PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Jose Reyes can marvel at the player he once was. He laughs easily at the feats of his early years, the way he leaned on his talent alone, the way his synapses fired the moment he put a ball in play, the way his default to every action on the diamond was “let me push the envelope.”
He was always thinking triple.
“That’s a lot of running,” Reyes said, beaming at the thought of exerting pressure on an opposing defense. “When you’re young, you can do all that. I wish I could still do it.”
But doing it nowadays means picking his spots. It means doing his legwork rather than relying on his legs. It means a smarter approach, one that acknowledges that though he no longer is that brilliant blur of a player, a part of him remains.
The Mets reached into their past in signing Reyes last season. Then they made sure he would be part of their immediate future. The deal included a league-minimum option to keep him for this season, a stroke of foresight considering the critical role that Reyes will play.
At 33, Reyes is the Opening Day third baseman and leadoff hitter for the franchise that gave him his first opportunity, let him walk away, then extended a second chance after his arrest on charges of domestic violence.
“I never thought I’d be in this situation,” Reyes said. “Baseball’s crazy, man. You never know what’s going to happen. Like I said, I’m here, very happy to be here, very happy to be part of this ballclub.”
Reyes not only is a part of the ballclub, he is an integral piece. Concerns about David Wright’s health motivated the Mets to secure alternatives. Third base is not Reyes’ natural position, but the Mets long believed that athleticism — and a rocket for an arm — would make for a relatively smooth transition.
In Reyes, the Mets have an experienced leadoff hitter. It’s a void that they struggled to fill after his departure via free agency in 2011.
Now he sits atop a lineup that hit a franchise-record 218 homers last season. With good health, the group could have even more firepower this year.
Reyes’ primary concern is reaching base ahead of all the pop behind him. Scoring first, he learned early in his career, is key. When Reyes remembers the 2006 team — the best offensive team in franchise history — what bubbles up first is how taking early leads felt inevitable.
“You want to put that pressure to that other team. You don’t want to play from behind all the time. You want to score early,” Reyes said. “As a baseball player, as a team, you want to score first.”
Reyes arrives early, around 7:30 some mornings. His arrival restored an element of leadership to the clubhouse. Wright’s injury last season created a void. Reyes helped fill it, with his history with the franchise and record as a player giving him credibility.
That standing allowed Reyes to emerge as one of the strongest voices in the room. It only grew in relevance as the Mets teetered on the brink of losing their grip on a season of promise.
“This year’s gonna be different, man,” he said, echoing his words for emphasis. “I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.”
Reyes wants to be part of that difference. This spring, when he immersed himself in the stirring of the early morning, what he noticed most was the energy.
He laughs at the generalizations of a big-league clubhouse, the tendency to draw dividing lines between those born in the United States and those who are not. In baseball, that often means Latin America.
Despite the shared language, however, cultures differ. Reyes has seen those fissures develop into cracks. With the Mets, he has been conscious of making sure those distinctions don’t become distractions.
Reyes, from the Dominican Republic, has become a leader with Asdrubal Cabrera, a native of Venezuela. As a tandem, they have grown close to Yoenis Cespedes, a native of Cuba.
The countries are different. The cultures are different. But within the Mets’ clubhouse, the lines are difficult to discern.
“You don’t see that in every clubhouse,” Reyes said. “This is a loose clubhouse. There’s good chemistry here. That’s what you want to have. In a winning clubhouse, everybody gets along.”
Chemistry is not enough. Reyes knows this. He knows that his is a central role, one that he can play only by continuing his own evolution as a player.
Technology is an ally. He’s amused at how long he played on his tools alone. He can’t imagine that kind of hubris now.
“Before, when I was 21, 22, I believed in my talent,” Reyes said. “Basically, I said in my mind I can do whatever I want to on the field. But sometimes that’s wrong. If you learn the game a little bit more, the game’s going to be easy for you. That’s why we have all these opportunities now. We’ve got all the technology, you know, to make the game a lot easier.”
Reyes often scours his iPad for video, even before batting- practice sessions. He watches pitchers closely, looking for clues. He memorizes times to the plate, which he had blissfully ignored in his younger days. That often manifested itself in recklessness he no longer can afford.
“I’d get on base and the pitcher might be 1-1 to the plate and I’m on first base and I’m still going,” Reyes said. “And they’d throw me out. So it’s stuff like that. Now I’m watching on the computer. I ask the first-base coach to give me the times so I know the time that I can make it to second base. Before, I went with my talent. I’d say, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got the speed. If I get on base, I’m going.’ ”
STILL DRIVE THE BALL
Reyes still loves to run, and he drives home that point with another laugh that bounces off the walls in his corner of the clubhouse. He recalls the seasons when he made stealing bases look like a birthright.
“Sixty,” Reyes said. “That’s way gone. I don’t run the same. But I feel I still can steal 30, 35 bases.”
In 60 games last season, Reyes swiped nine bases and had a .267/.326/.443 slash line. It was his most productive season since 2014. He’s convinced he can do more.
“When I hit a ball in the gap, don’t get me wrong, I’m going to try to get to third base,” Reyes said. “My extra-base hit power is still there. I can still drive the ball.”
But that aggressiveness now comes with conditions. This is the reality of his game now. Pushing the envelope? He will defer to better judgment.
“There’s a lot of stuff in my game that I still have,” he said. “I have very good instincts running the bases. I know when I can take an extra base. I know that I still have that.”
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