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The Best Available Athletes

In case you haven’t turned on ESPN in the last week, the NFL Draft is in progress. It began Thursday night and it runs through late June. Makes for captivating theater, as in you’d have to hold me captive to get me to sit inside Radio City Music Hall for all 481 rounds of it.

Correction: I’m told there are actually only ten rounds and that the NFL Draft takes only three days to conduct. My mistake. That’s not overlong [1] at all.

If the NFL Draft has given us anything besides Mel Kiper, Jr. over the years, it’s the phrase “Best Available Athlete”. It’s what football teams say they went for when they didn’t get the player their fans and media were clamoring for. It’s a nice catch-all and it means, from what I can tell, absolutely nothing. You get a look at these kids? They all appear to be comparably athletic. One would hate to think NFL general managers and their lieutenants plot hour after hour in their war rooms (as they are so charmingly called) only to blow their pick on the best available plumber.

Though if you get a tough clog, you’ll look at that hulking defensive end you traded up for and think, “This place is a mess. I wish we had gone with the plumber instead.”

It’s easier in baseball. Their draft is conducted in a cave somewhere in Secaucus while the season’s in progress, leaving relatively few to give it more than a moment’s attention when it rolls around every June. Major League Baseball tried to glamorize it in 2009. You know how? By literally holding it somewhere in Secaucus [2]. Last year, the only player the average fan had ever heard of going into the draft was Stephen Strasburg. The year before, the only player the average fan had ever heard of going into the draft was…uh-huh, exactly. As for phrases like Best Available Athlete, baseball doesn’t waste those on draft picks.

That’s because everybody knows the Best Available Athlete in a given baseball game is Johan Santana.

Johan has speed, as demonstrated by the way Thursday night’s game [3] fairly zipped along while he was pitching out of tight spots, and dragged unconscionably (yawn 3:16) after he left.

Johan has strength, as evidenced by the way he carries the Mets on his broad shoulders until they finally (after 17 consecutive innings of nonsupport) score a run for him.

Johan has size, too, particularly in the stature department. Tom Gorzelanny may have been matching him zero for zero there for a while, even threatening to no-hit the Mets — call it the Jaime Garcia effect [4] — but ultimately Johan will tower over the competition.

Johan Santana also presumably scores well on the Wonderlic Test [5], the examination the NFL gives its prospective draft picks to determine mental agility. For example, Johan was smart enough to take the Mets’ money two years ago, and no matter what certain bored columnists conjure in their own addled heads [6], that was a pretty agile move right there.

The Mets’ other available athletes wouldn’t be bested, either, Thursday night. Their 2008 top pick and 2010 freshman sensation I.B. Swinger [7] racked up three more hits. Former sandwich pick David Wright (who is said to be quite fond of peanut butter, honey and jelly [8]) fulfilled every schoolboy’s dream and tied Ed Kranepool’s career total for doubles [9] when it couldn’t have counted more. The heretofore forgotten closer Francisco Rodriguez came in early to slam the door not three but five times. Most impressively and encouragingly, he tickled the strike zone to end the eighth, leaving Chicago’s potential tying runs on base where they would wither like early-season ivy.

The Mets, for all their deserved reputation as tackling dummies, were the clearly best available athletes in this set of downs against the Cubs. Gorzelanny — along with the Met pen prior to K-Rod — may have kept the series finale uncomfortably close a little too long, but fortunately for us, the Cubs are as brutal to watch as the NFL Draft. Doesn’t matter, though; three out of four from anybody is a selection we’ll make any day.

As for tonight against the Braves, John Maine is on the clock.

Thanks to Dave Murray for dizzying up his FAFIF t-shirt earlier this month in Jupiter, Fla. Read all about it at Mets Guy In Michigan [10]. If you want to look sharp standing up straight or staggering to the ground, you can get your own shirt here [11].

And yes, Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets is indeed available in paperback, featuring an all-new epilogue regarding the Mets’ first season at Citi Field. It’s been spotted at several New York area bookstores and is available to order via Amazon [12] and Barnes & Noble [13]. Mets fan and film buff Vince Keenan gives it two thumbs up here [14].