By In Stuff

No Mo No No-Nos (Mets Edition)

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.”

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27 Responses to No Mo No No-Nos (Mets Edition)

  1. clemenx says:

    I agree about context.

    I am Venezuelan AND a Mets fan. I’m stupidly happy mostly for the Mets fan part, to be honest I really don’t care about Johan’s and myself’s nationality at all right now. The no-no it’s obviously a big story here but people don’t understand why I’m extra happy this really means a lot for us Mets fans.

  2. Kerry says:

    Oh Joe…how is it that you ALWAYS fine the right chord? This article could have gone in a thousand directions, but identifying the context of the streak in the Mets’ (and their fans) identity is absolutely the right way to go. Another fantastic job. My wife thinks I’m absolutely absurd for getting so worked up about this stuff, but you get me.

  3. David says:

    HOF Cases:

    (Dave Stieb)+(20 Years)=(Johan Santana)

  4. garik16 says:

    You’re right it’s about context. It wasn’t just that Seaver didn’t have a Mets No-No, but that he had one after the infamous trade to the Reds. It wasn’t just that Gooden – supposed to be the next Seaver – or Cone – Met Ace – failed to get No-Nos for the Mets, it’s that they did them afterwards for the hated Yankees.

  5. It’s one of our charms as humans.*

    After reading the book “The Drunkard’s Walk”

  6. Jamie says:

    All I know is that it got my mom to call me twice; once in the sixth, then again, when Freese struck out. Crying. She was so excited for the Mets and watching history.

    We’re Cardinals fans.

  7. Ed Fett says:

    Complete-game pitching performances that are better than a 5-walk, no-hitter:

    – perfect game
    – no-hit game with fewer than 5 walks
    – no-walk game with 3 or fewer hits: all singles
    – no-walk game with 2 or fewer hits: doubles or less
    – no-walk game with 2 hits: triple or less and a single
    – no-walk game with 1 hit, homerun
    – 3-walk game with 1 hit: single
    – 2-walk game with 2 hits: both singles
    – 2-walk game with 1 hit: double or less
    – 1-walk game with 2 hits: both singles
    – 1-walk game with 1 hit: triple or less

    • adam says:

      You’re such an uplifting guy, Ed.

    • Joe Sherry says:

      I see where you’re going with that (total bases), and even though I can’t completely agree (there’s just something more magical about a no hitter with walks compared to a no walk one hitter), I would definitely scratch the “no walk game with 1 hit, homerun”

      Assuming that the hits are scattered in every other instance, I can’t accept that a game where the pitcher gives up a run is better than a game where he does not. I’d argue that a 7 hit game with no runs scored is greater than a 1 hit game with a homerun. The damage done should count more.

    • Ed Fett says:

      I based that on run expectancy per event, not total bases, but yeah. Low-walk, low-hit performances are under-honored.

    • Dan R says:

      The batter has a bat, with which he is supposed to hit the ball. The pitcher throws the ball, with the goal of making it difficult for the batter to hit it. From this (admittedly) essentialized perspective, the celebration of the no-hitter is much easier to understand. The zero in the “hits” column represents the total domination of one team by a pitcher and his defense.

      It’s arbitrary, but not in quite the same way as a gold record or the Dow at 10,000; there’s a zero there, an impermeable lower bound, and I think proximity to absolutes gets us excited. Perhaps such things ease our sense of mortality, connect us with the infinite, or place us closer to god; I don’t know.

      What I do know is that our love of the no-hitter is dimming. The next generation, armed with fractionated win shares and the like, will internalize a more complex view of quality pitching, with the result that the perfect game will be the new no-hitter. Will the no-hitter be relegated to the status of a novelty achievement which, like the cycle, is more notable for its rarity than its quality?

      There are great achievements in single-game baseball which combine rarity and quality: four homers, the perfect game, 20 strikeouts. For us, perhaps, this is the current troika of nonpareils. If one imagined a spectrum of semi-great things, the no-hitter and the cycle might occupy its opposing poles.

    • jim says:

      I agree. The blown call by the ump (the ‘foul’ fair ball) that led to the no-hitter is explanation enough that no-hitters have more to do with luck or circumstance than “domination” by a pitcher.

      And I think the fascination with no-hitters takes away from greater pitching performances. (i.e., Halladay’s no-hitter against the Reds in game 1 of the divisional playoffs 2010 vs. Lincecum’s 1-hit, 14 strike-out gem against the Braves in the same round. Halladay himself admitted Lincecum pitched a better game. And Lincecum did, in a much tighter, low-scoring game. Though you wouldn’t know it from the response each game got.)

      And as far as the generation thing goes, I can say my dad is far more enamored by a no-hitter than my brother or I have ever been. What we ask when we hear of a no-hitter – how may walks? how many ball hit hard?

    • Chris says:

      That’s the problem with walks. I don’t know how you can say “The zero in the “hits” column represents the total domination of one team by a pitcher and his defense”. Giving guys a free base is not a dominating performance. Maybe 1 or 2 walks, but past that it weakens the achievement.

    • As a Cardinals fan, I remember watching Jose Jimenez almost lose his no-hitter (the game itself, not the no-hit bid) against Arizona in 1999. No-hitters are still something special though, if only for their rarity. Here’s a thought experiment: from the fan’s perspective, would it have been more special if Jose actually did lose the game while maintaining his no-hitter? It was a distinct possibility, and I remember at one point in the game, it looked likely. What would happen on the field after something like that?

      Also, has there ever been a no-hitter that ended with a walk off hit (by the no-no pitcher’s team, I mean)?

  8. Excellent article. Great take. This explains exactly why I was in tears last night watching this

  9. Mark says:

    It *has* been hard as a Mets fan being on the receiving end repeatedly and never getting one. And I think it’s safe to say that the Mets’ legacy of pitching excellence is just a -bit- deeper than the Padres’ (and 7 years longer).

    So it was exciting to watch that streak end, but it was better because it was Johan. Even though his arm won’t let him be as brilliant as he once was, he’s using his brain and his determination to get terrific results. It’s no coincidence that his teammates think he’s awesome.

  10. P "N" K says:

    I’d vote him in the HOF first ballot — but then again I am a Twins fan who was in the stands when he struck out 17 Rangers in 8 innings.

    So I guess I would be biased.

    Congrats, Johan!

  11. NMark W says:

    I’m thrilled for Johan and the little Metsies fans and for Terry Collins. Terry showed some true emotions. He’s the biggest Johan fan in NYC!

  12. Ima Ryma says:

    ‘Twas a 50 year (count ’em) drought –
    The New York Mets no no hit streak.
    Part of what baseball’s all about,
    One rut or tuther to feel bleak.
    But then two thousand twelve, June first,
    Johan Santana pitched to fate,
    And from Mets fans tears of joy burst –
    A Mets no hitter on that date.
    Of course the ump made a bad call,
    Sixth inning called a base hit foul.
    Replay showed it a fair ground ball.
    But no vile words did Mets fans howl.

    Droughts come and go and always will,
    But feel one ended – what a thrill!

  13. For “five and a half years”… this exceeds the Koufax test. He should be in the Hall.

    • jim says:

      I 100% agree with this logic.

    • Dinky says:

      In their best five year consecutive run, Santana’s ERA+ averaged just under 160, Koufax’s 168. Koufax in 1961, which gets discarded, also set the NL record for strikeouts in a season, got some MVP consideration, while pitching in perhaps the worst ballpark ever for a left handed pitcher. So Santana does not exceed Koufax’s string by time or equal Koufax by quality. Both pitched 12 seasons, and Santana’s 12th season is ongoing, but as of right now Koufax’s 12 seasons included 350 more IP, 30 more shutouts, 29 more wins, 122 more CG, about 450 more K’s, while Santana has a better overall ERA+. I think Santana has a great shot at earning his place in the HOF without the 300 wins or other huge counting stats, but he needs a couple more good years yet (not great years, merely good years, 200 IP 120 ERA+) because, great as he is, he isn’t Koufax great.

  14. njwv says:

    Sort of surprised that no one’s killed you for the “Arsenal wins a lot” comment.

    Very happy for Mets fans though. It’s funny how certain achievement mean a lot. Still. Even though they shouldn’t mean anything really.

  15. jim says:

    As for the “just” argument, just driving a car is only one of those examples that I do on the way to work every morning…

  16. Well, Big Train pitched 531 complete games and 110 shutouts. Clemens threw 118 complete games and 46 shutouts. Given those numbers it seems more surprising that Johnson threw only one no-hitter than that Clemens never threw one at all. Of course, both of them were the hardest pitcher to hit for four seasons.

  17. knievel says:

    I watched the no-hitter on TV from home, but I was at Shea for Johan’s best performance as a Met on the second-to-last game of 2008 against the Marlins. Three days after throwing a then career high 125 pitches in a win, playing hurt (but nobody knew until he had knee surgery a few days later), complete game, shut out, three hits, facing elimination from the playoffs at the end of an historic skid.

    In both games we got to cheer when he came out to bat in the bottom of the 8th.

    The Mets of course got eliminated the next day.

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