th of the season to go with the same number of strikeouts. In 2010, he notched just 31 in 133 games. I'd like to think that Mets' OBP-oriented brass took note of that at-bat.