He puts the Fear of God into you – that’s the term I like to use to describe what seeing Albert Pujols up in a big spot feels like. The Fear of God. The Mets are tied with St. Louis in the ninth, runner on second, Albert Pujols is up, and everyone in the park has that terror put in them, their hands clasped over their mouths, nervously swaying back and forth. It’s no use. He’s going to get you. Not that there isn’t hope – and there’s always hope – that our heroes can pull out of it, but the one looming at the plate is the last person in the world you want to see right now. Albert Pujols puts the Fear of God into you.
That shattered look of awe on Brad Lidge’s face when Pujols destroyed his baseball soul? That’s the Fear of God. And it’s exciting, as long as it’s not you.
Alex Rodriguez in the 2009 playoffs put the Fear in opposing pitchers. David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez back to back in the middle of the Red Sox lineup. Chipper Jones against the Mets at the turn of the century. Ryan Howard against anyone not named Pedro Feliciano. These are the batters that make relievers step off the mound over and over again, tarrying, trying hopelessly to delay the inevitable moment of releasing of the ball to its unpleasant fate. Whether or not some batters actually can or do improve their hand-eye coordination in clutch spots is irrelevant. It feels like they’re going to get you, and that’s enough. Not just hitters, of course – Mariano Rivera is the obvious pitching example. Your baseball hopes and dreams are at their mercy, and they are cruel.
But, of course, there’s the flip side to that Fear, when the one doing the terrorizing is playing for your team. Then your baseball hopes and dreams are their kind hands, and nothing is more exciting. Mike Piazza put that fear into people – as John Stearns famously said from the Mets bench in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, “The monster is out of the cage.” Carlos Delgado for a couple of weeks in the late summer of 2008 was putting the Fear into the National League. Johan Santana can put the Fear into hitters, but usually only after the Mets punt a few grounders behind him and he decides enough is enough and goes into HulkSmash mode. It’s called fear when it’s your opponent, but it’s faith when it’s your monster being let out of the cage. Few things in baseball are more fun. These are the most exciting players in baseball.
So here’s the thing: outside of HulkSmash Santana, I’m not sure the Mets have anyone that puts the Fear of God into the opposition. David Wright can when he goes into a streak. I’m not sure about Jason Bay, at least not yet, but probably him in a good streak too. It’s hard to tell when no one is ever on base in front of him. And then the rest of the lineup, which is just . . . well, it’s something. I’m not sure it puts the Fear in anyone. Maybe it puts laughter into them. Pity? Puzzled stares? All of the above?
And even with his return, I don’t think Jose Reyes necessarily puts the Fear into anyone with the bat. He still chases pitches and swings out of his shoes at curveballs that bounce on top of the plate. He’s an above-average hitter, but not a great one.
But once Reyes leaves the batter’s box . . . well, that’s the Fear of God you see being put into the defense when Reyes is on the base paths.
Ty Cobb probably invented, or at least perfected, the Reyes Run a century before we called it the Reyes Run. Cobb figured all he had to do was run violently and viciously, and that was easy enough, but the defense had to make multiple good throws and field the ball cleanly each time to get him out, which is hard. He figured he had the advantage. Jackie Robinson terrorized pitchers in the 50‘s, darting back and forth between bases and stealing home 19 times, inspiring the same kind of panic. Joe Morgan said that his ideal way to torment a pitcher would be to lead off the game with a walk, steal second, move over to third on a ground out, and then come in on a sacrifice fly – a run scored without a hit. He figured it would drive a pitcher crazier than simply surrendering a home run. That’s probably the best way to describe Reyes Runs. They madden the opposition. He scores when he seemingly shouldn’t have. Walking him feels like surrendering a double, then he comes in without a hit, and it’s just exasperating.
And this is what Jose Reyes does better than anyone else in the game. Reyes runs and creates Reyes Runs. He puts that fear into the defense the moment he leaves the batter’s box. Reyes dancing down the third base line draws balks from distracted relievers. He forces fielders to rush, wildly overthrow, and then he comes around on a little-league home run. Pickoff moves are made over and over and over again, and Reyes darts into second base moments later anyway. He lines a ball into a gap, and then the race to third between him and the fielders is on. Once he breaks out of the box, you can see the defense tighten up. The pitcher keeps looking over his shoulder with Reyes is on first, and the catcher glances out of the corner of his eye, but there really isn’t anything they can do. It’s the Fear. You never know where and when he is going, but he’s going. They are all at his mercy.
And Reyes doesn’t do it with the terminator death-stare of a Pujols or an Ortiz. He doesn’t have a calm, detached look on his face, or the lifeless Mark Teixeira beady doll eyes – Reyes darts about with a smile. In case you didn’t notice. He’s driving the defense to insanity and despite all the sprinting, it is apparently just so effortless for him. He’s “just having fun” – and I can imagine how that is unbelievable annoying for the opposition. If you’ve ever been beaten by someone who is having fun as you try your hardest, well, that can be infuriating. Not that Reyes isn’t trying his hardest too, but I guess the smile can make it appear that he isn’t. So I get why Reyes bothers some people.
Because for those people, it’s an awful mix of terror and annoyance. For us, he’s the most exciting player in baseball. You take every ounce of the Fear and tension and drama of Albert Pujols in the ninth innings of a tie game, and then jam it down into just 14 crazed seconds around the bases, so quick that no one has enough time to think about what’s going on and all anyone can hope to do is react – that’s Jose Reyes. Baseball is often the beautiful symphonic build up and release of tension. But sometimes it’s just 14 seconds of foot-pounding insanity.
At some point last season – and it probably happened multiple times, but in one particular instance – Jose Reyes was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple. This particular moment I’m thinking of, I don’t remember the specifics – I was in the upper deck behind first base, and I remember Braves and day game. I found a highlight of Reyes being thrown out at third against the Braves, but it was a night game and I’m not sure it’s the same play. So apparently it did happen multiple times, or I can’t remember the time of day correctly, so dock me points for accuracy either way. Anyway, the score and the opponent aren’t important. What I remember about the play is the point.
Reyes turned second, and Chipper Jones – or whoever the third baseman was – caught the throw while Reyes was still 30 feet away from the third base bag. He was already out before he even got to
So Reyes decided to slide into third, head-first, from about 20 feet away. He had exactly enough momentum to come to a halt right at the bag, where he was, of course, ridiculously out. It was the kind of slide someone makes on a wet slip-n-slide during the summer, a head-first belly flop and slide for 20 feet. It was as if Reyes thought to himself, “Okay, this was probably a mistake, but it’s sort of too late to turn back now. I’m going to be out no matter what happens, and I guess I could just go in standing up and accept my fate, but . . . I’m just going to make the most ridiculous slide I can possibly make and hope he misses the tag, or falls over laughing.” Only he thought it all in just a second, and I assume he also thought it in Spanish. And, if I remember, Jones almost did miss the tag, and looked slightly amused afterward.
And, yes, it was a dumb play, and Reyes should have stopped at second, and he makes silly mistakes like this all the time. And it’s annoying and it causes managers go crazy and the criminally insane call into WFAN and scream and scream and scream.
But it was also fun to watch. At least it was to me. I could be way off-base* here, but even when Reyes makes poor decisions it’s still kind of fun, even if it bothers my rational side. It’s like one half of me is thinking: No! Don’t make outs on the bases! while the other half is quietly amused: Yes! Slide from 40 feet out next time! Try it from even farther! It was the kind of slide you make during a pickup baseball game with your friends, when you’re clearly going to be out by miles and miles, so you just decide to do something ridiculous just for the hell of it. Reyes didn’t have to slide from that far out, but he did anyway. So it was fun and entertaining, albeit unnecessary. And that’s what Reyes is. He’s fun when he’s sliding into a stolen base, he’s fun when he’s going for three, and he’s fun when he’s out by 30 feet.
*Idiom derived from baseball in a blog about baseball? Check. Meta-check.
And it all comes back to fear. Reyes is fun and exciting and all those other things because he makes the defense panic with that Fear of God. He rules the base paths. Of course, he also puts fear into fans, because you never really know what he’s going to decide to do next, good decision or a facepalm-inducing poor one. And then there’s the fear that his legs can’t hold up, or that his speed won’t be the same, or that he’ll wear himself out stealing bases early in the year. Or maybe he’ll run through home plate and just never stop running one day, like Forrest Gump, and we’ll hear in the News about his coast to coast dashes for three years and never see him again. It could happen. There a lot of fear around Reyes. We’re all at the mercy of those legs.
But he’s the most exciting player on the Mets. The fear makes it all exciting, like a roller coaster. David Wright is great and special and every other kind of superlative, Santana is mean and green when he goes into HulkSmash mode, and Carlos Beltran is a work of baseball art that requires thoughtful reflection for a full appreciation. But Reyes is Reyes, and he’s loud and fun and adrenaline-filled, occasionally brilliant and occasionally dumb. And win, lose, lose hilariously, lose epically, lose maddeningly – it’s all more fun with him around.
So even if Reyes gets thrown out by forty feet trying to stretch a double into a triple in his first at-bat on Saturday, I’ll be thrilled. The rushed fear in the defense’s eyes, the trepidation on the pitcher’s mound – I missed the 14-seconds-and-360-feet-of-insanity and the head first slides into second. I don’t know if he’s the best, but no one makes baseball more exciting to watch than Jose Reyes.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ajagendorf25.