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Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?

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Maine prepares to throw a four-seam fastball, his best pitch. A regular fastball is gripped with the fingers on the seams, but with the four-seamer Maine places his fingers across the seams (which causes the ball to dart up at the last second). He scrunches his eyes shut. After a few wild ones, Maine finds a groove and hits his target repeatedly. Peterson flashes him the thumbs-up. Afterward, his coach asks Maine what he wants to accomplish in his career.

“They need ditchdiggers back in Fredericksburg,” deadpans Maine. “I want to win a championship and retire. If it was good enough for Elway, it’s good enough for me.”

Peterson looks concerned.

“I’m joking!’ says Maine with a grin.

One of Mets owner Fred Wilpon’s teammates at Bensonhurst’s Lafayette High School was a guy named Sandy Koufax. The two remain friends, and despite his Dodgers allegiance, Koufax usually pops over to Port St. Lucie for a day to trade war stories with the pitchers. He spent a few minutes with Santana and Billy Wagner, the closer, showing them how he gripped his breaking ball.

This being spring training, where new grips and stances are auditioned and discarded with Fashion Week regularity, Santana tries to mimic Koufax’s grip, stretching his fingers to reach one more stitch. It isn’t happening. “It’s tough for me to throw the pitch like Sandy,” Santana tells me later. “He’s got such big hands. My hands are not so big.”

Santana isn’t your prototypical ace. At five eleven, he’s undersize, and his legs, from which a pitcher derives his power, are roughly half the size of Roger Clemens’s. The combination has some baseball nerds convinced his left arm will explode like Martinez’s and Koufax’s did long before his Mets contract ends. But Santana is built sturdier than Martinez or Koufax. The Venezuelan possesses the kind of he-man’s upper-body strength that allowed him to sneak up behind his Twins teammates and flip them over his shoulder like a sack of empty aluminum cans.

“Johan is another me, just younger,” says Martinez about his new teammate. “That’s exactly how I was. Confident and full of power.”

There are other similarities. Both Martinez and Santana are magicians with their arms. Mediocre pitchers telegraph which pitch they’re throwing by slightly changing their delivery. Smart batters look for tells like a three-quarters arm delivery, probably a curveball, or two fingers close together, likely a fastball. Santana’s 94-mph fastball and 80-mph changeup come out of his glove at the same angle. Most batters sit on the fastball and look foolish when the changeup moseys by a tenth of a second later.

His manager talks about the new guy like a 10-year-old who just got a minibike. “He’s got three great pitches that he can move up and inside and out,” says Randolph. “You try to hit the ball the other way, he can get in your kitchen. You sit on the fastball; he throws the nasty changeup. He’s so deceptive—you can sit on his changeup and still not hit it.”

On the same day Santana tried the Koufax pitch, Wagner asked him if he ever threw his slider inside to left-handers. “No, sometimes it doesn’t do what I want,” said Santana. He motioned with his hand. “It breaks over the plate.”

Wagner shook his head. “You’re looking at it from a pitcher’s view. The batter thinks it’s coming inside and they’re gonna jump out of the way. There’s no way they can swing at it.”

Santana furrows his brow and nods. He worked on the pitch for about fifteen minutes. Rick Peterson chimed in. “There’s no way they can hit that.”

As he finishes, Santana formally thrusts his hand toward Wagner: “Thank you, señor.”

Santana grew up in Tovar, Venezuela, in the state of Merida, a region cut off from the rest of the country by mountains. Santana was so homesick his first year in pro ball he almost quit. He made it to the majors with Minnesota in 2000, but he bounced back and forth between the minors for the next couple of years. After perfecting his changeup in Triple-A in 2002, he began to blossom. In 2004, he went 20-6, with a 13-0 second-half record, and received the American League Cy Young Award by a unanimous vote. He finished third the next year, but won another unanimous Cy Young in 2006, leading the league in strikeouts, wins, and ERA. His 2007 season was a disappointment by comparison. He finished 15-13 on a bad team and led the league in home runs surrendered. Still, he was seventh in the American League with a 3.33 ERA.

A month into spring training, the Twins are still grieving for the guy who draws smiley faces on the brim of his cap and preps for his starts by playing against the opposing team on Xbox. (He still does. “Those games are very realistic about the batter’s strengths and weaknesses,” Santana told me.) “I hate to say it because it sounds like I’m blowing smoke up his ass, but we’re just going to miss him as a human being,” says Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.


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