|Santana had help in his no-no. (US Presswire)|
The Mets’ no no-no streak was never quite as unlikely as we made it out to be. The San Diego Padres, founded in 1969, have never thrown a no-hitter.* The Cleveland Indians have not thrown one in more than 30 years, The Milwaukee Brewers have thrown only one in their history (Juan Nieves, of all people) and the Toronto Blue Jays have also thrown just one (more fitting — it was Dave Stieb). The Mets, with a 50-year drought, also did not set the record for most consecutive years without a no-hitter … they were not especially close. The Philadelphia Phillies did not throw one for 57 years.
*Though the Padres have been no-hit seven times.
And as far as the Mets having a lot of great pitchers who threw no-hitters elsewhere, well, yes that’s kind of interesting in the “Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln” sort of way. But many, many, many great pitchers never threw no-hitters at all. Greg Maddux never threw a no-hitter. Steve Carlton never threw a no-hitter. Tom Glavine … Pete Alexander … Don Drysdale … Don Sutton … Sam McDowell … Pedro Martinez (though I always counted the nine perfect innings he threw against the Padres in 1995) … Whitey Ford … Fergie Jenkins … John Smoltz … and the most unlikely of all, Roger Clemens … none of these pitchers threw no-nos. How in the world did Roger Clemens, one of the most unhittable pitchers in history, never throw a no-hitter?
Well, even the Clemens thing is not that unlikely. I mean how many no-hitters would you have expected Roger Clemens to throw? One? That’s how many Bob Gibson threw … and Walter Johnson … and Tom Seaver … and Jim Palmer. If you would only expect Clemens to throw one no-hitter (or maybe two), you can’t really say it’s unlikely that it didn’t happen.
So, no, the Mets’ no-hitter streak was not so unusual. But it felt unusual. And that’s what made Friday night so cool. I’ve written this before: Sports are driven by context. I hear people say — and I might have been known to say it myself — that they don’t understand why anyone likes NASCAR: It’s just cars going in circles. But if you care about the sport (or if you have daughters who suddenly care), and those aren’t just cars but they are people — people with rivals, with inspiring stories, with infuriating qualities and so on — then suddenly it means a lot. Let’s face it, you can reduce all our games to the “Just” line — it’s just cars going in circles … it’s just tall men putting balls in baskets … it’s just oversized daredevils in helmets smashing into each other … it’s just a guy with a bat hitting a ball that everyone chases … and so on. They’re all “just” games unless we infuse them with meaning.
That’s the great thing: We DO infuse them with meaning. You did not have to know a single thing about soccer to appreciate the scene when Manchester City, with the most absurd comeback, won the Premier League for the first time in 44 years. Was it really THAT unlikely for Manchester City to go four decades without winning? I don’t know enough about it, but from afar I would have said no. Someone could have told me that Manchester City had NEVER won, and it would not have surprised me. In my limited exposure, Manchester United seems to win the thing every other year — they’re like the Yankees. Arsenal wins a lot. Chelsea has been good lately. Liverpool dominated for a while. But it doesn’t matter if it actually IS unlikely. It only matters that it SEEMS unlikely. That’s the power of these games. And that’s why people were crying with joy when Manchester City won.
The Mets’ no-hitter drought was a fun and wonderful quirk of baseball history. It so perfectly fit that team: The Mets — second fiddle in New York, the all-time losers of the 1960s until the miracle, Joe Torre’s awful teams of the 1970s, the underachieving party team of the 1980s, the sporadic team that managed to be so absurdly terrible and so achingly close to great the last 20 years, the favorite team of Mr. Met — had never thrown a no-hitter. Well, sure, that story line works. As time went on, as the streak went on, as even expansion teams like Toronto and Seattle and Colorado and Tampa Bay broke their no-hitter maidens, as former Mets like Tom Seaver (who came close three times with the Mets), Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan* all threw no-hitters, people began attaching significance to it all.
*I always thought that Mets fans including Nolan Ryan in the “Isn’t it amazing that the Mets have never thrown a no-hitter” conversation were being a little silly. Seaver, yes, I get that. Gooden, yes, I get that too. But Nolan Ryan? He only started 74 games for the Mets (even so, he did throw a one-hitter … though the one hit was by Denny Doyle, who led off the game). Mets fans might want to lament trading Ryan for Jim Fregosi, and that’s perfectly understandable. But it’s not surprising at all that Ryan did not throw a no-hitter while with the Mets.
Once people started to attach significance to the streak, they began looking for reasons. I saw Keith Olbermann say something on Twitter about Shea Stadium being a factor, about how it has so much fair territory. I heard from Mets fans that the pressure of throwing a no-hitter as a New Yorker — and especially as the drought extended — was too much for pitchers. I heard numerous other theories, including jinxes. I’m not downplaying any of these. I’m just saying that when statistical anomalies happen, we tend to infuse them with meaning. It’s one of our charms as sports fans.
So, when Johan Santana got through five innings with a no-hitter against St. Louis on Friday night, there was this buzz. Twitter began to thump. My phone began to light up with texts. It wasn’t just that a Mets pitcher was threatening a no-hitter — it usually takes five innings of no-hit ball to get people hoping — but it was Johan. People may disagree with me, but I think Johan has a Hall of Fame case. Yes, he only has 136 victories, and his 3.06 ERA doesn’t blow the mind, and he doesn’t even have 2,000 strikeouts. But for five and half years — second half of 2003 to 2008 — he wasn’t just the best pitcher in baseball, he was FAR AND AWAY the best pitcher in baseball, and this in the time of Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia and others. He won two Cy Young Awards and really could have won two more. I don’t know how the rest of his career will go, and I do understand that it will be tough for him to make a Hall of Fame case unless he bulks up those career numbers. But Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers in baseball history for an extended period of time.
And with Santana, 33 years old and coming back from a major injury, with his career very much in doubt, with the Mets in this weird netherworld of ownership confusion and money problems … this was just a thrilling moment. Santana has a no-hitter through five! Yes, Johan Santana! He could be the first! Wouldn’t that be amazing?
The no-hit bid ended in the sixth inning, when Carlos Beltran bashed a ground ball just fair down the third-base line. How perfectly Met … not only was the no-hitter broken up, but it was broken up by a former Met who — like Santana — had his own New York demons. Only this time, Mr. Met was smiling. Umpire Adrian Johnson called it foul. Replays showed that Johnson, like Jim Joyce, had blown the call. But (and it’s amazing how this works) Adrian Johnson will not be vilified for his missed call. He did not have a tearful apology for Carlos Beltran after the game. He will, instead, never have to buy another drink in New York City.
See, when it comes to umpires’ missed calls, it’s all a question of timing.
Santana forced Beltran to ground out, and the no-hitter continued. In the seventh inning, Mets leftfielder Mike Baxter chased down a long, wind-blown fly ball, caught it awkwardly, and smashed into the wall. Mike Baxter injured his shoulder making the catch. Mike Baxter grew up in Queens. Mike Baxter too will never have to buy another drink in New York City. The no-hitter continued. In the eighth, Beltran’s blooper looked like it could fall for a hit, but it did not. Daniel Murphy caught it. The no-hitter continued.
And then, the ninth inning, Matt Holliday’s soft liner looked like it had a chance. It was caught. Allen Craig’s soft liner looked like it had a chance. It too was caught. That brought up David Freese, the final out, and Mets fans were ALREADY crying, and the names of Seaver and Gooden and Matlack and Koosman and Leiter and Cone and so many others were being invoked, and Freese — who has shown a spectacular knack for doing the right thing in the spotlight — struck out on a changeup that dropped to the dirt. Santana screamed. Mets attacked him. Fans hugged and bawled and tweeted about their lifelong dreams coming true.
It wasn’t Santana’s greatest performance. He walked five. He gave up that foul-ball hit to Beltran. This is a man who once struck out 17 without walking anyone. But it WAS, of course, his greatest performance, because of what it meant to people. Whenever magical things like this happen in sports, I think about how I would explain it to someone who has no understanding of the game. How would you explain to someone the Mets’ no-hitter streak? Was it unprecedented? No. Heck, the Padres still don’t have one. Was it important? No. It’s not like no-hitters count more in the standings. Was it somehow cursing the organization? No. The Mets have won two World Series, and they appeared in another not so long ago. This isn’t the Kansas City Royals we’re talking about here.
So what was it? Well, I guess I would explain it this way: In sports — and especially in baseball — we like to count things. We like to count the hits. We like to count the runs scored. We like to count the runs driven in. Over time, we have grown to count other things — like consecutive games with hits or times that a pitcher holds a lead in the ninth inning. It’s our nature as baseball fans. For 50 years, the New York Mets had never done something that thrills us as baseball fans; they had never pitched a game without allowing a hit. It’s a rare occurrence, and it has special meaning, perhaps because of the tension in those final innings, when we wonder: “Will he or won’t he?”
For 50 years, with the Mets, the answer was always: “No, he won’t.”
On Friday night, finally, the answer was: “Yes, he will.”