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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 [1] 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.