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Short Road to Majors / Reyes, 18, has eyes on Shea, maybe for 2003

Port St. Lucie - From his new perspective, on a distant

field in the minor-league complex, 18-year-old shortstop Jose Reyes is not

making bold predictions about when he will be ready to play for the Mets. "If I

keep working hard, it could be soon," he said through an interpreter. "But I

don't really know."

In other words, he has enough confidence in his talent to let his future

take care of itself. So do the Mets.

Reyes was perhaps the one phenom in Mets camp this year before he was

reassigned to the minors Monday. "He kept his mouth shut and he did what young

guys should do: He learned and he listened. He worked hard and played hard,"

general manager Steve Phillips said. "He's a fabulous talent, and I think we

just saw glimpses of what we expect to see in the future."

What the Mets saw was a 6-foot, 160-pound infielder who can make dazzling

plays in the field and can run "powerfully," in Phillips' view. They saw a

switch hitter who can drive the ball into the gaps (he had a double and a

triple in one game). They saw a teenager from Santiago, Dominican Republic who

was friendly, respectful and generally quiet.

That is notwithstanding the day early in camp when he predicted he will be

ready to challenge Rey Ordonez for the starting position next year. As he stood

near a set of metal bleachers filled with fellow minor-leaguers who were

waiting for coaches' instructions the other day, he declined to repeat that

vow. That is to say, he is learning.

"I learned lots of things: bunting, how [Roberto] Alomar and Ordonez field

their position. I learned a lot about hitting from Alomar, too," he said.

After only two years of pro ball, including a .307 season with 22 doubles,

15 triples and 30 stolen bases for Class A Capital City in 2001, Reyes probably

is the top position player in the Mets system. "All the guys over here like

him because of his personality," Mets coach Juan Lopez said in the big-league

clubhouse. "He looks like he belongs on this level. That's the way he

approaches the game.

"And he's smart. You explain something to him once, and that's all it

takes," said Lopez, who knows that better than anyone. Lopez was the hitting

instructor on both of Reyes' professional stops.

Lopez found apartments for Reyes and 15 other Latin American players in

Kingsport, Tenn., two years ago, and lived in the same complex. The coach drove

a van that got the players to and from games. He remembers bringing Reyes to

the bank to cash his paycheck, and to the grocery store. He was the father

figure to whom the teenager could talk about anything that was on his mind.

Last year, Lopez put Reyes in an apartment with teammate Enrique Cruz, who had

a car.

Reyes studies a book of Spanish-to-English phrases. He takes English

courses that the Mets offer. "How are you? How do you feel today?" he said in

English. His favorite player is not one of the many shortstops who are

celebrities in his country. It is Alex Rodriguez. "I like how he plays the

game. He plays without pressure, also without fear," Reyes said.

There will be no fear in Reyes when he starts the season in either a

high-Class A league or Double-A. "Defensively, he can play at either level,"

Phillips said. "I think what we want to do is put him somewhere where he's

going to be able to hit."

Lopez said Reyes has been switch hitting for only two years and has some

flaws in his lefthanded swing. "But they're correctable," the coach said.

Manager Bobby Valentine watched him play in a minor-league game Wednesday

and came back marveling at the four double plays Reyes turned, along with his

line single to right, sacrifice bunt, two runs and stolen base. Said Jim

Duquette, the senior assistant general manager: "Bobby says he's never seen a

guy that good at that age."

The player believes he has to work more on his bunting "and staying in

control of myself." Toward the latter end, he calls his parents every three

days. "They won't be coming here, but I give them updates," Reyes said. "They

didn't think I was going to progress at the rate I have. They're very proud of

how I've grown up as a young man."

New York Sports