If you scanned the visitor's dugout at Tropicana Field at 1:05 p.m. on September 28, 2003, you would have found Bill Mueller and his AL-leading .327 average sitting on the bench.
On the final day of the 1998 season, Bernie Williams pulled himself out of the game after two at-bats to preserve his lead over Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn.
Wade Boggs won his batting titles in the mid-80's by sitting out the last handful of games.
Ted Williams — whose appearance in both ends of a doubleheader on the final day of the 1941 season despite already having a .400 batting average is often (and inexplicably) cited as the game's greatest sign of sportsmanship — took himself out of the final game in 1957 to help his odds at winning the batting championship.
(And just so we're clear, Ted Williams' actual batting average going into the final day of the 1941 season was .39955 — technically .400 but not actually .400 — meaning that if he wanted to reach the mark “for real” he would have had to play in at least one of the games. Also conveniently forgotten by those who thump the Teddy Ballgame bible is the fact that Williams' manager Jim Cronin admitted later that if Williams had achieved the .400 mark by the end of the first game, he would have sat him for the second. So to all those claiming that Williams selflessly risked his .400 average for the sake of sportsmanship, history tells the story differently)
The latest example of this prudent practice is Jose Reyes' decision to come out of the Mets' season finale on Wednesday after reaching base safely on a bunt single in the bottom of the first inning. It left Reyes with a .337 average on the year, and put the onus on runner-up Ryan Braun to go 3 for 4 or better in his final regular season tilt later in the day.
Braun finished the game 0 for 4, meaning that if Reyes had stayed in he would have had to go hitless in eight at-bats to lose the lead, a event that simply wasn't going to happen.
While this point should have rendered the whole argument moot, it has somehow only made things worse, as if the low bar set by Braun's performance that night makes Reyes' bailing after just one at-bat even more cowardly.
Unfortunately for Reyes, his supporters thus far have offered little resistance, opting for the weak and flawed “Where was the outrage when so-and-so did the same thing?” argument.
The truth is, when a player rests to preserve a lead, or for that matter plays when he doesn't need to in order to chase a record, there is always some grumbling from the masses.
While perhaps Reyes is the only one to suffer such intense scrutiny for his decision to sit, that is simply a reflection of the state of sports media. Even as recently as 2003, when Mueller sat out to win the award over Derek Jeter, the coverage simply wasn't as extensive, either on television or, especially, on the Internet.
But even as far back as 1910, when Nap Lajoie bunted down five questionable singles to beat out Ty Cobb for the batting title, newspapers decried the tactics and the auto company sponsoring the chase opted to avoid controversy by awarding the prize car to both players (Cobb, by the way, believing his lead to be sufficient, sat out the final two games of the season).
It's important that this story doesn't run away with the imaginations of the anything-goes Internet sports media, because Jose Reyes did nothing wrong.
The reasons why these comparisons are not just inapt but also and primarily disingenuous should be self-evident.
Despite the groans from the crowd, and despite the tendency of people in modern times to not ever really be okay with a player sitting on a lead, there's nothing unethical about Jose's decision. Contract year aside, and the absence of batting champions in Mets' history aside (though his decision was doubtless informed by both), Jose Reyes has nothing to apologize for.
If anything, with an average that tickled .355 prior to the pair of hamstring pulls that derailed his MVP campaign and dragged him down into this race artificially (he held a 30-point lead over second-place Joey Votto at one point this season), he's earned the right to take the high road.