One day during late spring of 2003, I was in Syracuse to work on a story for the Daily News about Ken Huckaby, the Blue Jays catcher who had wrecked Derek Jeter's shoulder during the first series of that season.
Huckaby had been sent to the Minors by the Blue Jays not long after the incident, and the Syracuse Chiefs just happened to be playing the Norfolk Tides that weekend. which meant that -- in addition to reporting the story on Huckaby -- I had the opportunity to meet Jose Reyes for the first time.
Reyes really was a caricature back then. He was bouncy and energetic, wide-eyed even in a dank, dingy clubhouse underneath a Triple-A stadium. We talked for about a half hour, and I remember him being humble but honest; in one of those laugh-or-cry type moments for Mets fans, Reyes told me, "I've never been on a losing team before, really. I don't think I would like it. I'm not sure how I would react."
Looking back, though, what stands out most to me now is the absolute certainty of success that seemed to hover over Reyes. He was the sure thing. He could run. He could hit. He had range from foul line to foul line. The Mets were waiting, trying to figure out just the right moment to bring him up to the Majors, but there was little doubt that he was going to be a star. It was simply a matter of time.
There was, literally, so much hype over Reyes that some Mets players were embarrassed. Ty Wigginton, told me -- for a story in The News -- "Come on, let's be real. No player deserves to have that much pressure put on him. This is a team game. One person isn't going to change everything."
Reyes was supposed to. That is what he has meant to the Mets, and that is why, as he gets set to begin his ninth season with the Mets, there is such a conflicted feeling about him for many Mets fans.
Here is what we know: Reyes is going to be a free agent at the end of this season. Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has already said he doesn't anticipate doing any kind of contract extension during Spring Training but wouldn't rule out a discussion on it during the season. Alderson, fairly enough, wants to see Reyes play with his own eyes before making any kind of long-term commitment. Might Reyes not re-sign with the Mets? It's possible. Might the Mets trade him this summer? Possible, too. It is hardly a reach to say that Reyes may well be playing his final season with the only team he's ever known.
To some fans, this notion is painful. The love for Reyes -- his smiles, his dances, the way he turns second base on his way to third for a triple -- is legitimate, and neither constant injuries nor inconsistent production will weather it. He is still the 19-year-old kid with potential who just hasn't yet made good, and seeing him walk out the door would be crushing.
This feeling is understandable. Seeing players rise up through your own organization is one of the great joys of baseball, and Mets fans thought they had something like Derek Jeter -- maybe even better than Derek Jerer -- in Reyes. Giving that up hurts.
Alderson, on the other hand, has none of that emotional attachment. He is a numbers guy, a businessman, and he sees the risk with Reyes. Sees the inevitable long-term contract request as a potential noose around his neck, particularly if Reyes continues to struggle at staying healthy. He wants to see Reyes stay on the field this season, wants to see him hit. Then, very possibly, he wants to see what that might get him from another team.
In the end, maybe he keeps Reyes. Maybe Reyes stays off the DL, stays on the basepaths, stays in the middle of a Mets turnaround. Maybe it all works out.
There are just no guarantees. Not anymore. And for those who remember Reyes as a 19-year-old can't-miss kid, that's still just a little bit hard to process.