Prince of thieves Reyes running wild

Prince of thieves Reyes running wild

NEW YORK -- His checklist is short: Pick a pitch and bolt.

And just that quickly, Jose Reyes is at it again -- spikes dig in, dirt flies, the crowd roars with eager anticipation and Reyes is charging toward second with the diamond spinning around him. It may be a familiar sight, but it always seems to pulse electric shocks through the air -- jolting the crowd into a cacophonic frenzy no matter the score or situation. There's simply no livelier time at Shea Stadium than when Reyes is on the move.

But inside the mind of this generation's most prolific basestealer, there is eerie quiet.

To Reyes, there is no crowd, the spectators instead melted into a distant film of muffled cheers. The pitcher who moments before had seemed so vital is now just an afterthought. And the catcher -- the one man with a chance to stop him -- matters least of all.

The entire world has been funneled down to the 90 feet in front of him -- nothing more. And it's a 90-foot stretch that Reyes has come to own.

"They still throw me out sometimes, but not like they used to," Reyes said, his tone plated with steely determination. "Now I know what I have to do when I'm on base."

It's worked. Reyes has become every pitcher's worst nightmare, leading the Majors with 19 steals in 31 games and sparking a fire at the top of the Mets' lineup unlike any the league has seen in years. He's a rare talent -- each time he gets on base, everyone from the pitcher down to the hot dog vendor knows he's about to bolt. And there's still not a thing anyone can do about it.

"It's amazing to me how much they panic," said Mets second baseman Jose Valentin. "He changes the game completely when he's on base." His teammates are quick to spew out superlatives. Best in the game. Most prolific they've ever seen. The laundry list unravels down to the floor, and it's just the beginning for a 23-year-old shortstop still years away from his prime.

Of course, age matters little to a player piling up video-game numbers, already fourth on the Mets' all-time steals list with 175. By season's end, the 23-year-old will likely be second on that chart, putting him in position to reach Mookie Wilson's career mark of 281 steals sometime following his 25th birthday.

Reyes already ranks 35th among active Major Leaguers with his own gaudy total. He's the only one on that list younger than 25, and one of just five younger than 30 -- two of whom enter their third decades this season.

"I think he's the best, by far," said Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, who has seen his share of speed in 11 years behind the plate. "That's no disrespect. I played with Juan Pierre, and he's a great player. I played against [Rafael] Furcal and I played with Dave Roberts, who's a good friend of mine.

"But Jose's the best baserunner and the best basestealer right now in the big leagues."

Yet that one caveat -- "right now" -- clamps a necessary disclaimer on speedy dreams. It's tough to argue against him since the turn of the century, but even Reyes has plenty of ground to cover before he can enter the conversation of the all-time greats.

And inevitably in all that talk, another name is bound to pop up. It's been a quarter of a century since Rickey Henderson set the Major League single-season record with 130 stolen bases in 1982, and in the decades since, he's widely become considered the greatest basestealer in the history of the game.

He looms like a shadow in the record books, his 1,406 career steals dwarfing the rest of the pack. Nobody has even come close, with Lou Brock's 938 standing in second place. And next to that mountain, Reyes's 175 seem almost comical.

But if anyone has a chance to challenge Henderson, it's his protégé. Henderson has appeared at Mets Spring Training as a special instructor in each of the past two seasons, tutoring Reyes in what has become something of a lost art in the Major Leagues.

"He taught me a lot about how to steal a base, how to read the pitcher," Reyes said. "He said you have to be intelligent. You have to figure out when the pitcher throws to home plate, what he does wrong when he throws over to first base. When I get it, he said it's going to come easier for me because I got a lot of speed."

So too did Henderson. After his 130-steal season helped launch a stolen base renaissance of sorts throughout the 1980s, steals dropped off dramatically during the long-ball era of the '90s. From 1982-88, Henderson stole 80 bases in a season five times, while Vince Coleman did it four times. Nobody's done it since.

"The game changed a lot," Valentin said. "You see a lot stronger players, catchers with better arms. The game's just a lot faster now than it used to be."

During his first decade in the big leagues, Valentin saw plenty of Henderson's game. And though something is undoubtedly lost in translation when comparing basestealers from different eras, Valentin already places Reyes into Henderson's echelon of thieves.

"Running-wise, I think they're the same guy, but as a player, I think Jose is better," Valentin said, citing Reyes' switch-hitting abilities and defensive prowess at a premium position. "He's the complete package. He's got the potential to be MVP."

But Henderson was MVP. He's got the stats to back him up, and Reyes -- so far -- doesn't come close. Until he does, the shortstop will always rightfully play second fiddle to the greatest basestealer of them all.

Not that his eyes don't glint at the opportunity, at the chance to reach those unreachable plateaus. Reyes once longed for 80, publicly boasting his goals in 2005 like a heavyweight fighter. He eventually backed off that claim, finishing with 60 in his first full season as a Major Leaguer -- but those dreams of 80 haven't completely evaporated from his mind.

His 19 steals through 31 games put him on pace for just over 100, a mark that hasn't been touched since Coleman swiped 109 for the Cardinals in 1987. He's been helped by a newfound propensity to reach base, as his walk total nearly doubled from 2005 to 2006 -- and he's on pace to double it yet again this season. He's batting .351, while averaging a run scored per game. And though 100 steals may seem a bit high, 80 certainly remains on the radar with a large chunk of the season already in the books.

To put those dizzying numbers in perspective, Reyes is currently outpacing 20 of the league's 30 teams in stolen bases all by himself. And the more speed evaporates from the game, the more Reyes becomes a shining throwback to an era when athleticism reigned -- even if he may never come close to the marks of Henderson's heyday.

"I just say 'Wow,'" Reyes laughed. "One hundred and thirty? Come on, I can steal 130 bases in two years. So it's not easy -- he was a great player." But if anyone can reach 80 -- or beyond -- and if anyone can ultimately match Henderson's legacy, it's the man who's become the student of all his best tricks.

And if anyone has the speed, the desire, and most important, the confidence to do it, it's the lightning bolt of a shortstop sparking wildly every time he reaches base.

"When I get a good jump, it doesn't matter who's catching," Reyes said, boastful of his skill even while tempered in his dreams. "When I get a good jump, with my speed -- forget it."

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.