David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
DUNEDIN, Fla. - Jose Reyes, a decade younger than Derek Jeter, was too "scared" to ask the Yankees captain for his signed jersey last season. So after getting word that Reyes secretly was hoping for one, Jeter had Robinson Cano deliver the uniform top when Cano met up with his buddy after a game with the Blue Jays.
Reyes will have the rest of his life to admire the framed jersey on the wall of his Long Island home. And who knows? With four years and $90 million left on his current Blue Jays contract, maybe Reyes will wear a pinstripe uniform of his own someday.
But with Jeter saying he plans to retire after this season, Reyes knows he'll treasure these final games on the field together. One shortstop who became a New York icon and the other who was supposed to be.
"He's been my idol since Day 1," Reyes said before yesterday's game against the Yankees. "Everybody's going to miss him for sure. Not just as a player, but as a person more. He's an unbelievable guy. He's the best shortstop to ever play this game. And if he's not the best, he's top two. That's in my mind."
Cal Ripken? Alex Rodriguez? Reyes didn't provide the other possibility, and to be honest, as he heaped praise on Jeter, we forgot to ask.
As far as role models go, why did he pick him? "He always hustles," Reyes said. "That's something that I like a lot."
Reyes and Jeter have chatted since they played in neighboring boroughs. But last season, the conversation got more serious as both worked to return from serious ankle injuries. Reyes missed nearly three months with a severe sprain. Jeter played only 17 games last year after offseason surgery to repair a complicated fracture.
"I never doubted in my mind that he was going to come back," Reyes said. "But ankles are a tricky injury. You think you feel good, but that stuff is still there. After you injure your ankle, that's never going to feel normal again."
Reyes said he was encouraged by the video clip of Jeter sprinting to first base during Thursday's debut against the Pirates. But he also explained Sunday how long it took him -- at age 30 -- to regain full mobility.
"Running a straight line is not a problem," said Reyes, who now wears a velcro-strap brace on his ankle. "It's when you have to turn. I had a real hard time last year. I don't think my range was there at all. The left side, going to the bag, I had a tough time there. Every ball hit there was a base hit. I had to focus a lot on that this offseason."
Speaking of winter regimens, Reyes was pleased to see Ruben Tejada, his friend and former teammate, finally be serious about getting into shape. When Reyes was about to leave the Mets via free agency, he and Tejada -- tabbed to be his replacement -- planned to train together on Long Island, and he was stunned that Tejada didn't put in much effort.
"He only worked with me for a week and a half," Reyes said. "That's not going to get it done. But I saw him two days ago [on TV] and he looked better. I think he learned from that mistake last year. He's still young. The talent is still there."
Reyes said Tejada, 24, has to block out all all the noise and speculation that the Mets could trade for a shortstop or sign Stephen Drew. "That's the way it is," Reyes said. "It happened to me before. I had to move to second base. All kinds of drama in New York, you know?"
Watching Cano bolt the Bronx during the offseason reminded Reyes of his own departure from the Mets -- two things that he didn't expect. But Reyes talks with Cano "all the time" and says he is happy in Seattle.
"Baseball is crazy," Reyes said. "You never know what's going to happen. That's why you have to stay focused, keep working and try to get better. Because you never know where you're going to end up."