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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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The Inevitable Downfall of Johan Santana (and Everyone Else)

Johangate, thank goodness, seems to be over.

The Mets were unhappy about Johan Santana, introducing him to the underside of various buses in wondering how he came to camp not in pitching shape. Johan was unhappy with the Mets, throwing bullpen sessions to prove points and then being surly/silent, or so we’ve been told by the army of bored scribes trapped in Port St. Lucie.

Now everybody’s happy with everybody else, or at least everybody’s over it. The Mets are saying old familiar things about Johan being ready when Johan is ready. Johan says air was cleared. Sandy Alderson says air didn’t need to be cleared but a conversation has been had, which we’ll take as meaning that air’s been cleared. Johan even got a birthday cake, with Jeff Wilpon making an oh-look-cameras appearance to wish him well.

As a veteran observer of Metsian misbehavior, it seems to me that this ballclub could get better results by realizing it’s not only ineffective but also deeply embarrassing to give players a good Walter Reeding periodically instead of having conversations behind closed doors like normal people. But since the air has been cleared, let’s not re-fog it — we can revisit this when Ike Davis or Ruben Tejada or Matt Harvey or someone else crosses some perceived line and needs to be publicly abused by “sources.”

In the wake of Johangate, I was left feeling sad — because it seems like what happened to the man who made us a normal franchise wasn’t so much a disagreement between player and management as an unhappy reminder of baseball mortality.

Santana went through a lot last year. He’s been through a lot every year, racking up injury after injury. So, mindful that his 34th birthday was looming, he took it easy on his usual offseason throwing program, with the approval — perhaps active, perhaps tacit — of the Mets. He came to camp feeling good, got down to business, and discovered that his arm wouldn’t respond. The mind issued its usual commands, but the body wouldn’t heed them.

This is the fate of all superstar athletes — the only thing to be determined is the date. The sad thing is that the athletes are always the last to know. What made them great, long ago in their early springtimes, guarantees that they will be blindsided in their autumns.

If you’re a baseball fan who’s paying attention, you realize by your teens or early twenties that those guys down on the field are practically a different species physically, gifted with eyesight and reaction times and quick-twitch muscles that you can only dream of. What took me years more to realize was the mental aspect of superstardom — that most of these athletes also possess extraordinary focus, highly specialized memories and a level of will that’s equally superhuman. Sure, there are see-ball hit-ball guys who drift through 20-year careers on a pillow of their own physical gifts. But most professional athletes got to where they are by essentially creating their own reality — by having an extraordinary ability to shut out distractions, failure and competitors. The athletes who can’t will themselves into being what they become fall by the wayside and are forgotten.

It’s a high-wire act that works until it doesn’t. Last year’s home run is caught at the warning track. That fastball on the inner edge can’t quite a beat a hitter’s hands. That first step isn’t quite enough to snag the liner in the gap or the bouncer in the hole. That 34-year-old shoulder can’t make the baseball do what it’s supposed to.

The tragic part is we know before the athletes do. Everyone knows before the athletes do. Because refusing to know is how they got here. It’s worked for them for 20+ years, and it’s impossible — hell, it’s obscene and insulting — to suggest that anything’s changed. But it has. Autumn’s here, and winter will follow. Goodness knows there are compensations — Santana probably makes more in a day than I do in a year — but I’ve always found that idea haunting. What is it like to begin your life’s work guaranteed that it will be taken from you through someone else’s public declaration that you can’t do it any more? What is it like to deny that and deny that and then realize that it’s true?

It’s happening to Johan Santana now, just like it will happen to Matt Harvey, and to Zack Wheeler, and to some teenaged fireballer none of us have heard of yet. It’s the way it’s always been and the way it always will be. But that can’t make it any easier for those it happens to.

22 comments to The Inevitable Downfall of Johan Santana (and Everyone Else)

  • Ken K. in NJ

    <<not only ineffective but also deeply embarrassing to give players a good Walter Reeding periodically instead of having conversations behind closed doors like normal people

    Can somebody say, "Cleon Jones"….???

    • Dave

      Yes, and let’s not forget Nancy Seaver is jealous of Ruth Ryan, (courtesy of M. Donald Grant’s media shill Dick Young), Kevin Mitchell is a street gang member and a bad influence, David Wright is not a superstar, etc, etc. Keeps happening throughout the team’s history, never goes away, like a drunk racist uncle or something.

  • Well, that was a cheerful piece to read to start off my baseball season, LOL.

  • [...] Let’s check in with Johan! Santana talked to ESPNNY about the state of the arm, and it is looking more and more likely that the Mets ace will start the season on the disabled list. Time always wins in the end. [...]

  • 9th string catcher

    He ain’t dead yet. This is the guy who pitched a no hitter last year and almost never gets run support.

  • [...] Link: The Inevitable Downfall of Johan Santana (and Everyone Else) Jason Fry, Faith and Fear in Flus… [...]

  • Old Backstop

    Great article, really enjoyed the writing style and the content. May have to bookmark this site and read it more frequently.

    One thing I wanted to add, is that many people go through what Johan is going through, just not on a public stage. People in the corporate world age, and so do people who do trades. At a certain point, they are no longer able to do what they used to, and quite often there is a slow fall from grace after which point employers (or potential customers) see that person as too old, too slow, unable to adapt, or too expensive. While a few are selected to move into executive management, many more fade away after a long prime where they could not be stopped at their particular skill.

    As a programmer who is closing in on 40, I feel the pressure every day as firms tend to only care about people having 5 years of experience. Younger guys/gals have no family yet at home, are willing to work late and cheap, and perhaps more importantly, they are naive enough to do exactly as they are told, even if it’s wrong.

    There is the print journalist who is now being phased out (or at least losing some thunder) by the bloggers. Remember the DJ? Remember the VJ that phased out the DJ? Now it’s YouTube videos phasing out the VJ.

    What is worse … to be gifted like Johan and know that eventually you will lose your role because you age physically? Or to be like many other Americans, great at what they do, and lose their role because of age discrimination, corporate greed, trying to balance work/life/family, or new broad-sweeping technologies? I’d rather be in Johan’s shoes … then there is nothing to blame :)

    • Dave

      I think the point though is that with athletes, it is on a public stage, and that makes a huge difference. Fans, media, etc, none of whom could ever come close to what they do, all comment on it and boo them at every opportunity, and athletes – treated as extra special everywhere they’ve been, perhaps since they were children – have to come to grips with this type of thing not only in public but at a much younger age than the rest of us will be facing retirement. And aside from maybe tacking a few years on to the end, maybe by moving to the bullpen or a pinch-hitting role or transitioning from fastballs to off-speed junk, they can’t do what many of us can, such as sharpen up on newly emerging technologies/techniques and keep our careers going for decades.

      But of course, the flipside is that most of us would sign up for it in an instant, if it meant years of multi-million dollar contracts and the public adoration in the meantime.

      • Right — that and the fact that many of those athletes are the last to know.

        What OB describes is a tragedy too, of course — just not quite so public.

  • Jim Murphy

    Years and years ago, when I was covering the L.A. Rams, I noticed tight end Bob Klein studying a real-estate book on a plane ride to an away game. I asked why he was putting in all the time and effort. HIs response, “Jim, nobody is going to tell you in five years that you can’t ever write another story. Nobody’s going to say goodbye and tell you to go out and find another career. But that’s going to happen to me and to every player on this plane. I want to be ready.” Of course, this was several decades ago and I’m sure I haven’t gotten the quote exactly right. But the thought is absolutely accurate — and it speaks to the theme of your Santana post. The end game is the most difficult game for any athlete.

  • Paul Festa

    Mike Piazza writes about his decline in “Long Shot,” his new memoir. He talks about the feeling that his body can no longer do what his mind tells it to.

    It’s that inevitability that you captured beautifully in this post.

  • Mike

    I don’t mean to be cynical, but I’m sick of hearing about poor Johan everywhere I look. This guy is getting paid a king’s ransom, so much so that it inhibits the team from spending money to fill other holes. When it’s all said and done there’s about two full seasons of his contract where he was either on the shelf or ineffective. That’s over 50 mil literally down the drain. So the fact that he’s ;( about being called out for not being ready is laughable. I’m glad sandy said what he said I know the mets and he agreed to rest in the offseason, but at the same time when ur making a 3rd of the team’s payroll, U should be ready when the bell rings. Thank god this calamity is over after this yr.

  • [...] Jason Fry, Faith and Fear in Flushing Source: MetsBlog   [...]

  • March'62

    “What made them great, long ago in their early springtimes, guarantees that they will be blindsided in their autumns.”

    There WILL be growth in the spring.

  • Joe D.

    Hi Jason,

    There is a more important point to this story.

    No matter who is responsible for the public friction (be it the front office, Johann or a combination of both), many have been wondering if the Mets are again conducting some sort of smear campaign, this time against Santana. Being responsible for creating that serious public doubt in their character by misleading fans in the past and how they conducted themselves publicly the last few years (badmouthing Dickey, Davis, etc.) it is quite understandable to be second guessing the front office’s integrity regarding this fiasco with Johann.

    My feelings about this front office are well known yet I felt the original text by Sandy was not critical and just an explanation about Johann’s condition. Therefore, I actually came to Sandy’s side on this one feeling his words were unfairly being twisted around.

    But then came all the other leaks by un-named team officials of how disappointed and angry they were. Why would they want to orchestrate such a smear campaign now against Johann? Is it just a character flaw like a mean streak? Perhaps. But then, while this might seem like a conspiracy theory. we must remember the front office was telling us all winter that Johann was expected to be the opening day starter. Keep in mind this is the same front office back in early 2011 that told us that we might be surprised at how soon Santana would be back while privately it understood if he would be back at all, it would not be until mid to late August.

    So, while they might very well have been caught completely off guard by Johann’s arm trouble, it could also be they were aware most all of the winter that Johann had a serious problem getting his pitching arm in shape and, just like those early months of 2011, wanted to paint a different story so not to hamper season ticket plans by even hinting they still had an injury plagued Johann.

    Now, it’s no longer a case of trying to deceive the public into thinking Johann would be ready for opening day as it is creating the image of either not knowing or being told something altogether different and making Santana the fall guy so to take the heat away from them.

    Johann is a professional who has earned the right to be his own judge on his off-season training which the organization respected, but one would still think that the Mets and Santana would be in touch with each other with everyone on board knowing he was taking a full break this off season and as he began trying to get himself into pitching shape shortly prior to spring training both recognized how weak his pitching arm.

    Far fetched indeed and I’m only playing devil’s advocate here for none of us know what has actually transpired.

    Who knows? It might not be nothing more than a clash of egos, personalities and miscommunication. Yet, if nothing else, it’s this front office’s lack of integrity from the past coming back to bite them now, like in the old Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried wolf That’s going to remain a problem much longer than whatever happens with Santana’s arm.

    • 9th string catcher

      A smear campaign would make sense if someone was trying to save face or save their job, but no one in the FO is in danger of that based on the problems they’ve inherited from the previous regime. I think it’s a case of the incredible frustration of working with a bazillionaire athlete. I’m sure the expectation was that Johan would be ready, and he’s not, and not going to be anytime soon, and that Johan didn’t let on until he got to spring training. I think Sandy is justifiably pissed that once again, a superstar is going to sit on the bench collecting $1000’s of dollars a minute while he has to find a way to sell tickets for people to watch Jeremy Hefner. I’d be pissed too.

  • cardone

    We all decline with age but athletes decline earlier.

    • Joe D.

      Hi Cardone,

      Yup, that’s exactly why I never became an athlete but focused on being a professional couch potato instead – this way there was much less for me to decline from! :)

  • Robb

    Enough already with all this Johan BS! Time to move on and away from the last Omar bum stealing our money! Why should anyone feel sorry for him? He shows up to camp boasting how he wants to pitch in the WBC. What a joke! Get rid of him ASAP!

  • Tom

    At this point, it’d almost be better to see somebody like Hefner get a chance. Less talk, less speculation, more baseball at least.

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