Is it a coincidence that Valentine's Day coincides with Pitchers & Catchers? Aren't they the two most romantic dates on the calendar? Shouldn't they just be fused as one mushy, gushy holiday wherein we could celebrate all our true loves with utter efficiency?
Happy Valentine's Day today, and a good Pitchers & Catchers to one and all, too. As we are moved to say every year at this juncture, it's about time.
Special Cupid's greetings to all those who combined to make this an unexpectedly happy holiday: namely our heartthrob Johan Santana and the great Metsopotamian masses who secured his professional home for the next seven seasons. The list of enablers would have to include you and you and you and you and me and all of us who pay the freight and, not completely coincidentally, raised a ruckus and never quite let it settle down after certain unpleasant events transpired in the year before the one we're in now. I don't know that you and you and you and you and I can take tangible credit for forcing management's hand — it's not like Omar Minaya hadn't heard about what's been going on in Minnesota every fifth day for five years — but it's not out of the question that our collective crankiness helped nudge the party line off from where it sat in early October 2007, a month when the Met hierarchy had nothing more on their plates than press availabilities and nothing more to say than “we're fine, we're swell, it was just a little stumble, but otherwise it's all good.”
Yes, the Mets can be said to have run a very competitive divisional race in 2007. And a sinkhole on 17 would make for easy par at TPC Sawgrass if nobody acknowledged its presence signified a natural disaster.
I'm very much into politics, especially on recent Tuesdays and Saturdays, but I didn't need managers and general managers behaving like politicians last fall. I didn't need spin. I didn't need to be focus-grouped. I needed acknowledgement, tacit if not explicit, that something had gone terribly, terribly awry by those who oversaw the debacle that landed on our heads and pierced our hearts. I required accountability. I imagine you did, too.
Now, with pitchers and catchers joining David Wright (he got to St. Lucie first; it's just what he does) to fire up the first sparks of 2008, 2007 doesn't materially matter. We're not 5-12 in our last 17 anymore. We're 0-0 like everybody else. We're not collapsed. We are risen. And that is great.
But is it that easy, even with the sublime Santana in the Mets fold (unfortunate phrase, Mets fold), to put it all behind us? Is it that simple, even with the preternaturally disappointed Gl@v!ne dispatched back where he belongs, to blot the abysmal taste off our tongues? Does the twin-wisdom of renovating Port St. Lefty with Sr. Stupendous after resisting re-signing Mr. One-Third really rewind and erase the signature dive Gl@v!ne's now-former team so indelibly signed off on?
Did firing Don Imus end insensitive discourse in our time?
Prior to Santana, I was almost dreading Spring Training, almost dreading having to root for these Mets again, the Mets who joined T#m Gl@v!ne in that epic freefall, essentially the same cast minus a few offenders but topped off by the inspirational presences of Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. By the same token, however, I looked forward to Spring Training. I looked forward to whoever was a Met donning again a Mets uniform in a year that wasn't the one before the one we're in now. I had to see some 2008 Mets out there, even if a bunch of them were 2007 Mets until proven otherwise.
I'm a little more sanguine about the whole thing now. Maybe it's the exchange of two-time Cy Young winners and the quality and consistency we can expect from the 200-some innings we have clearly upgraded. Maybe it's just spring fever in February kicking in the way it's supposed to if you're a baseball fan — that marvelous virus of innate optimism to which no lover of this game should ever be immune as winter winds down. Still, I wonder. It's not the usual wonderment my blog partner detects in me annually, the way he's noticed that I never quite trust the new faces in our old places until I've seen them do something for us. It's wider and deeper than that.
It's a sinkhole of mistrust.
We came into last Spring Training obsessing on one pitch, one called strike that ended a postseason. We had had our heart broken at the end of 2006, but generally speaking, we didn't go to bed angry. We didn't hold it against the Mets. We rushed to embrace their next season. We trusted them to make it right.
Are you feeling that easy this time around? I'm not, and I don't say that in defiance of the Mets. Of course I want to be that easy. I want to melt into a pool of swoon at the first sight of meaningless exhibition play. I want to tingle from the back of my neck to the top of my rump when a public-address announcer addresses the public to announce, “now batting, number seven…” I want to be thrilled to pieces to hold this steady date with my perennial baseball Valentines.
I guess I will be. But it's gonna take some time this time, it really is. This may be the first Spring Training during which I need to get myself in rooting trim, to look past what even Johan Santana can't quite strike out just yet, to small-b believe…
• That the team that crushed me and my spirit five months ago is capable of not doing the same again…
• That it's not just another enormous tease…
• That it's legitimately possible that a baseball season doesn't have to end on a called strike three or with a resounding thud…
• That it could actually end with a much more desirable multiple-choice answer.
It's gonna take some time this time, and this time I don't think I'm just saying that.
Santana's awesome. Other Mets are capable of being so. They could gel into something special. They could congeal into something less. The same could be said before every season, but deep down — save for the prohibitive bowsers you can see woofing from a mile down the road — you always find a reason to Capital-B Believe in the Mets in February. That's what we do — we Believe. Now we have Johan Santana topping a team that was arguably two Johan Santana starts from October 2007. As the football Giants recently taught us, once you get to the tournament, you remain eligible for bigger and better prizes as long as you remain alive.
But does Mets + Santana actually = Guarantee? The way-improved rotation sparkles in the mind's eye, but did Delgado just grow younger, healthier and consistent? Has Schneider found a stroke he never had? Is Sanchez picking up where he left off an eon ago? Are the collected nuts and bolts that comprise Alou and Castillo sufficiently greased and tightened? Will Wright (please) keep getting better? Will Reyes (pretty please) stop getting worse? Are the Mets of Johan Santana a reinforced powerhouse capable of going where we, by now, are salivating for them to go, or are the Mets, despite the hefty commitment to Johan Santana, going to be weighed down by where they've been? And, putting aside the not incidental construction of our 25-man roster and how it stacks up in comparison to those taking shape in Clearwater and Orlando this month and next, can we and our recently raised expectations handle yet another take on devastation?
Sometime after Gl@v!ne took off his Mets jersey for the last time and Santana put on his for the first, I reasoned to myself that if the Mets are determined to not win a spot in the tournament in 2008, or do so but then fail for a 22nd consecutive season to Take It To The House, that's kinda, sorta OK, 'cause '08 is more about Shea's final act than it is about anything else. But I don't think I bought it, because a baseball season is too long to ignore your baseball team's ongoing lack of success, no matter how distracted you think you'll be by other potential priorities. Now that Johan's on board, there is a temptation to expect good things…but I'm burnt out on expectation after last year. Still, no team has ever ended a ballpark's tenure by winning a World Series in it. Gosh, I'd like ours to be the first.
Yeah, it would be great.
Sure, it's possible
No, I don't know if it's probable.
Damned if I want to know what it will feel like when it sinks in that it won't happen — and I say “when” and not “if” partly because there is technically only a 1-in-30 chance that it will, partly because we're 0-for-our-last-21, with the last two misses hurting far worse than any of the previous nineteen, with last one stinging exponentially more than even the one before it.
Once upon a time, it didn't much matter. Once upon a time — several times upon a time, actually — the idea of the Mets winning a World Series was a lofty goal at the outset of Spring Training, but hardly something that seemed essential to my well-being. But on Valentine's Day 2008, even as we return to active and daily devotion to our baseball team, even as our instinct to unconditionally love them encounters our calculations, our logic and our uneasy memories from when we saw them leave us last…well, let's just say I think I could use a really jubilant hug about eight months from now.