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DL Becomes Him

Helen and Madeline attend his funeral, using veils to cover their horribly deteriorated forms. They continue to bicker endlessly as they did when younger, and react mockingly when the priest describes Ernest as having attained eternal life and youth through his good works. Leaving, they tumble down the stairs and shatter into pieces (although this seems merely to annoy them further).

—Conclusion to the Wikipedia plot synopsis [1] for Death Becomes Her, a movie about those who refuse to accept aging and mortality as facts of life

The first name that crossed my mind was Ken Henderson. Ken Henderson was a Met for literally less than a week in 1978, but his fleeting presence made a lasting impression on me. There was a game very early that season in which he and Steve Henderson drove in three runs apiece and we beat the Cubs 6-0 and the Mets moved to 4-1 and led the N.L. East by a full game on April 10. Bob Murphy couldn’t stop raving about the batwork of “the Henderson men”. I’d had high hopes for Steve Henderson; he should have won the Rookie of the Year over Andre Dawson. I’d had high hopes for the 1978 Mets; I picked them for fourth no matter how they’d previously spiraled head-on into sixth. I’d lost track of Ken Henderson since he was a Giant in the early ’70s, but here he was, batting fifth and homering and adding veteran experience to a young team that was going to jump out of the grave of 1977 and into the thick of contention right away. 1978 was going to be different from 1977.

That was after five games. Ken Henderson came out in the sixth inning of the seventh game of 1978 — he crashed into Shea’s right field fence, twisted his left ankle and sprained his big toe for good measure — and never played for the Mets again. He was traded to Cincinnati in May for Dale Murray to whom, by 1979, I referred regularly as the Master of Disaster. The Mets finished last in ’78, like they did in ’77, as they would in ’79.

The next name that crossed my mind was Jose Reyes. He seemed to do something to his hamstring one night in May [2] last year. It didn’t look good. We all held our breath. Losing Jose Reyes would pretty much end the season right then and there. We’d had proof from 2003 and 2004 (not that 2003 needed much help). Jose took off to recover for exactly one day, the five-run ninth day, and was in fine fettle, at least physically, the rest of 2007.

Of course Jose Reyes is about a century younger than Pedro Martinez. And Pedro is about a thousand times more important to the scheme of things than Ken Henderson ever was. But somewhere between their fates — the player who disappeared, taking with him the promise of entire season, and the player who gave us all a good scare that turned out to be nothing more — lies our man Martinez.

One gropes when speaking about Pedro and injury because one can’t bear to face the unfaceable. It was cruel irony that SNY was rerunning Tuesday afternoon’s Daily News Live late last night and a spirited debate ensued over how favorably the one-two combination of Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez compared with Seaver and Koosman, Gooden and Darling and so on.

Right now, it does not compare very well.

This is the time of year when we count our chickens, no matter how we attempt to resist the temptation. If you can’t be optimistic about your team before Passover, when can you? Think the ’78 Mets wouldn’t have finished out of the money had Ken Henderson been on call for all 162 games? You can think that in early April. You can think that Santana and Martinez are as money as a one-two gets in 2008, even if Martinez had started exacty eight of the Mets’ previous 207 outings. You can take succor from what you saw out of Pedro in his one month of sustained action last year and what you glimpsed in clips from the back fields of St. Lucie this March. You can reason that a fragile 36-year-old who has been handled with the most delicate of organizational kid gloves is a 17-game winner in waiting because of who he was before the kid gloves went on, who he is even as they were gingerly removed for his 21st professional season.

That’s early April thinking, and that’s OK as far as it goes, which sadly was the fourth inning in Miami last night. Early April sure got late quick.

Every time the Mets have a hamstring mishap, Keith Hernandez seems to be on hand to remind us, “That’s not good.” The effective portion of Keith Hernandez’s career all but ended with a hamstring injury in 1988. I can still see him crumpling between second and third in Busch Stadium. It happened on June 6. Joe McIlvaine kept calling it a day-to-day thing. Once the days became a week, he was DL’d. He was eligible to come off on June 22. He came back on June 23 and reaggravated the damn thing on the 24th. We next saw him on August 5. He hit a huge home run to beat the Pirates. It was inspirational, as Keith always was, but his decline was in full acceleration from that hamstring on.

Nobody’s more inspirational than Pedro Martinez. The way he pitches, the way he talks, the way he acts, the way he battles back from injury after injury. That’s a permanent part of his package now, sadly. Nobody rehabs quite like Pedro. Nobody works harder, has a better attitude, sets a better example for the kids at the complex, looms larger in your anticipation of his healing. Nobody gives a better interview describing his progress to Kevin Burkhardt. It’s all very admirable, but you’d sure like to have not learned so much of this side of Pedro Martinez’s resiliency. Orioles fans went a good 18 years before discovering how Cal Ripken handled a trip to the DL. That’s the way to do it if you possibly can.

Whatever silver lining they find after Pedro has his Martinez Resonance Image taken, I won’t believe them. I believed the return of Brian Bannister was just around the corner for more than three months of 2006, just down the block from Moises Alou in 2007. I believed Ken Henderson was “out of combat for a couple of days” as the Times‘ Joe Durso put it thirty years ago. I no longer believe anybody when it comes to appraising somebody else’s injuries. I’ll believe in Pedro as best I can before we see him again, though out of necessity I’m investing the balance of my faith in the likes of Perez, Maine, Pelfrey, Santana and Nelson Figueroa or whoever emerges from the cast of thousands that never seems to want for work around here. Among the pitchers who continue to pitch, we probably have the makings of a very fine one-two combo. I won’t be counting on Pedro Martinez as a component of that equation any time soon.