Dynamic former Mets have new homes
Beltran brings swing to Cards; Reyes' speed is with Marlins
So this is what the last three months have meant for the folks who will attend games played by the recovering Cardinals and the remodeled Marlins. Busch Stadium III in St. Louis will see a multiskilled, switch-hitting outfielder who has passed his peak but not necessarily his prime. And the new yard in Miami will be the stage for a dynamic player who can outrun most living creatures, but who is most distinguished by the joy he wears on his face and an arm that occasionally appears to be a mechanical marvel.
Consider the two -- Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. Consider the extraordinary talent they have demonstrated for the better part of the last 10 seasons. Recognize that Beltran spent most of the last seven seasons with the Mets (on their roster and the disabled list), and that Reyes had been a Met since the day he reached the big leagues in 2003 and he repeatedly has been betrayed by the very muscles that make him so remarkably fleet. Recognize, too, that their presence in the Mets' batting order -- as well as that of David Wright and Carlos Delgado -- made the Mets a seemingly special team, on paper.
But this is not about the shortfalls executed in Queens in 2007 and '08 and the outlook that exists there today. This is about the opportunity to witness the athletic grandeur of two former teammates now in position to compete against the very team that did not retain them.
Beltran is a joy to watch. He is not a consistent force -- how many players are? -- but when he is swinging well, he makes sports' most challenging activity, hitting a baseball, appear quite facile. There are moments during his hot streaks when the game slows and he can be seen putting the sweet spot of his weapon precisely where it should be to elicit the greatest impact.
He almost seems to pause mid-swing. In my time covering the game, Reggie Jackson, Mo Vaughn and precious few others have created that impression.
When he's hot, Beltran can hit any pitcher's best pitch -- even Adam Wainwright's curve -- to the farthest reaches of any ballpark. When he's not hot, he's a better batsman than most mortals. He produced periods and games during his Mets tenure that were difficult to justify, given the more pedestrian periods that were to be expected.
It galled me when Beltran was accused of choking after Wainwright unleashed the nastiest of curves to end the 2006 National League Championship Series. Somehow the Mets' shortfall in '06 was pinned on Beltran for watching one pitch when that series had turned against them in Game 2 when Guillermo Mota foolishly threw a fastball to Scott Spiezio, and in Game 7 following Endy Chavez's wondrous catch in the sixth inning. The Mets squandered an excellent scoring opportunity in the bottom of that inning. That's when they lost the game and the NLCS, not three innings later.
I still wonder about this: Beltran is endlessly faulted for not swinging, and Aaron Heilman, who threw the pitch Yadier Molina hit for the two-run home run that provided the decisive 3-1 margin, goes unmentioned -- not that the fault was entirely Heilman's, either.
And while reminiscing about that decisive game, let us recall that two batters before Beltran struck out, Reyes crushed a pitch from Wainwright headed for the right-center-field gap before it was run down. It could have been a tying double.
But the drive-time alarmists of the New York market never cease to condemn Reyes for not delivering key hits. Turns out his greatest fault in that critical scenario was the inability to direct precisely where his line drive should have traveled.
Reyes did develop some shortcomings as his career evolved. He no longer looked to steal as much. He occasionally forgot that ground balls, particularly in his case, can produce hits. And I do think his dancing outside the dugout offended Mets opponents -- see Game 162, versus Marlins, 2007.
But Reyes' game often was worth the price of a ticket. His specialty, the triple, was more exciting than the average home run. And in the first weeks of Spring Training, before the games begin, his marvelous arm often is on display -- no charge.
Each spring with the Mets, I made it my business to take in an early round of "live-arm" BP, that is, batting practice against active pitchers, as opposed to "dead arm" BP, batting practice against coaches. And each spring, I marveled at how far behind the pitchers the hitters were. No sliders, curves, cutters or knuckleballs, and no consistent contact either. Two months later, they hit regardless of the pitchers' efforts to deceive.
The second-most entertaining visual of Mets camp, for the last 10 years at least, was Reyes making throws across the infield. No one delivers a baseball as Reyes does. Mortals cock their arms and move them forward, imparting modest velocity and occasional accuracy. Reyes cocks his am, moves it forward and then has the baseball seemingly launch from his grasp. It darts from shortstop to first base as if hit by Gary Sheffield, and usually allows the first baseman to make a play with only a slight adjustment in the positioning of his glove. What a skill!
Rafael Santana, who preceded Reyes as the Mets' shortstop by some 20 years, routinely delivered the ball to second base at the same level, the same spot. His second basemen could catch his tosses with their eyes closed. But Reyes makes much longer throws and at far greater velocity with comparable precision.
Shawon Dunston had the best arm I ever saw on a shortstop, but Reyes' arm is merely a millisecond behind, and the Marlins' new man is more entertaining. How does he do it? I've watched for 30-minute segments in Spring Training and never figured the dynamic of his release.
I'll miss that this spring, that and Beltran's left-handed batting-practice sessions. Only the mid-February swings of Rusty Staub and Rickey Henderson were as finely tuned as Beltran's right from the start.
It's only a skill on display in mid-February. But the more you're exposed to it, the more appreciated it is. But now it's gone from Mets camp in Port St. Lucie, replaced by unfamiliar faces and names and more modest skills.
But the Cardinals and Marlins share a Spring Training site in Jupiter, and it's only 45 minutes south of Port St. Lucie. I definitely will set my GPS on the coordinates of Beltran and Reyes.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.