Last Friday morning Jos� Reyes was happily smacking batting-practice fastballs around Field 5 of the New York Mets' minor league complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., when 40-year-old righthander David Cone, who had fooled Reyes with a splitter moments earlier, announced that a heater was coming. The high-70s floater was more of a warmer, though, and Reyes, a mile in front, flailed and missed badly. "Expected a little more on that, huh?" Cone hollered, while Reyes turned to the mound, doffed his helmet and flashed his omnipresent grin. No sense getting upset; as is his habit, Reyes was merely ahead of schedule.
At 19 Reyes is a shortstop to make Ozzie Smith flip. He's a smooth-swinging switch-hitter with power to all fields, the speed to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and the defensive range and grace to make New Yorkers forget Rey Ordo�ez. After burning through his third professional season (in 134 games split between Class A St. Lucie and Double A Binghamton, he hit .288 with 58 stolen bases and 53 extra-base hits, including a minor-league-high 19 triples), Reyes, who turns 20 on June 11, has a chance to become the first teenager to start for the Mets since Dwight Gooden in 1984. He inspires testimonials that are infomercial-like in their enthusiasm: Mets general manager Steve Phillips predicts, "It's not a matter of if, but when." New manager Art Howe says that when he first saw Reyes take BP, he "kind of drooled a little bit." Centerfielder Roger Cede�o simply nods in Reyes's direction and says solemnly, "Superstar."
"I don't worry about that," Reyes says of the hype. "The only thing [I can do] is play hard every day, get better day to day and see what happens." Reyes is the oldest child of a grocery-store owner and a housewife in Palmar Arriba, Dominican Republic, a village 120 miles north of the capital, Santo Domingo. He began playing at age 10 on a neighborhood dirt field, where his soft hands were the strongest part of his game. A natural righthander, he began swinging from the left side two months before he signed with the Mets in August '99, so he could take advantage of his explosive speed out of the batter's box. Says Mets third baseman Ty Wigginton, Reyes's teammate this past off-season on the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican winter league, "One time he hit a single up the middle, right behind second base, and the center-fielder dogged it a little, and next thing you know, Jos�'s standing on second. It was so heads-up." Says Reyes, "When I get to first base, I start thinking about third."
A scrawny 6'0", 160 pounds when the Mets signed him, Reyes has grown an inch and gained 30 pounds. Daily weight-room sessions are adding muscle to his legs and upper body. As he bulks up—he wants to add five more pounds to his frame—the Mets are confident that he'll develop 20-homer power. Reyes has more power righthanded; when batting lefty, his open stance makes him more of a contact hitter and allows him to use the opposite field. From either side he tries to drive the ball into the gaps.
Phillips insists that he'll bring Reyes to New York only when he's assured of regular playing time; a Triple A stint is likely son after he was promoted to Binghamton in June. "I think I need to go to the minors again," Reyes says. "I need to work on my bunts, my basestealing, taking more walks, a lot of things."
The addition of Reyes to the Mets' lineup, probably in the leadoff hole, will provide a catalyst for a team that finished 13th in the National League in runs scored last year, when the shortstop position, manned predominantly by Ordo�ez, was an offensive black hole.
One consequence of Reyes's budding rep has been a furious effort by the Mets to dial back his profile. Media access to him is closely guarded, and bullpen catcher Nelson Silverio (who is also the G.M. of the Gigantes) was tsk-tsked for telling reporters on Reyes's first day of camp that "every 10 years a player [like that] is born" and comparing him to Alex Rodriguez. "I want to quiet the whole thing down with Jose," Mets owner Fred Wilpon says as soon as he hears Reyes's name spoken. "I want Jos� to have a good spring, be a happy camper, and I don't want him to have any unmanageable expectations."
That's a natural impulse for a franchise with a legacy of child prodigies who have sputtered out like bottle rockets, from in-fielder Gregg Jefferies in the late 1980s, traded to the Kansas City Royals in '91; to "Generation K," the mid-'90s pitching trio of Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson, who combined for 28 wins in New York; to outfielder Jay Payton, who spent nine mostly injury-riddled seasons with the organization before being shipped off to Colorado last July. "We've lived through eras when there was a lot of hype about the young players coming up," Phillips says. "In order to set somebody up to succeed, you like to take the pressure off them, so it's better to downplay expectations and comparisons as much as you can."
Whatever pressure those expectations carry is lost on Reyes, who bounds around with a perpetual grin, assuring teammates that his mood is tranquilo. "He doesn't understand how good he is," says outfielder Esix Snead, Reyes's teammate in Binghamton. "He doesn't understand how much he wows everybody." New York has installed a support system for Reyes, assigning him a locker in a Spanish-speaking corner of the clubhouse, next to Sanchez and second baseman Roberto Alomar, who was a highly touted infield prospect when he was 19. In addition to Silverio the Mets retained Juan Lopez, a minor league instructor of Reyes's, as a coach. After three years of thrice-weekly English classes and an hour's study of an English workbook each night, Reyes no longer requires an interpreter, though after a chat with a reporter he shyly asks, "How was my English? O.K.?"
Despite all the attention Reyes looks like a high-schooler, attired in a hip-hop uniform—beige Polo cap with C-curved brim pulled low; baggy, cuffed jeans riding low; chalk-white Nikes—and clutching his English workbook as he strolls out of the clubhouse into the steamy Florida afternoon. "He's 19 and taking the game by the horns," Snead says, shaking his head. "But he's just a teenager having fun."