What we carry

A white-haired couple got on the train yesterday and stepped toward the first pair of open seats while I fumbled with my headphones. The woman sat first, across from me, then grabbed her husband’s hand and steadied him down into the seat next to mine.

“It just hurts sometimes,” he said. Then he leaned toward me and smiled. “Never get old.”

“Hey, beats the alternative,” I said.

———————————————————————————————————

My brother would have loved Jose Reyes. Who could blame him, really?

Hold up. I’m going to get to the personal part of this post in a minute, but I want to focus on Reyes first.

Let’s pretend for one moment that we could all manage to successfully tune out the constant speculative noise surrounding Reyes, and that we have the capacity to put everything else aside to just appreciate the things Jose Reyes is doing on baseball fields around the country.

Holy hell. Have you ever seen anything like this?

There’s Jose Reyes lashing a liner in the gap, bounding out of the box. Jose Reyes stealing second, stealing third. Jose Reyes diving to his left to stop a hard grounder, Jose Reyes firing the ball across the diamond from deep in the hole.

Jose Reyes is dancing off the base, in the corner of the pitcher’s eye and the front of his consciousness. He’s chasing down a pop-up near the foul line in left field. Jose Reyes is celebrating in the dugout and he’s looming on deck. Jose Reyes just smashed a frozen rope past your office window and now he’s sprinting through your backyard. Look to your left: It’s Jose Reyes. Now to the right: Jose Reyes. Jose Reyes, Jose Reyes, Jose Reyes.

This is your summer blockbuster: The Jose Reyes Spectacular.

Only they don’t often make movies this grand and this good, the type you can watch over and over again and still find new details to appreciate: minor plot points, aesthetic intricacies. It is a production massive in scope and so richly rendered in every particular, like the work of a great auteur afforded an unlimited budget and – oh dammit, there’s that money thing we’re avoiding.

My brother Chris loved triples, even more than most. He had what you might call the triples mentality, if not the requisite speed. The way Reyes aims for third base so brazenly on hits that seem certain to be doubles, the irrepressible gusto of it – that was the approach Chris took to pretty much everything.

And I know he was my big brother and I probably aggrandize him a bit, especially now that he’s been gone almost nine years. But when I run into his old friends, they practically tell Bill Brasky stories about the guy: about his exploits in sports, in frat-house shenanigans, even in school.

Apparently, he once took a class at MIT in which teams of students were charged with creating the best design for a machine to lift panels of sheetrock. At the course’s outset, the professor joked that any student who could lift the sheetrock on his own would be excused from the assignment. So Chris – according to the story – marched down to the front of the lecture hall, lifted the sheetrock above his head and carried it out of the room. He returned for the next class and his team ultimately won the contest.

I have no way of verifying if the story is real or apocryphal, and a quick Google search tells me panels of sheetrock weigh about 80 pounds – unwieldy, perhaps, but certainly well within the range of normal human strength. But regardless of its accuracy, the story sums up my brother pretty nicely. He was competitive, cocky, funny, brilliant, ox-strong and doorway-wide.

He was the type of dude it would have been easy to envy if he weren’t always so damn awesome to me. Other than his abject refusal to let me win at anything, Chris provided me everything an older brother could, from guidance and big-picture life lessons to mixtapes, and beer when I was underage (sorry, mom).

More than anything, though, he gave me baseball. He taught me the rules, players and teams. He bought me cards and taught me how to scale them. When he was old enough to drive, he took me to games. Tons of them. Though eventually Chris and I differed on certain finer points, he is responsible for the very fundamentals of how I watch and appreciate the game. After all, he’s responsible for me watching and appreciating the game.

Late in the summer of 2002, Chris moved from his home in Boston to my parents’ house, to a hospital bed set up in our living room. What started as melanoma on his shoulder had spread through his body and into his brain. We knew – though we never said it out loud – he was dying, and it became clear it was easiest for everyone to let him do it there. Weird time.

The best I can figure it was Saturday, Aug. 31, when I watched my last game with my brother. Baseball-reference tells me the Mets lost a 1-0 tilt to the Phillies, an unlikely pitchers’ duel between Randy Wolf and Steve Trachsel.

I can’t recall any of it. All I remember is that I was charged with carrying my brother from a wheelchair to the easy chair in the den where he would watch the game. And I remember how light he was, how frail he felt – this guy who weighed 230 pounds just a year earlier, the football stud with the broad shoulders, my big brother. And I could feel the cancer just under his skin, invasive little bumps. It was everywhere, and terrifying.

The next day I packed up my car, told my brother I loved him, and headed off for my senior year of college. He died two days later.

I skipped the Mets’ home opener in 2003, the first I missed in 16 years of being a Mets fan. Soon after I graduated and moved back home, the Mets called up their top prospect – the 19-year-old shortstop, you know the guy.

It is only now, eight years later, that I realize Chris never saw Reyes play. Or David Wright, for that matter, but he would have hated Wright – that’s a different story. A whole generation of Mets players have come up and grown up before me without him there to share it. And now, maybe, they’re going away. It’s… well, it’s strange to think about.

But he would have loved Reyes. Of that much I am sure. Hell, we all love Reyes.

We love him. We watched him develop, and we have seen so many of his trials and triumphs. We know the way he gets when he’s happy, when he’s sulky, when he’s angry, when he’s jubilant. He feels, well, almost like family.

Note that I say almost like family, which is very different than actually being family. We are not actually related to Jose Reyes and the love we feel for him as fans is not the love we have for our real-life loved ones. Obviously. And the prospect of losing Reyes, weighing so heavily on the minds of Mets fans these days, is not the same as losing a family member. You don’t have to remind me.

But it is, on the orderly plane that baseball provides for us to try to sort some of these things out, some distant, more palatable version of that. Here is someone you love. And now, due to circumstances beyond your control, you might lose him too soon.

So understandably, Mets fans gather on blogs, in the airwaves and out on the Shea Bridge on Friday nights desperate to show the world their love for this great player, underscoring the pain we will feel if he leaves for some other green pasture elsewhere.

I can’t say if Reyes will be a Met at the end of this season or the beginning of the next one. Few can. And while I’m not as resigned to his departure as many in the media and fanbase, I know this for certain: He’ll be gone someday. Everything goes away eventually. If not next year for Reyes, then five or seven or ten years down the road.

We can lament the hand Reyes – and all of us, really – has been dealt, with so many of his best years wasted by a subpar front office, bad players around him, crappy bullpens, mishandled injuries, everything. Not to mention his contract coming up now, with the Mets in financial flux and hamstrung by a slew of bad deals. That all sucks, no doubt.

But we should celebrate, too, that we have this right now. No matter what happens with Reyes later this year or after the season, the special things Reyes has done and is doing every night this season are some we can carry forever. It is an awesome spectacle, a confluence of immense talent and pure joy on the baseball field, with the churning legs and flying dreadlocks and beaming smile. This is ours to keep.

And I can sit here now regretting that my brother never got to see this, knowing how much he would have loved it. But that’s useless. Besides, I carry with me my brother’s love of baseball. I carry him every day, and it’s not traumatic; it’s awesome. He exists now as an inextricable part of me, a part I can celebrate.

We are alive and we get to enjoy Jose Reyes playing baseball. It beats the alternative.

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