This is the fun part. This is the moment when Johan Santana can do no wrong. He will step up to a podium. He will be handed a uniform top and cap that each of us, by some bizarre coincidence, owns some iteration of. He will slip the top over his dress shirt, slap the cap on his noggin and smile the second-widest smile in all of Metdom. The rest of us will be tied for first.
This is the moment when we stare in awe at what it says on the back of his uniform top.
This is the moment when we will gaze upon SANTANA 57 and attempt to fathom the bizarre color scheme (orange? blue? really?) in which it is suddenly available.
This is the moment when I pinch you and you pinch me and neither of us awakes.
This is the moment when we ask ourselves, “Opening Day…Johan or Pedro? Pedro or Johan?”
This is the moment when we don’t see our shadow, because there are no more weeks of winter, just a few days before spring.
This is the moment when we dare glimpse ahead, not behind, to fall.
This is the moment when we don’t look back because we no longer feel the discomfiting presence of something that not only gained on us but completely overtook us.
This is the moment when collapse recedes and promise beckons.
This is the moment when it stops being last year and commences to be now, the age of Pitching for the New York Mets, Number Fifty-Seven, Johan Santana.
What a moment. What a God Almighty moment.
There will be other moments similar in nature; first moments. There will be the first moment the uniform and cap go on and it’s not ceremonial. That moment is only a week and change away. There will be the first moment that garb gets a workout, then the first moment it is test-driven in exhibition play, then, at last, the real thing: the first moment when SANTANA 57, blue trimmed in orange on a field of gray or black, will be found on a mound in a stadium where the score is kept in ink. On March 31, no later than April 1, Johan Santana of the New York Mets will throw a pitch to Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins.
At that moment, there will be bliss. But also at that moment, Johan Santana is on the clock. From there on out, clear to 2014, he has to earn every moment we are dying to share with him. As soon as SANTANA 57 officially enters the ranks of New York (N.L.), as soon as that first pitch is recorded, the moment passes.
Then he’s a pitcher who has to retire Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla and Jeremy Hermidia and everybody else attired in teal. There’s nobody else we’d rather have attempt this feat, but we do need to see it done. We need to see Marlins go down and, five days hence, watch Braves encounter the same fate. Five days after that, give or take, we require his considerable assistance in flattening the Brewers. Off in the April distance, there will be Nationals and Cubs who must also be overcome — preferably overwhelmed — by our ace pitcher. We will feel great about Johan Santana’s chances before he takes on these opponents, better than we would about anybody else’s chances in the same role, but the truth is he will be functionally no different from every Mets pitcher who has started a Mets game since Roger Craig. We will judge him not as our beau ideal, but as tonight’s or today’s starting pitcher.
When he’s on, we will embrace him. When he’s off — and on some night or day, he will be — we will squirm.
We will wonder what we are paying for, why we gave up so much, how we wound up committing to someone for so long when we understand clearly that no pitcher should be relied on to age gracefully, healthily and eternally successfully.
We will lapse into that oh no mode our particular breed reaches faster than anyone else in either league.
We will invoke the names of others for whom we had such high expectations, those who came to us with undeniably glittering credentials, those who invariably (we swear) let us down.
We will hear word of progress achieved by one of the youngsters we surrendered to secure our ace pitcher’s services and we will press our default button and mutter on about our endless history of shortsightedness.
We will cringe when helpful commentators and columnists remind us who failed when wearing that same model uniform top and cap our ace pitcher is wearing now and we have been wearing all along.
We will likely conveniently forget that one off night or day is just one off night or day across the length of a very long-term contract.
We will definitely forget that one off night or day is just one off night or day if there happen to be two of them strung together consecutively.
And if we are morons, we will boo.
Johan Santana will, by March 31, April 1 at the latest, descend into the morass of mortals, nestled between Ken Sanders and Rafael Santana on the roster that runs from Aase to Zimmer. He will be a Met and he will be continually judged, not altogether fairly. He may bow in our midst as the highest-paid pitcher in baseball and the most talented pitcher in baseball and the best pitcher in baseball, but in real time, he will be only a pitcher on the Mets who better locate his fastball if he doesn’t want to put Ramirez or Uggla or Hermidia on base and dig us a hole early. He has to pitch the way we imagine him pitching when he ascends that podium this afternoon. He is surely capable of matching, within reason, the lofty dreams, goals and standards we have been setting for him since we heard he became ours, ours, OURS! He’s just not capable of doing so on every single pitch he will ever throw for us.
We will not always remember that, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how hard we try. In a sense that has little to do with pitching and everything to do with perception, it is all inevitably downhill from here…even if this singular southpaw figures to carry with him the gentlest such incline possible.
That’s why today is the fun part, the moment when Johan Santana can do no wrong. This is when SANTANA 57 fits absolutely perfectly on the back of a New York Mets uniform, when a New York Mets cap fits absolutely perfectly on the head of Johan Santana, when that smile we’re smiling fits all of us absolutely perfectly.