As Jose Reyes turned for third base, it became obvious why he's one of the best players in Major League Baseball.....
On Sunday, the Blue Jays' franchise shortstop led off for the Buffalo Bisons. It was the third game of a rehab stint – one that made it official that the Toronto Blue Jays were keeping promises they'd made months before.
During the New York Mets years, the Big Apple Club had several chances to send stars to downtown Buffalo, but they elected their New York Penn League team in Brooklyn or Double-A franchise in beautiful Binghamton. It didn't take the Blue Jays three months before proving they are a better parent club than the Mets.
In the first three games of Reyes' visit, the team packed in more than 41,000 fans. No doubt, Star Wars night played a role in that, but as far as minor league attendances go, that's as good as it gets.
A bizarre series of events led the 30-year-old shortstop to Buffalo.
Before the 2012 season, the dread-locked Dominican speedster signed a mega contract with the Miami Marlins. The deal paid him $10 million to play in Florida last year and will top out at $22 million per year. The Marlins had spent like drunken sailors in '12, attempting the re-brand the club and fill a new ballpark in a city that cares about baseball like Phoenix cares about hockey.
The experiment was a monumental failure. The Marlins sunk to the bottom of the National League East. Their attendance didn't bounce back and by the end of the season, Miami's other, other, other team couldn't give away tickets.
Miami pulled the chute. They traded Reyes along with quality pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to Toronto, where the Blue Jays had been waiting for the right time to pounce on the American League East. With the Yankees and Red Sox appearing vulnerable, Jays' general manager Alex Anthopoulos pulled the trigger.
At the same time, the Mets couldn't save their cozy affiliation with Buffalo's baseball team. The Bisons had started out 2012 hot, but faded so badly down the end, they finished dead last in the International League's North Division at 67-76. The Mets had flunked the final test and the Blue Jays, whose contract with Las Vegas' Triple-A team was up, stepped right in.
Rogers Centre and the Jays had a new sense of relevance and Reyes jumped out to a blazing start. In his first 10 games, he went 15 for 43 with a home run and five stolen bases.
Then Reyes made a horrible slide.
In the 10th game of the season, on the road against the Kansas City Royals, he went into second base late and twisted his ankle. For one of the league's best baserunners, it was flat-out shocking to see such an error. It looked season ending or career threatening. The look on his face was as concerning as his ankle. Fear, disappointment and shame were painted across his face. Tears streamed out of his eyes.
But it turned out far better than it looked. The All-Star infielder would only need a few months to heal and he'd be back in the Jays' lineup.
“It's been very frustrating for me,” Reyes told reporters following Sunday's 14-inning game. “But now I'm to the point, I'm doing what I love to do, which is play baseball. First two months were very rough for me. I had to be in my house watching the game on TV. But I'm doing my rehab right and I'm back playing baseball.”
One day before his Bisons debut, Reyes stared into his phone with a huge smile. He talked into his phone in English and Spanish. A few minutes later, he posted a short video to his Twitter page announcing he was on his way to Buffalo.
We talk over and over about how nobody ever wants to come to Buffalo, but you wouldn't have known it by Reyes' face. He knew this was the last step before returning to The Show.
Reyes opened his third game as a Bison with a ground out to first base. In his first three days in Triple-A, he's shown off his big league plate approach, speed, quick hands and arm.
But the funny thing about baseball is, if you didn't know his name was Jose Reyes, you'd probably be surprised to find out he's a superstar.
Think of it this way: The difference between .250 and .300 is one hit per week. The difference between a fast runner and a slow runner is 0.5 seconds to first base. Reyes goes from the plate to first in four seconds. A slow catcher will get there in 4.5. The difference between a home run and a pop out is 0.05 seconds of bat speed through the zone. The difference between turning a double play and allowing the runner to reach first base is a one second glove-to-hand exchange.
All the little things that make him elite aren't as obvious as, say, a 60-yard touchdown pass.
But Reyes' success in the major leagues isn't just the culmination of a million little things adding up to being a top-level defender and batting champ in the majors. His personality plays a role too. And we've gotten a first-hand look during his three days in Buffalo.
Bisons PR man Brad Bisbing called Reyes the most helpful MLB rehabber he's worked with in 10 years with the club. The shortstop signed 20 baseballs for a mystery ball auction, he did pre-game interviews, handled post-game media scrums, joined the radio broadcast. He smiled for photos during battling practice. He posted a picture of himself meeting a fan in a wheelchair.
Reyes surpassed the expectations of everyone around the team. He didn't treat Buffalo like an annoyance, he treated Buffalo like his best friend. And in Buffalo, that matters.
He fit right into a club that's pretty loose to begin with. They've ridden a hot April start and appear to be serious contenders going into the Dog Days. One of their top hitters Luis Jiminez has a soft country music hit as his walk-up song. The relief pitchers play games of Bocce Ball in between innings.
In the fourth inning of Sunday's game, he led off with a single to left. After taking a big turn at first, he retreated to the bag and fist bumped the first base coach. The crowd booed after Durham's pitcher threw over to first several times. After taking off for second on a few 3-2 foul balls, he laughed and put his hands on his hips.
Finally, the batter at the plate put the 3-2 pitch in play. Reyes ran for second. Without hesitation, he jetted toward third base as the third baseman threw the ball across the diamond. Reyes slid head first into third...and was thrown out.
Reyes, a $100 million ballplayer, went for the extra base in a minor league rehab game.
This is our type of player.
On Thursday, Reyes will join a contender. The Jays have won 11 in a row and are poised to make big moves in the AL East.
“It's unbelievable,” he said. “Hopefully I can be with those guys and join this type of moment right now. Hopefully we can keep it going.”
The pressure will be on his shoulders. And he'll keep smiling and taking the extra base.