Years from now, you'll look back and you'll say that this was the moment, this was the place where America remembered what it means to hope. For many months, we've been teased, even derided for talking about hope. But we always knew that hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it and to work for it and to fight for it.
—Random White Sox fan, Des Moines, Ia., January 3, 2008, presumably thrilled that the best pitcher in his team's division might be switching leagues real soon.
We are tentatively slated to post something on Johan Santana of the New York Mets every five days for six months over a seven-year span. May as well continue to get used to this new and delightful assignment by dwelling some more on his glorious alightment in Flushing.
The second day of the rest of our lives is underway. Johan Santana is still in a Mets uniform top and cap as far as we know; presumably he, like we, slept in them. The fine print says he is legally obligated to remain clad in such garments until early fall 2014, when the most recently born Mets fan is in second grade, when today's sixth graders are high school graduates, when I am slated to be disintegrating in my early fifties.
Johan Santana, world's greatest pitcher, a Met for the foreseeable future and then some…we should only live so long.
It will go by fast enough. Piazza was signed for seven years and before we knew it, 1999 was 2002 was 2005 and he was gone. I'm not necessarily campaigning for time to fly. It just does, except probably as we wait for Johan to take the ball and shove it down some Marlin throat. That can't happen soon enough.
That feeling of anticipation is alone worth some small percentage of the Santana contract. A few wins, a few big outs, a world championship or seven — those would be nice, too. It's February, so I'm eschewing all protocol and getting ahead of myself on that count. What the hell? For $150 million, dream big.
A dozen years ago, a friend won tickets to the ESPYs at Radio City and invited me along. It was quite the event, loads of stars, lots of sports, a good time. But what stays with me the most is a film ESPN showed to illustrate how quickly fortunes can change. From twelve months earlier, we saw clips of a dismal jockscape: baseball on strike, Michael Jordan in the minors, Magic Johnson in street clothes. By February '96, as the whole audience knew, baseball, Michael and Magic were back. Everybody in the hall got it. Everybody in the hall cheered. It felt so good to replace those dour images with something sunnier.
Make no mistake, this change of fortunes, this update in the video montage from Mets disappearing into their clubhouse to one very special Met materializing at the Diamond, is the turn that saved Mets fans' psyches. It shouldn't have had to, but it did. We should be mature enough by now to accept that while we were coming off something gruesome, it wasn't the trifecta of 2002, 2003 and 2004 when we didn't know where our next decent player was coming from, only that it wasn't going to be John Thomson, Rey Sanchez or Shane Spencer. We should have lengthened our memories far back enough to the acquisitions of Martinez, Beltran, Delgado, Wagner and Alou. We should have believed a little harder that the New York Mets under current management were capable of doing what it took to get Johan Santana.
Instead, not a few of us believed we'd somehow screw up everything that followed the provisional trade, that negotiations would fall apart last Friday afternoon, that the Santana party would ask for an absurd if suitable sum and the Mets would counter by offering a sack of talc. (I also believed that with :01 on the clock last Sunday that Eli Manning might hand the ball off to Larry Csonka's hip and Herm Edwards would recover it for a Patriot touchdown.) But it didn't happen that way. Jeff Wilpon said the Mets, when faced with a potential impasse, got “creative”. Creative? At $150 million, what does creative mean? Drawing smiley faces on the memo line of the check? Creative would imply the Mets will have to create some more money for this revised payroll of theirs.
Would it be gauche to sell the naming rights to the naming rights? Banco Popular Presents Citi Field, Brought To You By Drake's Cakes?
Is the contract for too much and for too long? Yes and yes, of course. That's my rational answer, but we've all been fans long enough to know that rational answers are useless in paying for sports talent. And this is sports talent at its most capable and accomplished. We're going to be paying out every orifice for seats at Shea Stadium in 2008 and Citi Field, if we can get 'em, in 2009 and beyond. There is nothing on the back of the tickets that links price of admission to quality of ballclub. Who wants to pay top dollar for bargain basement baseball? Once upon a time, M. Donald Grant swore on a stack of reserve clauses that he had to eschew free agents in order to keep ticket prices down. Ticket prices were indeed stable in the '70s. And the Mets grew stagnant. There was also a defining juncture when the Mets spent, got burnt and opted to put away their wallet for a half-decade. Thankfully, the Mets aren't acting like this is 1993 anymore than they are pretending it's 1977.
Look at this way: We're not paying Gl@v!ne his absurd ransom anymore. After '08, Delgado will probably be off the books. Those are big savings right there. Plus, nobody will need to be paid to keep clean 13,000 upper deck seats that won't exist next year (that saves ten bucks a year right there). Push to shove, we'll scrape together our Santana money and pass it over gladly if not as often as we'd like. We'd have bought war bonds if it meant the difference between having or not having the best pitcher in baseball. It's getting gouged for the Lohses and Livans that pisses us off.
It's too much money in a rational world, about as reasonable as it gets in baseball. It's too many years for a pitcher, few of whom are unrelentingly awesome from ages 29 through 35, but it's the market. You hesitate like hell when Barry Zito's agent asks for seven years because almost no pitcher should be signed for seven years. You swallow for only an instant before succumbing to Santana's parameters because “almost” excludes this guy. The economics of this game are obscene regardless of where Johan pitches. Somebody was eventually gonna pay the best pitcher in baseball his weight in gold and Google. Might as well be us.
Besides, the market was our friend, just like it was the Yankees' when A-Rod's people discovered teams weren't lining up for his bat and personality (bat, mostly). As with Rodriguez, the market for Santana was so prohibitive that nobody went there. It's an assessment not as colorful as Yogi Berra's description of a crowded restaurant, but it's accurate. The Twins had only three teams willing to afford Santana and two of them weren't as interested as was generally thought.
Did it really all come down to Phil Hughes? Did the Yankees not lunge at sending Phil Hughes to Minnesota for Johan Santana? I find that hard to swallow, but maybe that's because it's been so long since the Mets have raised a pitching prospect who pitched very well for them. I was the guy who didn't flinch at sending Kazmir to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano because I just assumed “Met pitching prospect” equaled inevitable disappointment. Could it be this Phil Hughes, who sure showed flashes in '07, is so good that he's worth the patience? In the generic sense (that is, factor out the team he pitches for), it would be a healthy sight to see. Consider all those players drafted and developed by all those teams. Once in a while, one of them should be more than trade bait. If that's Hughes' destiny, we'll grit our teeth given his uniform, but so be it. We got Johan. We needed Johan.
Would have a willingness to include Hughes in a deal for Santana doomed us? That's the line we were fed last week, as if Brian Cashman was pulling the levers for the Mets. I don't know, but wasn't the same thing said of Carlos Beltran, that the Yankees could have thrown their own ton of money at him and he would have come running? Maybe the Yankees — who have tons of money and have never been shy about shoveling it out — didn't think the best pitcher in baseball was worth getting creative over. Maybe they didn't think the free agent catch of three winters ago, who would have filled a huge void of theirs very nicely, wasn't worth their vast resources either. Let others spin. Santana, like Beltran, is a Met by free will as much as by big bucks.
It took a lot of money and it took four players. The money was the bigger obstacle. I'm sorry to be reminded of how disposable our minor leaguers have become. I'm sorry there is nobody, not even Fernando Martinez, whom I would let get in the way of Johan Santana. I remember Reyes and Wright coming through the system and sooner prostrating myself across the 7 tracks at rush hour before permitting them to be traded. One winter ago, we were allegedly sowing our future on the farm, tending to crops named Humber and Gomez — and Milledge — among others. No skin off the organization's nose that those fellows plus two more thought of pretty highly are gone. Homegrown Mets living up to their Baseball America notices would warm our cockles and so forth, but in the year-to-year reality of the game today, you sometimes simply have to live for the year in front of you…seven years, in this case.
Let's be clear on something: If Gomez or Guerra or Humber or Mulvey succeed as Twins, this trade isn't a disaster. Steve Renko was a serviceable pitcher for the Expos for several years, but the Donn Clendenon trade was a winner for the Mets. They can't all be Parsons for Grote, Allen/Ownbey for Hernandez, Zinter for Brogna. They can't all be blind robberies. Just because they're not doesn't mean they're not winners for ya. The Twins sent us a two-time Cy Young winner in his prime. They deserve something for their troubles (besides, the Twins have won four times as many division titles as us in this decade; won't cry for thee, Minneapolis).
Unless you are confident you have the moral equivalent of Johan Santana warming up in Binghamton or thereabouts, you trade a prospect or four to get Johan Santana. Gomez can run and field and perhaps hit. Humber gutted it back from Tommy John. I liked the little I saw of them. I won't miss them one bit, not when Santana's pitching for us. Same for the two prospects I never saw. Santana pitches like Santana for enough of his contract, then we won't care how good Guerra or Mulvey become.
If Frank Viola had arrived in New York in August 1989 and pitched the Mets to a pennant or if he hadn't eased up in the second half of '90 and we'd gotten to the World Series or if he and everybody else here hadn't fallen from grace in '91, Rick Aguilera could have saved 300 of Kevin Tapani's wins in Minnesota and their absence wouldn't have mattered. If Joe Foy or Jim Fregosi or Steve Reed had contributed to the greater good instead of dismal transaction folklore, we could have sucked up, to some extent, the blossoming elsewhere of Amos Otis or Nolan Ryan or Jason Bay (all right, maybe not Ryan). It will be tempting, because it's what we do, to groan that Humber is pitching really well or that Gomez is leading the A.L. in stolen bases. Don't do it. It's not fair in light of the way we are oohing and aahing at the adorable southpaw deposited on our doorstep in February 2008.
In other Februarys, tortured Met past compels me to add, George Foster and Robbie Alomar were steals that cost only money and callowness, too. This isn't those. Foster was up there in years. Alomar was, too. He was also a little too available all the time considering his Hall of Fame résumé. Santana was on the block because he was packing up. I will not wallow in unpromising precedent. This is a better deal, a new deal, a fair deal. This is change we can believe in.
Will the Mets win behind a rotation of Santana, Martinez, Maine, Perez and one more guy? Sure could. I didn't buy into the notion that we were doomed if it was Martinez, Maine, Perez and two more guys. Pedro will always have my confidence as long as he has his well-being. If Maine and Perez were somebody else's 26-year-olds coming off 15-win seasons, we'd have been drooling over them. El Duque is his usual bag of aches and tricks and Pelfrey continues to be young and throw hard; some people were writing off Eli Manning at 24, too. With Johan out front, however, they all just got better. (Good article breaking down the particulars from Mets Geek.)
The obvious historical allegory is Viola from the Twins, who didn't work out so well, but Santana to the Mets reminds me of Pedro to the Red Sox — big-time pitcher turns enormous on the bigger stage — or even Schilling to that same franchise. Schilling in the winter between '03 and '04 was exactly the tonic that a team that had collapsed, albeit in a matter of innings, needed to pick itself up and dust itself off. For all his self-obsessed tics, Schilling (joining, as it happened, Pedro Martinez) provided talent along with a megadose of confidence to a clubhouse with a complex. Four years later, you'd have to acknowledge Curt Schilling has worked out nicely in Boston.
It's also worth pointing out that another outstanding pitcher with multiple Cy Youngs in his cabinet was once sent away on account of money and brought in return four young players considered pretty good with okey-doke upsides. That pitcher, Tom Seaver, was just sent the wrong way is all.
Are there other areas in the here and now the Mets must address on the staff and elsewhere on the team? Sure. I suppose. But we got Johan Santana, so I have to say whatever. It won't be a good answer come the first one-run loss, but it works for me this February.
Not sure if this is the new era overheated and amnesiac columnists have been hyping. The Mets have made good trades and bold moves before. They've been legit contenders, sometimes even division winners, in the past couple of years. Again, this ain't the Jim Duquette Dollar Tree Special we were fixing up. I don't want to give an ounce of credit to the 2007 Mets but that wasn't some 66-95 deep-seated mining disaster we watched fold. September was a failure and August wasn't so hot either, et al, but the Mets were not in dire need of reconstruction. That's not the change we can believe in because the change went into effect in the winter of '04-'05. We got that change when Omar replaced the Duke and the Wilpons remembered they're not the Royals.
What's encouraging is Minaya and ownership recognized it wasn't good enough to stay 88-74 and take their best shot with fifth starters galore. As pleasing an anti-depressant as this trade may have been to ease the wounds that linger from the C-word, that wasn't the point. We need to separate ourselves from that kind of thinking. We don't need sops. We don't need distractions, no matter what disconnected scribes who dare to speak for the interests of “the fan base” typed in the past months. We're not idiots. We don't require moves for moves' own sake. We needed pitching. That's why we're so happy, not because bright and shiny objects mesmerize us so. Trading four maybe-prospects for the one and only Johan Santana and then compensating him powerfully was smart baseball. If it's smart marketing or helpful public relations, all the better. There's no better publicity, however, than participating in baseball games deep into October — and collecting eleven wins if possible.
It's worth noting that we didn't give up Jose Reyes as John Harper insisted we must (twice, comically), just as we never traded Reyes for Tejada or David for Dontrelle, two “the Mets must make this move” ruminations among dozens I recall reading in the undistant past. Maybe the Santana move marks the moment when the Mets won't strike the agenda-setting press as desperate for its conventional wisdom gatekeeping, no longer offer guinea pig fodder to rumormongers who figure the Mets are so mired in futility that they'll trade anybody they have for anybody somebody else has because anybody somebody else has has got to be an improvement over whoever got stuck on those pathetic Mets. Maybe it also means we are no longer focused on keeping up with loathsomes for back pages or worrying about currying the favor of any given community (does anybody really believe we would have gone so hard after our Matsui if another local team hadn't gotten their own Matsui?). This deal was made not to stick it to the Yankees, but to the Phillies. It wasn't made to re-establish our bona fides in Venezuela either. If it extends The Mets Brand, it will be because The Mets Brand stands for winning, not groping.
Can we do that? Can we not only win but begin to think well of ourselves and our team and not be caught up in outdated drama? In the wake of last September, probably not. On the cusp of pitchers and catchers, yes we can.