The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Forgive the following hackneyed cinematic conceit, but let’s say it’s 1999. A voice whispers in your ear that in the relatively early years of the next millennium, the greatest starting pitcher in baseball and one of its finest relievers will be Mets, together. Would you not have salivated or perhaps fainted from joy?
But because thrillers set in the “not-too-distant” future never make much sense when you start to deconstruct their premise (scenarios intended to jar us as moviegoers in the present would unfold gradually in real time and thus probably seem not all that shocking upon arrival) — or perhaps because it’s the Mets — you learn that the dreamscape you’ve been promised is not of some 20-win/40-save utopia but a post-apocalyptic barren wasteland whose end result leaves our heroes groping about for a few shreds of dignity at the end of a pretty rough road.
It’s ten years since Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner were each at the absolute top of their crafts. Somewhere in the succeeding decade, they became Mets. They had their moments. Those moments ended shy of what one might have forecast for them if you had received that whisper in 1999 or even calmly digested the news of their respective signings in the offseasons following 2004 and 2005. Of course they were older then than they were when they would have been causing the hypothetical drooling and fainting, but they were still who they were, at least when they first hooked up. They were Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, ace starting pitcher and closer deluxe for the New York Mets.
What a combination they were going to be.
Do you know how many times during their three seasons together as Mets Pedro Martinez won a game that Billy Wagner saved? Nine. Only 4.2% of Pedro’s career victories and 2.3% of Billy’s lifetime saves overlapped. More pertinently, the Mets played 486 games in 2006, 2007 and 2008, the three years when Martinez and Wagner were listed on the same roster. Once every 54 games, Pedro won and Billy saved. Five times in ’06, once in ’07 and thrice in ’08.
Then they were done, at least as who they had been or were supposed to be to us. Pedro Martinez stopped being the titular ace of the Mets the moment they traded for Johan Santana, though really he had ceded the role well before through extended absences and the mishaps that precipitated them. Billy Wagner persevered while Pedro endlessly rehabilitated. In his third year as a Met, however, Billy performed less and less like Billy, except perhaps in temperament. He disappeared from the Met consciousness early last September when it was announced his left arm couldn’t be revived for the stretch run. Less than three weeks later, Pedro threw his final pitch as a New York Met, exiting the Shea Stadium mound amid rain, cold, hearty applause and palpable wistfulness. It wasn’t official that we had just seen his final Met pitch, but it didn’t have to be.
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old
Yet here they come again, each from a different direction, each toward a different destination. The timing is coincidental, I suppose, but it’s a little too close to not notice. Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Pedro Martinez is slated to start his first major league game since September 25, as a Phillie. Back in Port St. Lucie, where Pedro must have set a record for rehab appearances, Billy Wagner will attempt the final strides of his own comeback trail. Just as Pedro was signed by Philadelphia to serve as a piece and not a centerpiece, Billy is riding back to New York not to close games but to open a door. If Billy Wagner has anything left after a year away from the bigs, he might look good to somebody. He could look good enough to entice a team that, like Philly but not us, is making a pennant push and could use a lefty reliever to retire a lefty batter. If there’s life in his left arm in September 2009, maybe there’s a 2010 in there somewhere, too.
The Mets’ ninth innings aren’t Billy Wagner’s anymore, not since he broke down last August, not since Frankie Rodriguez took his place in December. Time marched on. Johan and Frankie have already notched more win/save perfectas (six) than Pedro & Billy did in any of their three seasons. Though Santana and Rodriguez have each flickered at junctures in 2009, they have been the two brightest lights in the otherwise dim Met constellation this year. I have not found myself pining whatsoever for either Pedro Martinez or Billy Wagner. Pedro’s 37. Billy just turned 38. They seem older. They seem ancient. They seem like ghosts from a plenty distant past.
But it’s barely more than a year since they did what we thought they’d do together more than nine times. It was only last July 7, in most unconventional fashion, that Pedro Martinez earned his third win and Billy Wagner his twentieth save of the season, together beating the Phillies 10-9 at Citizens Bank Park. Pedro ran out of gas in the sixth and Billy had to hang on for dear life, but it was a win for one and a save for the other, just like it was supposed to be.
It was supposed to be Pedro starting, Billy closing, the Mets winning and all of us happier a lot more often than actually occurred. But you never really can tell what’s supposed to happen in baseball, can you?