I'm amazed by the flack New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes is getting. I'm especially astounded by the comments from those who should know their baseball history better.
Reyes went into game number 162 last Wednesday afternoon leading Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League batting race, .336 to .335. In his first at-bat, Reyes led off with a bunt single against the Cincinnati Reds' Edison Volquez to raise his average to .337. Mets manager Terry Collins promptly pulled Reyes for a pinch-runner, as he and his star player had agreed in the event Reyes got a hit in his first at-bat.
Reyes hadn't exactly clinched the batting title with his single, but he'd taken a commanding lead: Braun would have to go 3 for 3 or 3 for 4 that night in Milwaukee's game with Pittsburgh, a possible-but-improbable occurrence, to overtake Reyes. Since the odds are statistically against a hitter getting a hit in any given at-bat -- Ty Cobb, owner of the highest career batting average, got a hit in less than 37% of his at-bats -- the chances were significantly greater Reyes would have lowered his average by stepping into the batter's box again than the chances Braun would go 3-4. In short, the shortstop was shrewdly playing the odds, something he put himself in the position to do by carrying the league's highest batting average into the final game. After Braun went 0 for 4 that night and saw his average drop to .332, Reyes claimed the NL batting crown.
Yet as soon as he trotted off the field on Wednesday, criticism of the Mets shortstop shot across cyberspace. Comparisons were made to Ted Williams, who carried a .400 average into the final day of the 1941 season but played in both games of a season-closing doubleheader. (Technically, his average was .39955 but officially would have been rounded up.) The famously confident hitter, arguably the best ever, got six hits in eight at-bats in the twinbill to finish at .406; no Major Leaguer has broken the .400 mark for a full season since. Ironically, Williams often was criticized in his day for being overly concerned about his batting average. "Critics noted that if there were a man on second and a hit needed, the great Williams would rather take a walk than try for a hit on a pitch off the plate that would drive in a run," noted "Out of Left Field" columnist Stan Isaacs. "Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, and the notoriously-bad-ball hitting Yogi Berra would be logical choices over Williams to hit in such a clutch situation."
I've rooted for Reyes over the years but have also been critical of him at times. For such an outstanding player, he can make his share of mental mistakes, which (to be fair) often stem from the aggression that comes with playing the game at a higher speed than everyone else. Speaking of bunts, he seems to approach sacrifice situations as if he was bunting for a hit by dragging it down the line -- a lower-percentage play that can roll foul -- rather than simply squaring around and meeting the ball with his bat to put it in play. But in the case of Reyes's early exit on Wednesday, Williams himself would be the only person who would have the right to criticize Reyes. Everyone else is off base.
First off, if Braun had gone for 3 for 4 to climb over Reyes in the batting race... are we really to believe Braun would have stayed in the game for a fifth at-bat to needlessly risk yielding the batting crown back to Reyes? (If you think so, you might want to file for tax-exempt status for your Church of Braun.)
As anyone who knows baseball history could point out -- David Schoenfield, for one, pointed this out in a piece for ESPN.com -- there is a long-standing precedent of players sitting out at-bats or entire games to preserve batting titles, including Terry Pendleton in 1991, when he won the NL batting race, the NL MVP, and led the Atlanta Braves to the World Series.
Still, that didn't stop plenty of people whose job is to know sports from spouting off on Reyes's character. ESPN's Steve Levy, for one, tweeted after an eventful evening that decided postseason berths: "On a night in which we saw everything that is right and great about baseball,we got the oppositte [sic] from jose reyes. Don't want him on my team."
I supposed Levy also wouldn't have wanted a winner like Pendleton on his team. Or Bernie Williams, the former Yankees centerfielder who owns four World Series rings. Manager Joe Torre, who's lionized in New York, removed Williams from the final game of the 1998 season to preserve his lead over Boston Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughan. (While managing the Mets in 1977, Torre also substituted for a young Lee Mazzilli when the rookie led off the team's final game with a double, thus raising his average to .250 -- hardly a number to boldface on the back of a baseball card, but one that tells someone you at least had one hit every four at-bats.)
Talk show host Jim Rome also ranted against Reyes in tweets that night: "Jose Reyes?! Are you kidding me? I hope Ryan Braun goes 4-4. And Matt Kemp [who was third in the race] goes 15-17. Laying down a bunt single and call it a day is weak"; and later: "I don't know anyone not pulling for Ryan Braun tonight. Too bad he's 0-3 and Jose Reyes is going to back into a batting title. Bush move."
Reyes "backed into" the batting title? In his last four games, he struck six singles, a double, and two home runs in 15 at-bats -- for a .600 average and 1.667 OPS over that stretch. I'm guessing Rome also would say a division winner had backed into the playoffs if it had a ten-game winning streak snapped on the last day of the season.
As part of the whole controversy, haters have focused also on how Reyes got his last hit in 2011. (Note Rome's calling out the "bunt single.") For Michael Moraitis's piece on Bleacher Report, a photo caption labels it a "cheap bunt single," as if taking a 90-mph pitch off a Major League pitcher and placing it perfectly between the pitcher, catcher, third baseman, and third-base foul line is an easy task -- as if a bunt single is somehow a lesser hit than, say, a ground ball that takes a bad hop or a seeing-eye single that barely trickles past the second baseman. One wonders why leadoff hitters ever swing away if bunting for a hit is so "cheap" and "easy."
This sort of macho posturing from sports commentators is nothing new. It's both hollow and unsustainable. Following the same mindset, shall we criticize the manager who has his batter lay down a sacrifice bunt to move the potential winning run into scoring position rather than (in a more manly fashion) swing away for the fences? Is a pitcher "gutless" for wasting a 0-2 curveball in the dirt rather than (in a more manly fashion) throwing a fastball right down the middle and daring the batter to hit it? When a basketball coach has a late lead, is he "cheap" for having his team run out the shot clock rather than (in a more manly fashion) challenging the other team to a reckless exchange of fast breaks? When a football team is up by three points with thirty seconds left, is the coach taking the "easy" way out by having his quarterback take a knee rather than (in a more manly fashion) dropping back to throw a pass and daring the other team to pick it off? Nevertheless, many are calling Reyes gutless and his title tainted. And in the social architecture of today's media, once writers declare something tainted, it becomes a viral meme regardless of merit.
But perhaps the most foolish criticism of Reyes came not from professional "experts" but from the segment of fans at CitiField who booed when he came off the field on Wednesday. Forget the fact Reyes had just all but locked up the franchise's first batting title in its 50-year history, that Reyes was the best player in the league until the All-Star break and battled through injuries in the second half, that (hello, Steve Levy) the Mets have had a far better record with Reyes in the lineup than without him. When the contract of your most crucial player has just run out, other teams are lining up to bid obscene amounts of money for his services, and you're hoping he will give your financially strapped organization a hometown discount, I'm not sure how smart it is to send him off the field with a chorus of boos.
Fans pay a lot of money at Major League Baseball games, and they want to see their favorite stars play. But teams always play their subs and prospects at the end of the year, and if you buy a ticket to game 162, you don't expect to see the "A" team unless they're involved in a contest that decides postseason berths. The Mets starting lineup on Wednesday featured Willie Harris, Mike Baxter, Nick Evans, and Jason Pridie. Reyes's longtime teammate David Wright started the game and also was pulled for a pinch-runner after singling. Managers take players off the base paths, rather than in between innings, in such situations so fans have a chance to cheer for them one last time. Instead, Reyes heard boos.
When asked about this later, he said, "It's kind of tough. I wanted to stay in the game. But [fans] have to understand, too, what's going on. They have to feel happy about it if I win the batting title. I do that for the team, and the fans, too."
Fans usually don't like players telling them what they need to understand, but in this case Reyes is right. This wasn't just his batting title but the team's and the fans'. The Mets had their third losing season in a row and the team has never had a pitcher throw a no-hitter, but fans no longer have to hear a Met has never won a batting title.
Unfortunately, there's a chance they also might no longer be able to cheer for Reyes in a Mets uniform. I hope the Mets front office finds a way to re-sign him. If not, he would leave a void that would take years to fill. But no matter whom he plays for the rest of his career, he earned the 2011 National League batting title, fair and square.