Johan Santana might yet become a Met. Yet he might not. Feels like he’s already been here, won a couple of Cy Youngs, blew out his arm, started Games 1, 4 & 7 in the World Series, cost us an entire Gold Glove outfield and half a rotation and made us very glad/very sad we dealt for him.
Actually, we’ve only imagined all that. Santana is still on another team, no swap has been consummated, no trade might ever be made. But that would be OK as regards Johan Santana’s Met legacy, because even if he never shows up at Shea or Citi, he stands an excellent chance of having one.
At his current pace, Santana is headed for a spot on the All-Will Rogers Team.
Will Rogers, great American humorist and inventor of the stove (I’ll have to check on the latter) said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” We’re keying on one phrase within that quote: Never Met. There are loads of players who haven’t been fortunate enough to wear the blue, orange, sometimes black and white, but only a special sect has been rumored, reported and ruminated upon as potential Mets. Yet the deals didn’t go down. While they’re simmering on the hot stove or brushing up against July 31, however, you can close your eyes and see for yourself that player in a Mets uniform.
Then you can’t — because they’re Never Mets.
A Never Met, not to be confused with a Paper Met (like Joe Randa or Johnny Estrada) or a Spring Met (like Terry Puhl or Andres Galarraga) or a Recidivist Met (like the second comings of Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Roger Cedeño, only in name the same players they had been before) or, for that matter, a nevernude (like Tobias Fünke), is the stuff of legend. He exists primarily in the words of the griots, unsearchable by statistic, undetectable on Ultimate Mets Database or any database. He is the Met whose destiny was derailed. We were told he’d be a Met. It was broadly hinted he’d be a Met. It was just a matter of time before he became a Met.
Then the deal fell through or failed to be consummated or just didn’t happen or was never really going to happen. He never becomes a Met. He is, you see, a Never Met.
Many players are buzzed about as trade bait, of course, but there has to be a certain critical mass to bump a non-Met into Never Met territory. You have to be hit over the head for weeks, months, even years that this guy is coming. It’s gotta make loads of sense that he’ll arrive. The contract has to be no more than a formality at this point. Hands have to be figuratively or literally shaken. The player’s old cap must receive at least one coat of airbrush from the good folks at Topps. Pens must be removed from a drawer and the dotted line must beckon tantalizingly. You yourself are penciling them in on 25-man rosters and potentially potent lineup cards. It’s only something unforeseen that can mitigate the obvious, that this guy will be a Met…yet something has to and will mitigate it.
It could be jump-the-gun journalism, or wishful thinking or cold feet. Somehow a fly lands in the ointment. The dude who was going to become a Met for sure, surely does not. And he never, ever does.
Constructing the All-Will Rogers team can be tricky — Will Rogers follies, if you will — because some apparent Never Mets lose their status when they do, in fact, become Mets. Some of these players float in the atmosphere so long that it’s almost a legacy for the next general manager to complete the franchise’s quest for a particular guy. It’s like finding last year’s letters to Santa and deciding it’s probably not too late to fulfill a kid’s slightly dated wishes.
Shawon Dunston is one example of the genre. Shawon, then a young shortstop playing for the cheap Cubs, was as good as here in the offseason between 1987 and ’88 — Dunston for Kevin Elster and Roger McDowell, a new operation called Sportsline had it. But then, for whatever reason, they didn’t have it, and the Mets didn’t have Dunston….until they did in 1999, thus depriving Shawon of Never Met stardom.
Joe Torre also comes to mind on this count. The Atlanta stalwart was the focus of a hot trade rumor in the spring of 1969. He had slumped in ’68 and was wearing out his welcome down south, but he was surely a stronger righty bat than the Mets were used to, was capable of playing first where the Mets were stuck with lefty Ed Kranepool full-time and, à la Dunston, would be more or less returning to his Brooklyn roots. He was going to be a perfect fit for the Mets. The devil, however, was in the details. Atlanta demanded a package that included Amos Otis and Nolan Ryan and the Mets balked. Torre was instead sent to St. Louis for Orlando Cepeda. Joe appeared to be a classic Never Met until October 1974 when all it took to acquire him was Ray Sadecki and Tommy Moore. By then, Torre was clearly in the “former” stage of his career, as in former MVP, former All-Star and former third baseman — which didn’t stop the Mets from putting him at third base to open 1975.
At least the Mets hung on to Ryan and Otis.
Pending the resolution of Santana’s fate this winter and spring and maybe over the course of his career, we can still piece together a pretty representative All-Will Rogers Team. These men will go down in the annals of the game as the best Never Mets that ever were.
CATCHER: Yorvit Torrealba
I don’t know if I ever saw an about-to-be Met become a Never Met so quickly. In November, it was reported widely and thoroughly that Torrealba was en route from the National League champion Rockies, a sure thing to supplant previous fan favorite Paul Lo Duca. Yahoo! Sports had already listed him on its Mets’ roster. He was so close to Shea, he could smell the Italian sausages grilling on the field level. It was a matter of dotting and crossing a couple of letters, maybe completing a routine physical. Physicals are always formalities, right? Well, not this time, as one party or the other backed out somewhere late in the twelfth hour. It was never made clear why Torrealba didn’t become a Met, but it was alleged to have something to do with his health. The Torrealba camp made noise about suing the Mets, but they have since retreated to Colorado where Yorvit is a Lo Ducaesque folk hero. Brian Schneider was soon traded for and Torrealba’s reign of terror as Mets catcher was over before it started. It’s as if it Never happened.
FIRST BASE: Richie Allen
The problem with designating a Never Met first basemen is the Mets seem to eventually get their man, albeit too late (Mo Vaughn), sometimes a little ahead of the expiration date (Carlos Delgado). First base being a power position and the Mets being traditionally power-starved usually combines to unleash unrealistic images of big boppers at corner positions that dance irrepressibly in Metropolitan heads, leading management to fall all over themselves for every seen-better-days Willie Montañez, Mike Marshall or Eddie Murray who ambles by. Hard to stay a Never Met if the Mets won’t let you keep walking. Way back in the spring of ’69, however, it was the Phillies’ Richie Allen, a frightening slugger who was famously unhappy in his decrepit surroundings (the feeling was mutual at Connie Mack Stadium), who enticed the Mets — either he or Torre would have been an upgrade over incumbent Kranepool. According to George Vecsey in Joy In Mudville, the Phils agreed to swap Allen to the Mets if only the Mets would send Tom Seaver or Jerry Koosman down the Turnpike. After GM Johnny Murphy presumably laughed for a few hours, he countered with a choice of Nolan Ryan or Jim McAndrew. His Phils counterpart John Quinn asked for Amos Otis in addition to one of those young stud pitchers. No deal. Allen, converting from third to first in 1969, banged more homers (32) and RBI (89) than any Met, but the Mets — eventually bolstered by Donn Clendenon — did pretty well without him. In the winter of 1970, Otis would, in exchange for Joe Foy, wind up in Kansas City where he would four times place in the Top Ten of voting for American League Most Valuable Player, an award won by Dick Allen in 1972. Nolan Ryan, meanwhile…oh, never mind.
SECOND BASE: Mark Grudzielanek
Did anybody see the Roberto Alomar trade coming? Not really. Thus, it figures that once we were surprised with the unforeseen appearance of the veritable consensus choice for Greatest Second Baseman Ever that he would become Flop Of All Met Flops (him or George Foster) and send the Mets into the second base wilderness for a half-decade to come. Our sights were set so low post-Alomar that we would salivate over every mediocre second baseman on the open market, especially Mark Grudzielanek (or as my friend Laurie calls him, Unpronounceable Name). Grud was a free agent following the 2005 season, a year during which second nominally belonged to former shortstop Kaz Matsui but in reality was condemned community property. The Met second baseman of record, with 82 appearances on his uninspiring ledger, was Miguel Cairo. Was it any wonder that Mark Grudzielanek — a.k.a. Unremarkable Player — loomed so large in so many fans’ plans a scant two winters ago? He represented stability where there had been turmoil…a potentially whelming presence after several go-rounds of Danny Garcia, Joe McEwing, Ty Wigginton, Ricky Gutierrez, Jay Bell, Rey Sanchez and a dollop of Jose Offerman collectively underwhelmed. He also turned his back on any and all Met overtures and signed, in the spirit of Amos Otis, with the Kansas City Royals, uniting with Doug Mientkiewicz to launch a thousand lame Internet jokes about unspellable right sides of infields; no doubt we made a few ourselves. Since 2006 at second for the Mets, it’s been a little Anderson Hernandez, intermittent Jose Valentin, a dash of Damion Easley, a pinch of Marlon Anderson and will be, if you believe contracts, four more years of Luis Castillo.
SHORTSTOP: Barry Larkin
Everybody knew the Mets had their sights set on Alex Rodriguez to play short and raise the profile of the franchise once he became a free agent following the 2000 season, but in the meantime, there was the little matter of completing said 2000 season, a task that became a bit more daunting when Rey Ordoñez’s magic glove (and amazing, disappearing bat) went into cold storage once he broke his arm trying to tag F.P. Santangelo — he didn’t ding it writing child-support checks, that’s for sure. Scraping by on Melvin Mora’s improved offense and shaky fielding, GM Steve Phillips nevertheless craved a bigger and more experienced name to vacuum up ground balls. A-Rod was still in Seattle for the summer, so he turned his attention to Barry Larkin of the Reds. Cincinnati looked at their captain, their heart, their longtime soul…and said, sure you can have him. A tentative deal was announced in July. Fox harped on it endlessly during the Mets’ visit to Atlanta during the 48-hour period Larkin was granted to consider his options. While it was known Larkin had been traded to the Mets, for whom was unclear (though Alex Escobar and Paul Wilson were mentioned). It didn’t matter in the end, in light of Larkin’s 10 & 5 veto power. He exercised it decisively and passed up a chance to play on a legitimate contender alongside old teammates John Franco and Lenny Harris. Forever Red until his 2004 retirement, Larkin would finish up perennially out of the money, while the Mets — settling for an inevitable Mora-Mike Bordick swap with the Orioles — would win the pennant. Thereafter, Bordick would bolt, Mora would blossom and Alex Rodriguez, 24 + 1 or not, would maintain his own Never Met status for years to come. We give the nod to Larkin at short, however, because he was actually traded here. He just refused to show up.
THIRD BASE: Norihiro Nakamura
I have to confess this guy was a total repressed memory for me, unearthed only after a friend mentioned his name once Torrealba stopped short of Shea. Amid all the nonsense that erupted after a venomous 2002 — Art Howe, T#m Gl@v!ne, Mike Stanton — the Mets tried to slip a new third baseman under the door in time for Christmas. While they allowed fan favorite (this fan’s favorite, anyway) Edgardo Alfonzo to walk, they talked up the possibilities surrounding he who would be the first big-time Japanese infielder to test his skills in the States. Like many of his All-Will Rogers teammates, Nakamura, a power-hitting stud in Japan, was as good as delivered to Queens: two years, $7 million, souvenir jerseys no doubt coming off the line to overstock Mets Clubhouse Shops everywhere. But the erstwhile Osaka Kintetsu Buffalo slammed on the brakes before the Diamond Club could be unlocked for December press conference purposes. Some combination of popsicle toes and saved face got in the way of Nakamura replacing Alfonzo and freezing out Wigginton. Depending on whose story you buy, Norihiro said no because the Mets let word of his imminent signing leak before they were supposed to…or he just wanted better terms. In short order, Nakamura became a Never Met, reupped as a Buffalo and washed out as a Dodger while third base would become occupied by a youngster from Virginia whom, one fervently hopes, will be that rarest of breeds, a Forever Met. If our almost-imported third-sacker had gone through with the act of signing with us and had managed a decent April 2003, we can pretty safely assume that Steve Phillips would have traded David Wright for someone like Scott Elarton; hence let us tip our cap to Norihiro Nakamura for helping to cork the Mets’ perpetually recurring third base black hole by refusing to toss himself into it.
This is the toughest group of all to define, because the Mets have always sought saviors in the outfield, therefore almost every attractive/discontented outfielder tends to come up in conversation. Some, however, come up more than others. We acknowledge the recurring Never Met status
• of Gary Sheffield, allegedly almost a Met over and over for nearly two decades (because he’s related to Doc; because the Marlins are shedding salary; because the Dodgers don’t want to pay him; because the Yankees will gladly take Mike Cameron in his stead) even if he always struck us as a disastrous fit;
• of Sammy Sosa (conformed to everybody’s preconceived notions of who Omar Minaya would take a flier on although, it should be noted, he never has despite ample opportunity to since October 2004);
• of Juan Gonzalez (bottomless stockpile of power, buddies with Robbie Alomar, surely the last piece of the 2002 makeover puzzle);
• and of the outfielder it pains me for the historical record to omit from the All-Will Rogers Team, though not nearly as much as it pains me that he is, in fact, a Never Met — Vladimir Guerrero.
The Vlad trial balloon flew high if not long in early January of 2004. The Mets were going to kick their rebuilding program up a notch by signing arguably the best player in the game at a bargain rate because he was just sitting out there the whole offseason for the taking so how could we pass him up, Jim Duquette’s propaganda about getting younger and more athletic notwithstanding? I’ll never forget the frigid Saturday afternoon when I heard it was practically a done deal, Guerrero to the Mets for three years and all manner of incentive…and the even icier Saturday night when I learned the deal that got done was Guerrero to the Angels for five years and many more millions than the Mets were chatting up. I’m still not certain any of this was more than a pipe dream, but I do know Vladimir Guerrero is a Never Met (and, in turn, appreciate what a historical miracle it is that one year later the same franchise — if not exactly the same organization — targeted and captured January 2005’s best player available, Carlos Beltran).
Our choices for All-Will Rogers outfielders were all about to be Mets either right away or forever. Their names were mentioned forcefully, repeatedly and never faded from public discourse. Of those who are still active, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if they will someday shed their Never Met stripes. Regarding he who is retired, I can’t believe we never got him.
LEFT FIELD: Manny Ramirez
First off, how is it possible that the Red Sox never traded him? One gets the sense Boston signed him to get rid of him given how he has been framed since 2001 as a head case who has irreparably disturbed the vaunted Fenway karma. And how is it possible he is still a Never Met? The Mets were going to get Manny and let Manny be Manny, win over the Washington Heights crowd by bringing home their homeboy, stealing headlines from the local team that didn’t have Manny, maybe even challenge for a Wild Card somewhere in there courtesy of his booming bat. Lastings Milledge would have to go. Aaron Heilman would have to go. Mike Cameron would have to go. Everybody short of David Wright and Jose Reyes seemed to have been ticketed for the Delta Shuttle at one point or another in the mid-2000s to make room for Manny. Cripes, there was actually a mockup of an ad touting the addition of Manny Ramirez printed in the Daily News three Novembers ago. Omar would surely, surely, surely bring this Dominican Dandy to Shea where Ramirez would just as surely cause all kinds of problems not catching flies and barely running after them (you know, the same way Pedro Martinez was a bad idea for the Mets). Yet somehow the Sox didn’t let go of their left fielder and managed to win two World Series with him defending the Green Monster and driving in two tons of runs annually. FYI, he becomes a free agent after 2008.
CENTER FIELD: Ken Griffey, Jr.
I fell into Fred Sanford mode amidst SportsCenter one December night in 1999 when it was related that the Mariners had agreed to trade their future Hall of Fame outfielder, perhaps the future home run king of all of baseball, to the Mets for Armando Benitez, Roger Cedeño and Octavio Dotel. Huh? Wha’? We’re getting Ken Griffey? ELIZABETH! I’M COMING TO JOIN YOU, HONEY! Wait a sec…we didn’t actually get Ken Griffey? But you just said the Mets and Mariners agreed…what’s that? They did agree, but Griffey didn’t? He says the Mets gave him 15 minutes to decide because the Mets needed to know immediately and Griffey didn’t want to be rushed? WHAT? THEY DID WHAT? IS THAT TRUE? I listened a little more closely. Seems the Mets and Mariners could agree all they wanted, but it didn’t mean a thing because we didn’t get Junior’s swing. The report was yes, a trade was on the table, all freshly inked and prepared for notarization, but the would-be Met said, uh-uh, no, I don’t think so, I want to, uh, play closer to my Orlando-area home (how is it all those superstars who want to play close to their Orlando-area homes never choose the Rays?). Benitez and Cedeño and Dotel would not be going to Seattle and Griffey most decidedly would not be coming to New York. Roger and Octavio would be used to pry Mike Hampton loose from Houston before the month was out. Armando…well, you know what Armando did. Griffey would engineer a trade to the Orlando suburb of Cincinnati where, despite his fond childhood memories of the place, he has never been what he was in Seattle. Though his hasty thumbs-down earned him permanent villain visitor status, he continues to be mentioned now and again as someone the Mets “should go after” to compensate for their annual case of outfield shorts. But he never came and I’m assuming he will never come, certainly not as he might have at the dawn of the millennium, when it might have meant something.
RIGHT FIELD: Bobby Higginson
I’ll be damned if I know why Bobby Higginson spent close to a decade as a staple of every other Met trade rumor, but he did. Higginson wasn’t Ramirez or Griffey. That seemed to be the point. He was exactly the kind of player the Mets were destined to settle for. He was, you know, pretty good. He even demonstrated his occasional above-averageness against the Mets when he hit three homers against them in our first Interleague matchup with the Tigers. He drove in a hundred runs twice and batted .300 a couple of times. He wasn’t bad. He was a step up over whomever the Mets would theoretically replace him with. He was Bobby Higginson. Surely, in the vein of endlessly rumored slightly more than middling Cliff Floyd or B.J. Surhoff types, we were bound to get him one of these days. Imagine my surprise to have checked and discovered that a) he has been out of the Majors since 2005 and b) he is a Never Met. Still, I wouldn’t be stunned if we wind up sending Carlos Gomez to Detroit for Bobby Higginson. I just wouldn’t be.
STARTING PITCHER: Don Sutton
In these free agent days when the Mets are reasonably comfortable throwing dollars around, it is assumed the Mets will ante up and acquire the big pitcher of the moment. We’ll outbid other teams with more money (Carlos Zambrano, Barry Zito) or, as necessary, more money and more prospects (Dontrelle Willis, Roy Oswalt, Dan Haren, Erik Bedard, this Santana fellow). Whatever it takes, you hear on talk radio and read on message boards, the Mets will do it. That we never seem to come up aces means we could probably construct an entire rotation of Never Mets pitching right now. But why don’t we go back more than three decades for a scenario that seemed then and seems now out of science fiction? In the spring of 1976, typically enlightened Mets management, fearing the bargaining power of one George Thomas Seaver, explored trading him instead of signing him. With free agentry around the corner and Seaver not exactly going to come cheap (why, he might even insist on being paid like the best pitcher in baseball!), the M. Donald Idiots in the front office actually worked out a trade: Tom Seaver to Los Angeles in exchange for Don Sutton. On paper, it would be a swap of approximate peers: one was clearly on his way to Cooperstown, the other was making a very good case for inclusion. In reality, it is impossible to believe how close the Mets came to trading their Franchise player for someone who, whatever his career numbers wound up being (thirteen more wins than Seaver given his three extra seasons of activity), was not Seaver. Yet the Mets nearly did it. According to Jack Lang in The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years Of Baseball Magic, a deal was in place and all GM Joe McDonald had to do “was satisfy Sutton’s agent. Arrangements were being made to find a home for Sutton and his family in Connecticut and for Sutton to join the Mets’ radio-TV crew when his playing days were over.” The ensuing reaction when Lang broke the story “was one of anger”. To trade Seaver “was unthinkable. Such a furor was raised that the Mets backed off.” Yeah…unthinkable. As a postscript, once Sutton became a free agent on his own in the winter of 1980, the next generation of Mets ownership did make a less complicated pitch for him, but he opted instead to join Nolan Ryan in Houston. He made a brief stop in Oakland but didn’t stay long enough to be floated in a “Billy Beane’s gonna fleece the Mets again, isn’t he?” rumor.
RELIEF PITCHER: Scott Linebrink
On trade deadline day in 2006, I’m traveling. As soon as I arrive at my hotel, I turn on ESPNews to see if anything’s happened. Has it ever: Duaner Sanchez was in a taxi accident; the Mets traded Xavier Nady to Pittsburgh for a replacement in the bullpen, Roberto Hernandez; they got another pitcher in the deal whose name was vaguely familiar, Oliver Perez, and he was being turned around and shipped to San Diego for more relief reinforcement, Scott Linebrink. Good, I thought. Without Sanchez, we’re going to need all the help we can get — Hernandez and Linebrink…that’s the ticket. Sometime before I unpacked, however, the Padres backed out, so no matter what ESPN promised me, we were stuck with Perez, the dude with the astronomical ERA (6.63), the horrendous won-lost record (2-10) and the alleged flightiness. Damn, what a shame we couldn’t solidify the pen with Linebrink. Oh well, at least this other kid is a lefty. Maybe Rick Peterson can make something out of him. Moral of the story in case we don’t get Johan Santana and one of those we didn’t trade for him becomes a star for us: Not all Never Mets entail a tale of woe.