Jose Reyes returned from the disabled list on Tuesday night, and he made an immediate impact for the New York Mets in their 4-2 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. He notched yet another multi-hit game (his 44th of the season), along with making a couple of spectacular, run-saving defensive plays. His presence on the field is electric and dynamic. The Met shortstop is no doubt one of the most exciting players in the game today, and a Jose Reyes triple has to be in the top five when compiling a list of the most thrilling plays in baseball.
Reyes is just the latest in a long line of New York baseball players who have captivated the city (and the whole nation), though. Whenever these players step up to the plate, take a lead off first base or toe the rubber, fans can't help but stay glued to their seats to see what will happen next. Who was the first exciting, can't-take-your-eyes-off-him New Yorker? While someone like Wee Willie Keeler or even Christy Mathewson may have been electrifying, Babe Ruth comes to mind as the first Mr. Excitement of New York baseball. He, of course, changed the way the game was played, with his colossal clouts, and made the home run a regular part of the game. Besides being the greatest hitter ever to step on a baseball field, he had the charisma to match. There was only one Sultan of Swat, and fans couldn't get enough of the Babe.
A pair of players came to New York from the Negro Leagues in the 1940s and '50s, and may have trumped the Bambino in the excitement department -- Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. Robinson, of course, was more than a baseball player -- he was a significant part of American history. But on the baseball field, he was magic. He was galvanizing and spine-tingling on the base paths, and no one had the daring that Robinson did. Whether it was stealing home or just wiggling out of a rundown, the Brooklyn Dodger was a hair-raising presence running those 90 feet. After brief stints with the Chattanooga Choo-Choos and Birmingham Black Barons (and Trenton and Minneapolis in the minor leagues), Mays arrived in New York a prodigy. He could do it all -- run, hit, hit for power, field and throw. And he did it all with flair and originality. His hat flying off his head while he chased down a fly ball in the spacious Polo Grounds is one of the great, memorable images in baseball history. He brought joy to the game, and was excitement personified.
Another 1950s New Yorker who could give fans goose bumps was Mickey Mantle. To paraphrase Willie Mays Hays, Mantle could play like Mays and run like Hayes. Mantle could hit the ball as far as Ruth and run almost as fast as Bob Hayes (that is, until his knees betrayed him). When he stepped up to the plate, you never knew if he would belt a 490-foot home run or maybe lay down a drag bunt and race down the first-base line. Just about every New York kid tabbed Mantle as his idol, as he was the inspiring, soul-stirring golden boy of the Bronx Bombers. Another New York Yankees power hitter thrilled the Bronx a decade after Mantle retired: Reggie Jackson, and he saved his heroics for when they counted the most, in October. Jackson could run a little, he could field a little less, but his home runs were occasions. And when he clobbered them in the World Series, they became part of baseball lore. Chants of REG-GIE! REG-GIE! REG-GIE! were exciting in and of themselves.
The greatest-ever leadoff hitter played for both the Yankees and Mets. When Rickey Henderson wasn't stylin', he was running. And nobody ran like Rickey (nobody talked like Rickey either). Henderson was the king of the stolen base and the prince of referring to himself in the third person. But he was electric out on the field. He was Reyes before Reyes, and better than Reyes as well. While he was running wild in the Bronx during the 1980s, Dwight Gooden was over in Queens turning a routine baseball game into a rock concert. A Friday night Dwight Gooden start at Shea Stadium might as well have been a Who concert. It was loud, it was crazy, it was dynamite and it usually ended with a Mets victory and about a dozen strikeouts. His 1985 season was one of the best-ever performances by a pitcher in the modern era, and Gooden transfixed Met fans with his blazing fastball/awesome curveball one-two punch.
I'm sure there have been many more players who brought thrills and excitement to the game who haven't been mentioned here, but the players listed above jump out as the most exciting to have stepped on a field for a New York team. And we might as well take a vote, as well, to make it official.