Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?

Photo: Howard Schatz

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.”

Pedro Martinez, the Mets’ clown prince and evil genius, gets loose.Photo: Kim Badawi for New York Magazine

Still, nothing defibrillates a team like a stud pitcher, and that’s something the 2007 Mets never had. Sure, last year’s staff had two certain Hall of Famers in Glavine and Pedro Martinez. But Glavine was a 41-year-old junkballer who longed for his Atlanta home. Martinez, now 36, was shelved for most of the season. By the time he returned in September, he was an outsider in his own clubhouse, reluctant to call out teammates he hadn’t seen much of in five months. The Mets’ two strongest starters, both 26, were Oliver Perez, a chronic head case, and John Maine, an aw-shucks kid from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Neither is exactly intimidating. That is why the Mets had to go out and get Santana—in baseball parlance he’s called a stopper, because he stops misery. Losing streaks end. Bull pens get a night off. Teammates don’t feel like they have to hit five-run homers. The stopper takes his teammates back to their happy places.

But is one new pitcher enough? In a good year, Santana will start 34 times. That leaves another 128 games divided among four other guys. Here’s a cautionary example: Steve Carlton won 27 games for the 1972 Phillies. But the rest of the rotation won half as many, and the team finished dead last. If Santana goes 21-6 but the rest of the rotation folds, Shea will still close with a whimper that will likely get Randolph bounced and Minaya placed on double super probation.

No one said this was an exact science.

A major-league pitching coach and a psychotherapist have much in common. On a busy day, both have to deal with ten or eleven psychological specimens battling varying degrees of narcissism, insecurity, and profound fear.

Starting pitchers are the worst; they have four days between performances to obsess. The Mets starters all have their issues: Santana is the new guy. Martinez is the diva. Orlando Hernandez is on another planet. John Maine must overcome excessive humility. Oliver Perez has major focus issues.

Keeping the kids happy and effective falls on the pitching coach. In ancient times, pitching coaches were hired because they were the managers’ drinking buddies. Billy Martin kept Art Fowler around simply because Art could help Billy find the team hotel at 2 a.m. Peterson is not that guy. The son of a former Pirates general manager, Peterson pitched professionally in the seventies, until his career was derailed by injuries, then wandered the country doing yoga and studying Eastern philosophy. Eventually, he decided to take what he had learned and apply it to coaching. He made his bones as Moneyball hero Billy Beane’s unorthodox pitching coach with the Oakland A’s.

“Do you know the sports psychological test?” Peterson asked me shortly after we met. He speaks in a mellow tone and has longish salt-and-pepper hair—well, long by baseball-coach standards. “There’s sixteen psychological tests that rank you on a scale of one to ten, with concrete thinking being a one and abstract thinking a ten. We found in the seven range happened to be ideal for pitchers. Calling pitches and setting batters up is really abstract. It takes a special way of thinking. Martinez has that kind of a mind.”

As a kid, Peterson dreamed of becoming a comedian. He would write out Red Skelton routines and try to figure out what got laughs. From a young age, he’s been fascinated with process as much as performance. He keeps a tattered notebook in his back pocket. Peterson opens it and shows me a page with performance broken into three categories: fundamental skills, conditioning, and mental toughness. “In the West, when people talk about peak performance levels, they talk about an athlete who is in the zone and describe it through adjectives,” says Peterson. “In the East, they have a noun: It’s called satori. It’s a state where mind and body is one. Everyone at this level has the talent, but can you consistently put it into practice?”

Peterson knows this sounds a little squishy for the tobacco-spitting world of baseball. After talking for a bit, he has one request: “All I ask is, don’t make me sound like a kook or a guru.” He tailors his approach to each pitcher, letting the aces go their own way. “With someone like Johan, it’s just about finding out what makes him comfortable,” says Peterson. “Small things like what side he wants me to sit on in the dugout.”

With his younger charges, it’s more hands-on. One humid morning, Peterson works with Oliver Perez to increase his stride in his follow-through (so he throws more straight on and less across his body). Peterson draws a line in the dirt about a yard from the pitching rubber. “What if I told you, if you landed here every time, you’d make $8 million?” asked Peterson.

John Maine, says pitching coach Rick Peterson, must learn to think like a winner.Photo: Kim Badawi for New York Magazine

Perez looks at Peterson and shrugs. He is a maddening talent who a half-decade ago was touted as Mexico’s next Fernando Valenzuela. He possesses a mid-nineties fastball and a wicked slider. But he was rushed to the majors at 20 and after some fleeting success imploded in an amalgamation of bad mechanics and temper tantrums. (He broke his toe kicking a laundry cart after a bad outing and missed about half of the 2005 season.) The lowly Pirates gave up on Perez in 2006, and Minaya picked him up on the cheap. During the team’s playoff run, Perez was typically unpredictable, pitching well, then disastrously, and finally, inexplicably, giving the Mets six innings of one-run ball in game seven of the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals. He showed more consistency in 2007, but still had the occasional breakdown.

Peterson ups the ante. “What if I told you, if you landed here, you’d make $10 million?” Perez’s eyes light up. It’s not clear if he’s gaslighting his coach or not, but he nods enthusiastically and gets to work. Over the next dozen pitches, he hits Peterson’s line about half the time.

“People see the way he is out on the mound and think he’s showboating,” says Peterson. “But that’s the way he acts on a practice field when no one is watching.” Peterson hopes that Santana and Martinez will keep Perez focused. “A healthy Martinez being here all year and a Johan Santana is really going to help ground Oliver. The best way for him to learn is through modeling. Who could be better models?” He then tells me his favorite Perez story. “Last year, Oliver got a hit. He then stole second. Then he ended up on third, and he starts dancing down the line. When he got back in the dugout I asked him, ‘Oliver, what the hell are you doing?’ He looked me and said, ‘Rick, I’m playing a game.’ ”

John Maine, the Mets’ other young starter, is a lanky, rosy-cheeked kid who’d easily win the contest of Met least likely to be involved in a “Page Six” scandal. Of course, this being New York, that’s exactly what happened. In the off-season, the Post reported that Maine offered a young lady $200 if he could try on her party dress at a nightclub. But Maine was back in Virginia and the whole story was a fraud.

If this had happened to another player—say, Gary Sheffield—lawsuits would have been filed and people might have been executed. But Maine seems blissfully not pissed off. “I don’t worry about that stuff,” he says. Maine finds himself the only native English speaker in the starting rotation, which suits his quiet way. “They might be making fun of me,” he says with a smile. “I don’t know what they’re saying half the time.”

Maine exudes a humility you’d want in a friend but not necessarily a Game 7 starter. He wasn’t supposed to be a star, so he lacks the swagger of a Martinez or a Glavine. Part of that is stuff-related. He has a decent fastball and slider, but he relies on perfectly locating his pitches and changing speeds. He can’t blow a batter away like Perez can, so he has to be ultraconfident in his pitch selection and location. When he hits his spots, he can be excellent, as he was in the first half of 2007 (ten wins, 2.71 ERA); when he doesn’t, he struggles to be average (five wins, 5.53 ERA in the second half). Still, it was Maine, not Glavine or Perez, who pitched seven and two-thirds innings of no-hit ball against the Marlins on September 29, saving their season for 24 hours.

“The thing with Johnny is making him realize what he can be,” says Peterson. “It’s like last year Clark Kent went into the phone booth and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to put the cape on. I say, Johnny, put it on.”

Last summer, Peterson read the stats of John Smoltz and Tim Hudson to Maine and asked what popped into his head. “Hall of Famer, top of the rotation,” responded Maine. Peterson then asked Maine what popped into his mind when he said the words, “John Maine.” “Major leaguer, in the rotation,” said Maine. Peterson then showed Maine that his stats were the equal of the two all-stars. “For a Pedro or a Springsteen, the greatness has always been there,” says Peterson. “It comes from the inside out. Johnny is evolving to that point.”

One morning, Peterson has Maine warm up with his eyes closed. “If you have the confidence that you can hit your spots with your eyes closed, what situation are you not going to be able to handle?” reasons Peterson.

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.

What remains unknowable is how Santana will handle the Shea Stadium pressure cooker. Expectations are too high. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in February and used the headline the savior of port st. lucie. Rick Peterson rhapsodizes about the healing power of his new ace. “When we got Johan, it was like going into instant remission,” Peterson says. “It was almost like a divine healing, it was almost like a miracle drug that took away the horrific feeling.”

In interviews, Santana focuses on baseball, giving up little of himself. It’s understandable. He comes from a dissension-ravaged country where even the good times can be frightening: When Santana returned to Tovar after winning his first Cy Young, a joyous mob had him fearing for his safety. When I asked him an innocuous question as to whether his wife and kids are going to join him in New York, he wouldn’t answer.

“I’m always happy to talk to you guys,” Santana told reporters after his first spring start. He paused a beat. “As long as we have something to talk about and it’s not just hanging out.”

Even if Santana has another Cy Young year and Maine and Perez do not regress, that’s only three-fifths of the battle. One cloudy morning, Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, the halt and lame portion of the Mets’ starting rotation, work out in a back field.

The Dominican and the Cuban exile share a reputation for playoff valor, hissy fits, and ruinous injuries that have left the Mets bereft at crucial moments over the last two seasons. The two are pals from way back and diva soul mates. If the Mets can cajole 50 to 60 starts out of this aging couple, they’ll contend. If they don’t, well there’s always the food court at Citi Field to look forward to in 2009.

Today, one is happy, one is sad. On a practice mound, El Duque goes into his famous-to-Yankees-fans Mr. Knee–meet–Mr. Chin leg kick, an homage to Latino legends Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal. But this time, El Duque drops his pitching leg and groans. He has a bunion the size of a plump strawberry on the second toe of his pitching foot. It’s not quite Sinatra with a cold, but it is a great concern for the Mets. Hernandez is 38, 42, or 59, depending on which birth certificate you believe. He is one of the great playoff pitchers in history, but he hasn’t pitched 200 innings, the starting pitcher’s gold standard, since 1999. The bunion cost him the last month of 2007.

There were reports last October that El Duque had the bunion removed, but when he arrived in Port St. Lucie there it was, big and ugly. The Mets owe Hernandez $6.5 million for 2008, a stiff bill for an ancient pitcher penciled in as the team’s fifth starter. All the Mets can do is hope. Today, that’s not much. On the mound, Hernandez paces, wipes his bald head with his forearm, and tries again. He stops mid-motion and grumbles in Spanish. Martinez watches from the other side of the fence with some concern, but remains in a happy mood. He plays long toss with a bull-pen catcher, sporadically throwing it over the catcher’s head, perhaps on purpose. As the catcher fetches, Martinez shouts, “¡Arriba, arriba!

Three Cy Youngs and 209 wins in, Martinez is clearly nuts, Brian Wilson–in–a–sandbox nuts. But this spring it’s a happy nuts. Martinez spent all of last year manically rehabbing the shredded tendons in his pitching shoulder. He won three of five starts in September, only to see his teammates spit the bit. Now in the final year of the four-year, $53 million contract that heralded the Mets’ renaissance, Martinez seems hell-bent on enjoying himself.

When El Duque mopes over to Martinez’s field to throw to some minor leaguers, Martinez playfully screams, “¡Vámonos, vámonos!” El Duque does not pick up the pace. Then Martinez chants, “That’s how we play baseball here, that’s how we play baseball here!”

El Duque is unamused. He throws a few pitches and sulks off. A few days later, Peterson revamps his motion in hopes of easing his pain. The high leg kick is replaced by a more conventional windup. Peterson insists it will have no bearing on Hernandez’s ability to disguise his pitches, but admits it could leave psychological scars. “I think the leg kick was a creative expression for him,” Peterson tells me. “Now he knows he has to change, and he’s wondering, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ The body starts not responding, and it gets damn depressing. But he’s coming around. I don’t think it will affect his ability to be successful.” Maybe not, but no one can remember another pitcher’s so severely altering his motion this late in his career and being successful.

Now it’s Martinez’s turn. Things look immediately brighter and weirder. It’s blustery out, so Martinez, gardener and cockfighting enthusiast, breaks into a mournful version of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” He only knows the title line. “Against the wind, against the wind,” he sings atonally.

On the mound, Martinez flings off his cap and waves for the pitcher’s cage—in place to prevent $13 million-a-year pitchers from being disabled by line drives—to be removed.

“C’mon, there’s no crying in baseball, let’s play baseball,” he says. As he warms up, Wilpon gingerly steps on a riser behind the backstop for a better look. His bodyguard, derisively known as his manservant among Mets observers, lurks a few feet behind him in a loud shirt and loafers without socks. Even with the acquisition of Santana, a Martinez bull-pen session is an all-hands-on-deck franchise priority. Willie Randolph arrives to watch as Martinez works easily, throwing mostly breaking pitches. “We got game, we got game!” he shouts to no one in particular. For twenty or so pitches, Martinez expertly works his pitches up and down and all around the strike zone.

Then Mets spare part Jose Valentin steps into the batter’s box. Martinez launches five erratic but crisp fastballs, then a ridiculous curve. Valentin reflexively bends his knees while his backside bails out of the box.

Wilpon gently taunts Valentin. “Jose, you could move in a little.”

Valentin laughs and says, “Nah, that’s Pedro Martinez. He throws the hee-haw.” Valentin makes the motion of a ball coming into his rib cage. “No way.”

His work complete, Martinez saunters off as John Denver sings on the PA, “Life ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle.” Peterson shakes his hand.

“Great pitching, Pedro,” says Peterson.

“Don’t call me Pedro,” chides Martinez. “Call me Picasso.”

“Okay, Pablo,” says Peterson with a smile.

Actually, Peterson thinks Martinez now pitches like a first-rate forger. “When he was young, he’d pitch a Pedro,” explains Peterson. A Pedro was characterized by thirteen or fourteen strikeouts, many on Martinez’s rising fastball. “Now he may pitch a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh, whatever he needs.”

What Peterson is saying without saying it is that post–shoulder surgery, Martinez has to rely on guile and adapting his stuff to each batter’s weakness. Before his rotator-cuff tear, Martinez’s “out pitch” was a virtually unhittable fastball thrown at 95 mph. That’s gone now. In his September comeback, the radar gun never broke 90. So he throws curves and changeups, sneaking in his not-quite-fastball when batters aren’t expecting it.

Martinez has always been a proud and eccentric man, and the transition from power pitcher to crafty veteran is a touchy subject with him. After one practice, reporters asked him about his pitches’ topping out in the mid-eighties. He answered politely, but as the throng started to drift away, he said to no one in particular, “Let me ask you a question. Why is everyone so hung up on my velocity? I can name you ten guys in the minor leagues who hit 95. Guess what? They’re still in the minor leagues.” He squirted moisturizer on his hand from a container in his locker with the word pedro taped across the top. “You know when I’m happy? When I strike out a guy with a 78-mile-an-hour changeup.”

He has a point. “Even when he had that 95-mile-an-hour fastball, he pitched like a junkball artist moving the ball up and down, inside and out,” a former pitcher told me. “He always had a plan on how to set up batters, even when he was young.” Ron Darling, the former Mets pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the team, urged me to watch on video the six innings of no-hit ball Martinez pitched against a tough Indians lineup back in the 1999 playoffs. “His shoulder was killing him, he had nothing on the ball, and they still couldn’t touch him,” said Darling.

A few mornings later, it was Martinez’s turn to throw again. Afterward, he was in a melancholy mood. Sitting in a practice-field dugout not far from his black Aston Martin, which occupies a better parking space than Minaya’s or Randolph’s car, he talked fatalistically about what he had left. When I asked him about his rehabbed shoulder, he was succinct. “It feels really good,” said Martinez, trying not to sound too hopeful. “If it goes, I’m done. No more rehab.” He gave a sad half-smile. “It makes my life easier. You just go out there, leave it all out there, and hand yourself to God and see what happens.”

As spring training droned on, the Mets’ everyday lineup looked increasingly suspect. The open secret of the Minaya-built Mets is that, with the exception of Reyes and David Wright, their offense is now as old as dirt. In the off-season, Minaya re-signed rickety-kneed second-baseman Luis Castillo and chronically injured Moises Alou in two potentially Isiahesque moves. (Alou didn’t disappoint: He’s out until perhaps June with a hernia.) Loudmouth catcher Paul Lo Duca was shuttled out for weak-hitting nice guy Brian Schneider, one of Omar’s boys from his days as a Montreal Expos executive. Meanwhile, center-fielder Carlos Beltran made a slow comeback from knee surgeries, and then the slump-ridden Delgado missed a week after a shattered bat gashed his right arm. The team seemed scarily perched on a precipice; it could lose 90 games just as easily as win the National League East.

With their offense a series of question marks, the Mets’ pitching becomes ever more crucial. The relief corps, headed by Wagner, returns largely intact. The bull pen was a team strength for most of 2007, until it broke down under the weight of too many fifth-inning bailouts. The addition of Santana and a healthy Martinez could eliminate that problem.

There have been some signs of hope. By late March, Martinez flirted with the low nineties on the radar gun. After he shut down the Detroit Tigers for four innings, catcher Ramon Castro gushed, “His fastball has that late move, where it goes whoosh and goes up. It didn’t have that rise last year.”

Martinez’s buddy El Duque’s future has looked less promising. On March 23, Hernandez finally made it into a spring-training game and gave up five runs in three innings. Minus the leg kick, he looked like a gunslinger without a gun. But El Duque caught a break. Mike Pelfrey, his possible replacement, followed him and stunk even more, giving up eight runs in four and a third innings. Pelfrey will likely keep Hernandez’s seat warm for a couple of April starts while the Cuban stays in Port St. Lucie and looks for his misplaced mojo. If he doesn’t find it, Minaya will have to make a trade; there’s nothing but cannon fodder at Triple-A.

Fittingly, it was El Duque who inadvertently created this team’s rallying cry. After a bull-pen session, Hernandez was asked if his new windup would be effective. He grinned broadly. “I don’t know,” he said. He then thrust his broad hands over his head and interlocked the fingers. “Everyone cross your fingers!”

Photo: left to right, Rob Tringali/Sportschrome; Tom DiPace/SportsChrome; Bryan Yablonsky/SportsChrome; Doug Benc/Getty Image; Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Rotation
Number represents 2007 ERA.

Is he mentally strong enough to survive the demanding fans and tabloid media in New York?

Can he keep a lid on his hothead emotions and solve the mechanical problems that have dogged him?

Will overhauling his motion help him stay healthy and eke out a few more improbable wins?

How much mileage can the Mets get from the aging legend with a fragile shoulder and a fading fastball?

Can the surprise star of the first half of last season develop the poise and personality of an ace?

Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?