This is the spring after the fall. Happily, weather has no memory. On the last day of February, blue skies bathe the New York Mets’ spring-training complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida. A crisp breeze chases away a few stray calico clouds. For an idyllic moment, it is possible to forget September’s ruin.
And why not? In a few hours it’s the spring home opener. On the mound will be Johan Santana, baseball’s best pitcher. All winter, the smart talk was that the Twins ace would end up either in the Bronx or at Fenway. Then an odd thing happened. The Mets landed Santana, 29, in exchange for a quartet of can-miss prospects. Mets general manager Omar Minaya then signed Santana for the low, low price of $137.5 million over six years. A season that looked like a year of sitting shivah for Shea now had the audacity of hope.
The crowd files in. Minaya is there, too, sporting a peach sweater and chatting with a young Cuban pitching prospect. The Mets GM looks warier and wearier than in years past. Maybe he realizes his free pass with the fans and reporters could end this year.
A few minutes later, Minaya’s agent of redemption emerges from the dugout. Santana takes the mound in the bull pen down the left-field line. Within seconds, a fan in an orange-and-blue Mets floppy cap is not managing expectations.
“October, Johan, October!”
Santana warms up for a few minutes. He then pauses, takes the ball out of his glove, and points it at catcher Ramon Castro, who nods. Santana winds up and cranks a fastball. A really fast ball. The ball explodes into Castro’s oversize mitt. A matronly Mets fan nearly drops her fried turkey leg.
“All day!” shouts floppy-hat guy.
Santana gets a hug from Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson, throws a towel around his neck, and jogs to the dugout. He bashfully waves to the standing crowd and flashes a shy smile. A few minutes later, he paws the mound for his first Mets preseason pitch. His teammates stand on the top step of the dugout, a level of attention usually reserved for pennant races.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ leadoff batter obliges with a lazy fly to left. More cheers. But then Chris Duncan singles. Next, Albert Pujols doubles down the left-field line. Up steps Juan Gonzalez, a once-fearsome slugger who hasn’t had a hit in the majors since 2004. Johan fires his $100 million fastball. Gonzalez deposits it over the left-field wall.
The crowd sags. Obscenities are muttered. Santana finishes his debut with two innings pitched, three earned runs. That’s Jose Lima territory. He dutifully trudges out to a satellite field and tosses another fifteen pitches.
An hour later, Santana holds his first post-pitch news conference, where a reporter asks, “Johan, what would you say to the fans back in New York who pick up the paper and see the line score—three runs, four hits, two innings—and they want to send you back?”
Santana flashes a worried “Pedro, we’re not in Minneapolis anymore” look. He hems and haws before offering, “It’s just spring training.”
Sure, Johan. But these are the Mets.
It’s been five months since the Mets blew a seven-game lead with seventeen to play, completing a collapse for the ages. Baseball statistician Bill James rated it the third-worst in baseball history. On the last day of the season, the Mets needed a victory over the Florida Marlins, a crummy team with half their spikes already on their La Guardia charter. New York sent 300-game-winner Tom Glavine to the mound. He retired only one batter. The Mets lost, 8-1. After the game, manager Willie Randolph had tears in his eyes.
It was a just conclusion. In retrospect, the 2007 Mets were the antithesis of a championship team; it just took a complete 162-game season to prove it. There were bungled front-office moves, namely Minaya’s firing hitting coach Rick Down and replacing him with Rickey Henderson, who last distinguished himself in a Mets uniform by playing cards in the clubhouse during the 1999 playoffs. By July, Jose Reyes had quit running out ground balls and descended into a second-half pout that even Rickey had to admire. Then slumping first-baseman Carlos Delgado told reporters in September that the team was so talented it sometimes got “bored.” You know the rest.
Baseball is a game of contagious confidence when you’re winning, infectious depression when you’re losing. “You can’t really know why this thing happened,” Randolph told me after a spring-training game. “Why did Colorado win 21 out of 22 games? Were they the best team in the National League? No.” The usually placid manager moved his right arm up and down, mimicking a parabola. “I believe in vibes and biorhythm. These are humans playing a game, not robots. It’s all about rhythm.”