“I can still play football. I look at films day after day, week in and week out, and I know I can still play. I feel good throwing — there’s not a pass in the book I can’t throw. My arm is good no matter what people say and my legs are okay. I’ve had problems with my knees just once this year. But what can people expect when you get knocked down eight out of 10 times? What the hell do you do?”
That was 33-year-old Joe Namath on December 12, 1976, following a 42-3 Jets loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. Joe threw 15 passes that cold day at Shea. Four of them were completed. Four of them were intercepted.
“You know, my season has been a rollercoaster. A lot of ups and downs. Good days. Bad days. But I’m very positive about everything because I’m coming back from a major surgery, and I’ve been able to be out there every five games. […] Right now my shoulder is fine. I don’t have any issues with it. It’s just that it has been a long season for me.”
That was 33-year-old Johan Santana on Friday night, following a 6-4 Mets loss to the Washington Nationals. Johan set down all nine batters he faced in his first three innings at Nationals Park, but proceeded to give up six earned runs and nine hits in the fourth and fifth, including a grand slam to Michael Morse and a two-run homer to Bryce Harper. He’s allowed at least six earned runs in each of his past five starts, something no Met pitcher has ever done.
Namath, who led the Jets to their greatest glory before injuries overtook his brilliance, never played another game for New York after the debacle against Cincinnati. He was signed by the Rams in 1977, started four games for L.A. before being benched and retired at the end of his thirteenth professional season.
Santana, who is under contract to the Mets through next year (his thirteenth major league season), has crafted a career that can also be described as both brilliant and injury-riddled. While his significance to the Mets franchise is not nearly on a par with what Namath meant to the Jets, he has been, for reassuring stretches and incandescent moments, immensely important around here since 2008. It is his outsized presence that has made his periodic absences resonate so thoroughly. And as with Namath, it is the vivid memory of what Santana has done in a Mets uniform that leaves a Mets fan incredulous that he can look perfectly fine for a while and speak nonchalantly of how perfectly fine he feels afterwards, but somewhere in the middle of that rendition of reality is the starker version: another short outing, another ton of runs, another bushel of passes that wind up in the hands of the Bengal secondary.
When Namath was done as a Jet, his most glorious times were eight years in the past. There would be flashes after Super Bowl III, but it was never the same. The injuries wouldn’t let it be. Johan’s only been a Met for five seasons, and one of those was spent furiously recovering from surgery…as was the offseason that followed it. Really, there was no offseason when it came to rehabilitation.
“I’ve been throwing baseballs since December 15,” Johan mentioned after losing to the Nats, maybe as a legitimate excuse for running on empty in the fourth and fifth innings, maybe as a stream of consciousness an all-time great emits as he tries to figure out why he’s not only not pitching like an all-time great but isn’t pitching remotely passably as of August 17. He says he feels good. Terry Collins says “his command was good” for three innings. Dan Warthen says, “It’s just a matter of building that arm strength back up.” Johan’s been at it since December when everybody else has been throwing baseballs since February. Nobody among those who have a say came out and said Friday that it’s time to call August October and give Johan a rest. But nobody in that group was ruling it out, either.
You never want to rule anything out with guys the ilk of a Namath or a Santana. You’ve seen them do too much to think they’re no more than one pass or one pitch from getting it together and resuming their careers in uninterrupted fashion at the level to which you and they have become accustomed.
Sometimes that’s the problem.