I’m not the most observant person in any room when it comes to physical attributes, but I was always taken aback by Johan Santana’s shoulders. Speaking strictly as a Mets fan, I could’ve spent a lifetime on those shoulders. They seemed capable of defying latitude and going on forever — which wouldn’t be worth observing except for the cliché about that very special ballplayer who can put a team on his shoulders and carry it by himself. It’s a phrase usually applied to home run hitters. Yet approximately every fifth day when things functioned as they were supposed to, Johan Santana elevated us like nobody else in our midst could.
We rode atop those shoulders intermittently across five years. Why just intermittently? Because things function as they’re supposed to only that often around the New York Mets. One look at Johan Santana at his best or simply as his standard-issue self would tell you he wasn’t a natural fit for their uniform. They probably had to special-order him a jersey. The Mets aren’t accustomed to having someone with shoulders quite so broad on their side. Everybody’s usually too slender or slumps too much.
And I’m not talking physique here.
Johan carried us when he could, which became an increasingly infrequent circumstance until it reached a point where his carrying a baseball and firing it to a catcher posed a clear and present danger to himself. But on those occasions when he really picked us up and transported us to places Mets fans rarely got to visit, he made sure we’d never forget it. I can’t actually confirm “never,” because we haven’t had the chance to test our memories against eternity — plus most memories don’t measure up to the task of remembering everything that doesn’t deserve forgetting — but I feel pretty confident in declaring Johan gave us at least a couple of ironclad forget-him-nots in the half-decade he spent now and then towering over our otherwise low-rise landscape.
There was an afternoon in September. There was a night in June. The fact that I need not elaborate one iota says what needs to be said about the width and breadth of Johan Santana’s shoulders, his skills, his stamina, his stuff. Toss in heart and guts and whatnot. There were some other sparkling performances, too, but before you could spend much time lingering on those nights and days, there was always a meniscus or an anterior capsule or some other less well-known body part lurking to ruin the view. You become a Mets fan, you learn about all kinds of anatomy you hadn’t heard of before. You join the Mets, something’s bound to go wrong with parts of you that seemed just fine in Minnesota or wherever. You subject yourself to repair, you rehabilitate as hard as you can, you make your way back and eventually something else doesn’t work to factory specifications. The people who pay you — and pay you very well — estimate you’ll return again any day or week or month now…or perhaps your career is over.
The Mets can never get their story straight when that happens. “You’ll see him when you see him” would be as good a status report as any to issue. “We don’t know — do we look like we know?” would be reasonably accurate, too. And if you’re contemplating the time frame the Mets suggest regarding any given player’s availability after injury, just multiply it by infinity so it will be a nice surprise should he return at all.
Somewhere in the current Spring Training, Johan Santana was the Mets’ Opening Day pitcher in waiting. Then he was out or in or being backdated or guilty of not being in shape or pushing himself unwisely to prove…well, whatever he was trying to prove, he needn’t have bothered. This was February and March. This didn’t mean a whole lot. He proved himself on an afternoon in September, a night in June.
Two games on those shoulders unlike any we’d ever seen. Two games that transcended everything about his team and the era it limped through on those fifth days when neither he nor anybody could carry us quite so surely, serenely and stratospherically. Is it any wonder one of those shoulders finds itself unable to carry on any longer?
Need a boost? The Happiest Recap: First Base (1962-1973) will lift you up, Amazin’ win after Amazin’ win. Check it out here.