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Night at the Opera (Bravo! Bravo!)

Not that I wasn’t already succumbing to my more lachrymose tendencies, but what opened the floodgates good and wide up around my eyeballs where I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was the SNY camera shot of a mother holding a son of maybe five years old. They were smiling and they were cheering and I realized something about that kid:

If this happens, he won’t have to grow up with this.

To clarify the pronouns, the first “this” was the no-hitter Johan Alexander Santana was closing in on with two out in the ninth.

The second “this” I seriously doubt I have to specify.

Because it existed like hell for 50 years and two months and it has ceased to exist as of June 1, 2012, the night of the real and true First No-Hitter in New York Mets History [1].

Of course it’s an upper-case affair. It’s an up-in-lights affair. It’s an above-the-marquee event that will forever front this 51st season of New York Metropolitan baseball. Like Bill Haley & The Comets; like Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods; like Huey Lewis & The News.

Like the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History & The Rest of 2012.

Whatever comes along, the Mets have a pass. 29-133? Oh, that’s not gonna happen, but you know what I mean. Every season in which the playoffs don’t seem particularly possible, I make a little bargain with Whoever might be in a position to do something about it: Give me a no-hitter and I’ll accept anything else that befalls the Mets.

As if I had a choice. As if, for 8,019 games — the vast majority of which I have witnessed in one form or another — I had something to say about this most holiest of grails eluding our grasp. As if I could have revoked all those miserable clean singles. As if I could have turned Tarzan Joe Wallis around at the players entrance of Wrigley Field. As if I could have told Leron Lee to take off the Fourth of July forty years ago and have himself a leisurely Independence Day. As if I could have convinced Mr. and Mrs. Qualls to do no more than hold hands.

You’re a Mets fan. You don’t really need me to be specific about who and what I’m talking about here, either. Those names — Wallis from 1975, Lee from 1972, Qualls from 1969 — used to mean something to us. Paul Hoover, Kit Pellow, Cole Hamels, Ernie Banks, Wade Boggs, Keith Moreland, Chris Burke…the whole miserable club [2].

Those names mean nothing now.

The only name that matters now is Johan Santana.

Tom Seaver, who didn’t retire Jimmy Qualls or Leron Lee or Joe Wallis, matters, too, if only because a little before I saw that kid on TV, I made eye contact with Tom on the box his bobblehead came in a few weeks ago. “Tom,” I thought. “We just might finish this one tonight.”

“Might” was the operative phrase, because we’ve been living with “might” since at least July 9, 1969. How would we know if it was going to work?

I guess we know now.

Oh, the trail to getting there, though. We’ll skip over the first 8,019 games and all the first innings Pete Rose ruined [3] and those three times a ninth inning went by the wayside. We’ll just worry about tonight, which I was so unworried about that…oh god…I declined a late invitation to attend Friday night’s game.

Kevin From Flushing texted me around 5:30 about an extra ticket. “Not able to make it tonite,” I claimed, which now that I think back to that decision, I wonder what the hell I was thinking. But y’know what? I don’t care that I wasn’t there to see it happen. I’m just glad it happened.

Usually I have a deck of Why This Could Be The Night factors shuffling around in my head once we get through maybe the second inning. And I very well could have started collecting them early as I watched on TV instead of from Promenade:

• Beltran was back (btw, my hunches [4] suck);

• Wainwright of Game Seven infamy was throwing to Molina of even more Game Seven infamy;

• It was the world champs in the other dugout;

• The wind was kicking up in weird ways;

• Thole had just returned from his concussion in a mask he’d never worn before;

• I was in the same room as Santana two days ago for a press conference I arrived late for and found I wasn’t credentialed for but was waved in anyway — in person, Johan looks like an enormous Johan Santana mannequin, not quite lifelike because how could you possibly be standing in the same room as Johan Santana?;

• Wainwright was matching Johan with no hits for a while and the first hit he gave up could have been scored an error;

• I could have very easily been there had I had my act together at 5:30 when Kevin texted.

Normally all of the above, from pregame to like the fourth inning, would have congealed into a big blob of superstitious conditional thinking. But despite listing those above stray thoughts, it didn’t. I refused to let it. Johan’s pitch count was stacking up and haven’t we all heard enough about pitch counts to make us wish we’d never sat through arithmetic in the first grade?

The Mets took a 2-0 lead somewhere in there. It got windier, it began to rain, no hits continued to be generated and I was in the kitchen stirring sliced strawberries and bananas into some non-fat, plain Greek yogurt as the sixth was beginning when I overheard two things from the living room:

1) “One swing could win it for New York!” which I took to mean they were showing Carlos Beltran’s greatest hit, the home run that beat St. Louis in that magical summer of 2006 [5].

2) Some low-level commotion, which I was afraid to check in on.

I did a little rewinding of the DVR. Sure enough, there was vintage Beltran helping the Mets crush the Cardinals. And then there was contemporary Beltran hitting one just foul. Except in real time on the broadcast, the Freeze Cams and such were revealing third base ump Adrian Johnson — and isn’t it interesting how we never bother to learn the umpires’ names unless they become Angel Hernandez? — absolutely, positively blew the call.

Well, I thought, them’s the breaks, Redbirds.

Beltran didn’t argue, but ex-Met Jose Oquendo went ballistic. Mike Matheny flirted with nuclear. Adrian Johnson appeared a little embarrassed. But guess what — no replay on dubious foul calls, just as there was no way of fixing Jim Joyce’s egregious safe call on another Venezuelan pitcher, Armando Galarraga, who had another no-hitter…a perfect game, at that…going two years ago tomorrow night [6].

Then Beltran grounded to Wright and the first serious bullet had been dodged. Two batters later, there was a disturbing popup Ike grabbed with one hand. I’d wished he used two, but consider that one ghost [7] of many slain.

Nine outs remained. The elephant was in the living room with me and my quickly inhaled yogurt. There was no denying what was going on. But it wasn’t worth congealing the ball vis-à-vis all the reasons This Could Be The Night. It was too late to war game this in my head. Either it was going to happen or it wasn’t.

It became a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the sixth after Lucas Duda’s three-run homer, a crucial blow in terms of taking the pressure off our pitcher (Seaver’s 8⅔ innings of no-hitter ruined by Wallis was in a zero-zero battle), but probably the easiest-to-forget turning-point three-run homer in a shutout victory we’re going to have for a while.

The game passed from baseball into opera in the seventh as the winds swirled, the mists blew and none other than Yadier F. Molina prepared to ruin everything with a deep drive to the left field wall with one out. Of course Yadier F. Molina. Of course. Yadier F. Molina isn’t booed nearly enough by the crowds who are too busy doing waves and texting wrong answers to inane quizzes to know when the devil is in their midst. And the devil was doing it.

But then he wasn’t doing it, because a Mets fan came running across Northern Boulevard to remove the blotch from Endy Chavez’s night of a lifetime.

Who else but Mike Baxter would preserve the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History? Who else but Mike from Whitestone? “Hello, Steve? First time, long time. I want to talk about how I’m going to grow up and be a crucial part of my favorite team’s history.”

Welcome aboard, Mike from Whitestone. Welcome aboard to your shoulder crashing into that W.B. Mason sign with the strength to be there. Welcome aboard to holding on to that ball, baby. Welcome…and thank you, young man.

That was two ridiculous breaks working in our favor, the lousy call on Beltran and the sublime catch against Molina. By now, it was 6⅔ innings of no-hit ball in suspended animation while Ray Ramirez tended to Baxter…and Johan stood on the mound hopefully not stiffening up…and what was his pitch count again…and Torres is coming in and moving Nieuwenhuis to left…and Torres misplayed a ball terribly two nights ago…and didn’t Kirk drop a ball against the Giants in April…and who’s Matt Adams and what are the odds it’s this guy I never heard of until tonight who ends the dream?

Except he didn’t. He grounded to Ike to end the St. Louis seventh.

Opera, I tell you.

Johan was due up in the bottom of the inning. Any idea that Terry Collins wouldn’t let him hit would have caused a riot in that I was planning to storm my television and choke him into another dimension if he didn’t. But Johan stayed in to bunt. He received, as Gary Cohen noticed, a “smattering of applause” for his pitching to that point, though to be fair, it seemed his mere showing up in the on-deck circle elicited a strong ovation. Maybe somebody put down their mobile devices for a while after all.

The Mets added three runs in the seventh. We are taught to like that sort of thing. I forced myself to like it Friday night. Being against tack-on runs is dangerous karmic behavior. But c’mon already and get Johan back on the mound before somebody does something stupid like demonstrate concern for his ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery and take him out for his own good to our everlasting sorrow.

The second batter in the top of the eighth was Shane Robinson. He was the first guy I announced out loud as the guy who was going to end the bid. I mean, Shane Robinson?

But he didn’t. Nor did the walking Rafael Furcal. And nor did Carlos Beltran, whoever he used to be.

“EIGHT INNINGS!” I shouted in case anyone didn’t know. “EIGHT INNINGS!” I slapped a wall, hyperventilated, paced around and scared the hell out of the one cat who dared to hang in there with me until now.

“You’re scaring Avery,” Stephanie said, though she knew that was going to be the collateral damage. She did her part by continuing to futz around with her Nook. She’s walked in on too many no-hit bids not to be considered culpable in the total reaching 8,019. (Then again, hadn’t we all?)

Johan came up again in the ninth. Did his mannequin impression. Struck out not just looking but standing perfectly still. Best at-bat of his career since that 12-pitch home run against the Reds [8].

Never mind never thinking there’d be a no-hitter. I never thought I’d see anything like Johan Santana shutting down the Marlins when everything was on the line [9], when he couldn’t, just couldn’t, leave the mound — if Johan Santana handed a slender lead to the 2008 Mets bullpen, it would evaporate, so Johan obliterated his pitch count and pitched the game of a lifetime that September Saturday when Shea was about to die.

Now the stakes weren’t nearly as intense…but, no, that’s a lie. They were every bit as intense. Johan hung in and beat the Marlins, and Jason and I embraced manfully and the Brewers lost to the Cubs and the Mets stayed alive for one more day until they and Shea came tumbling down. And if they’d ultimately succeeded? I would have witnessed the third world championship in New York Mets history, which would have been every bit as marvelous as that sounds, based on having witnessed the other two.

But I hadn’t yet seen the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. Nobody had. Nobody ever would, went a strain of our cultural thinking. We talked about it at the Hofstra 50th anniversary conference [10]. Phil Humber — traded with three other fellows for Johan Santana, it occurs to me — had just pitched his perfect game. Tom Seaver pitched his no-hitter with the Reds. Al Leiter, Hideo Nomo, Nolan Ryan, Dwight Gooden…everybody had pitched a no-hitter before or after their Mets tenure. But everybody missed the mark. Nobody did it where we would have loved and adored them for doing it.

One of the favorite parlor games in which we Mets fans indulged for our eternity was “who could do it?” or “who would we want to do it?” I haven’t had a definitive guess since I insisted it would be Bill Pulsipher, so what did I know, but I always rejected the notion that it couldn’t or shouldn’t be “some journeyman”. Some journeyman? If his journey took him to the Shea Stadium or Citi Field mound and he pitched a no-hitter in a New York Mets uniform, I think we’d immortalize him without hesitation.

Even if it had been T#m Gl@v!ne, for whom I rooted with most of my heart and soul on May 23, 2004, which was a story I was telling the other night at the game where Jeremy Hefner homered (which takes a back seat as novel episodes go this week). I heard Gl@v!ne going for it as Stephanie and I entered a theater to see a show. I manipulated the radio in my ear as long as I could, until the orchestra was playing the overture to Bombay Dreams, until Kit Pellow stopped the bid.

We all have those types of stories, but this one comes back to me suddenly, not just ’cause it came up the other night but because without Gl@v!ne’s signature implosion on the worst day in Shea Stadium history [11] (in my view), the Mets don’t make every effort to trade for the best available pitcher on the market in the offseason that followed. They don’t wait out the Yankees and the Red Sox and they don’t pony up Phil Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Carlos Gomez and Deolis Guerra to the Twins and arrange all kinds of zeroes to lure Johan Santana to the their ranks in time for 2008 [12].

Santana was a reasonable facsimile of the American League version his first year, until the last few starts, when he was all that and an oversized bag of chips. He was sort of that on and off in 2009 and 2010 except he was aching and we weren’t very good for very long and before we knew it, he was out for a year and his contract was a Beltranesque albatross and maybe we can trade him, huh?

Maybe not! Maybe Johan works his broad shoulders off as well as the rest of his anatomy and he’s starting on Opening Day as Gary Carter is remembered and he’s succeeding without actually winning for several starts thereafter and he’s shutting down the Padres so effectively last weekend [13] that if he hadn’t given up a few hits, you could have sworn he had no-hit stuff.

And then eight innings of no-hit baseball are in the books for a Mets starter for the first time since that September afternoon in 1975 [14] when I listened to Bob Murphy describe Tom Seaver trying to keep hope alive in 0-0 combat. It wouldn’t really be a no-hitter if he got Wallis, Murph explained, but it would be nine no-hit innings, and when I was twelve years old, that would be plenty.

But Wallis singled and the Mets lost in extras and I continued to grow up with this.

I will not, however, grow old with it.

Because Torres caught a blooping liner from Matt Holliday. And because Nieuwenhuis handled a fly from Allen Craig. And David Freese — the guy who cost the Texas Rangers their first world championship [15] — struck out.

Johan Santana pitched the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History.

It happened. It really and truly happened. I shouted and I cried and I hugged my wife and we drank champagne from the same Mets mugs with which we toasted the 2006 N.L. East championship [16], none of which will show up in the box score, but I always wondered [17] what I would do if it happened, and now I know.

We can all go count something else now.