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Approaching History When Everything’s Changed

Saturday: a solid Mets win [1] featuring a shutout from starting pitcher R.A. Dickey, a home run from David Wright and slick infield work from the unlikely double play tandem of Omar Quintanilla and Daniel Murphy.

Friday: History [2].

I’m guessing you’ll indulge me if I’m not quite ready to move on to extended consideration of Saturday’s solid Mets win.

We have not yet arrived at the blasé juncture where R.A. and his endlessly fascinating persona making it to 8-1 — with the Mets nearing a third of the season seven games over .500 and in possession of a National League Wild Card spot — is to be shunted into the Diamond Dust paragraph of your team coverage. But unless Dickey, who allowed the Cardinals five fewer walks than the five they scraped together the night before, was also going to give up seven fewer hits than he actually did to embellish his effort, then there was little chance I’d be shaken from my Friday night afterglow by 4:10 the next afternoon.

It was just as well that after not sleeping much in the hours that followed history, I nodded off for a couple of innings Saturday. I wasn’t giving R.A.’s gem the attention it deserved, which I felt a little bad about, but in all the scenarios I ever dreamed up for the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History, it never occurred to me to include a day after.

Nearly a decade ago, I made a list of what I referred to as my One Hundred Greatest Baseball Experiences. Ninety-nine of them — pennant races, playoff games, distant ballpark journeys, brushes with the utterly unexpected — had, in fact, occurred. I could pin those down, when, where and how they happened. The hundredth, however, was an amorphous amalgamation of all the near-misses that had failed to result in the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. I listed the date as To Be Determined.

Which is why I’m in no particular hurry to heed Howie Rose’s advice and put June 1, 2012, in the history books [3]. It is history, obviously. It is delightful history, the most anticipated if hardest-to-project historical event in the 51 years in which the New York Mets have played baseball. We didn’t know when cycles or three-homer nights were coming either, I suppose, to say nothing of balls finding holes between first basemen’s legs or catchers tackling third basemen as they attempted to touch second after thinking they’d slammed grand, but those things transpired in the course of Metropolitan events. The stuff that was swell but kind of standard simply happened. The stuff that was extraordinary we couldn’t have imagined anyway.

The no-hitter each of us imagined. Each of us dreamed of the day. I literally dreamed of the day. In 2003, I dreamed the Mets’ first no-hitter would be a joint affair: Al Leiter and John Franco, which seemed odd to me while I was dreaming it since Franco was no longer the closer by then. (I’m sure they’ll confirm whether or not it was really just a dream at his Hall of Fame induction tonight.) Those no-hitters that seemed so real in real life for five or six or seven innings but were destined to wind up one- or two- or eight-hitters lingered in the first layer of our Mets consciousness — unlike the relatively pedestrian seven-hit, no-walk shutouts like Dickey’s from Saturday — because they offered us a glimpse into what he hadn’t had and had decided on some level we couldn’t have.

I first took a pew in the Church of Baseball in the weeks following the night Jimmy Qualls became Jimmy Qualls, so my Metsian catechism always included a line about how we’d never had a no-hitter. Some years it was a fact that you accepted, like the sky being blue. Some years you wondered why the sky wasn’t green. Other years it positively pissed you off you couldn’t have a green sky.

The Joe Wallis-type episodes aside, I don’t think the no-hitter deprivation really started getting to me until the mid-1990s, when we began reaching a point of saturation in terms of seemingly everybody receiving one but us. The Marlins had two before they turned five. Hideo Nomo rustled one up for the Dodgers at Coors Field, where nobody ever got anybody out. The Cardinals got a pair out of Jose Jimenez and Bud Smith, each of whom was, respectively, Jose Jimenez and Bud Smith. The Twins had to play a game at like eleven in the morning to accommodate college football at the Metrodome, so Eric Milton woke up early and no-hit the Angels. Nomo got a second no-hitter, this time for the Red Sox. Derek Lowe, who had been a closer the year before, also got one for the Red Sox.

And of course every year that the Yankees were winning a World Series, they garnished it with a no-hitter. And also of course, none of these could be simple propositions. They couldn’t pull any old former Cy Young winner battling substance abuse problems off the scrap heap in 1996. It had to be Doc Gooden, ex-Met hero, with his ailing father being prepped for surgery while he was striking out Mariners to make it that much more compelling. Self-anointed character David Wells couldn’t merely no-hit Minnesota. He had to perfect-game them. David Cone — a former teammate of Gooden’s, you might recall — had to do Wells, who went to the same high school as Don Larsen, one better: Cone pitched his perfect game against the Expos (the Expos?) in front of Don Larsen on the day grudge-dropping Yogi Berra returned to the Yankee fold, because Berra caught Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series and here it was, 43 years later, on the same sacred patch of sod in the Bronx, blah, blah, blah.

This was the period during which I came to resent our lack of no-hitters enough so that on my first trip to Cooperstown in twenty years, I ostentatiously refused to as much as peek at the no-hitter exhibit. Not until we’re represented there on the right side of history, I told Stephanie.

Now we will be. We got as shiny a no-hitter as we could have hoped for. The Jimenezes and Smiths demonstrate all it takes is nine innings of stuff and luck once in a lifetime, but a Johan Santana extracts all the flukiness from the equation. A Johan Santana indicates there’s no mistake about this being a no-hitter (no matter what an Adrian Johnson does or doesn’t observe with the naked eye). A Johan Santana wins you the front page of every tabloid and ensures you’re the talk of the town.

If fate had dealt the no-hit hand to Dickey, it would have been a fantastic story, because what about Dickey isn’t a fantastic story? If it had fallen to Jon Niese or Dillon Gee, their Q ratings would have shot up briefly in non-Mets households. Jeremy Hefner or whoever the next Jeremy Hefner is being the no-hit guy would have ultimately fallen somewhere on the same curiosity scale where Dick Rusteck (only Met rookie to debut with a shutout) and Dave Mlicki (conqueror of pinstripes in the first Subway Series encounter) sit; a Hefnerian pitcher wouldn’t be forgotten, but eventually he’d need to be explained. The one thing that seems safe to guess is that for each of these fellows, throwing a no-hitter would be the crowning achievement of his career.

Johan Santana’s career, on the other hand, has been predominantly crowning achievements. I’m still getting it through my head that this was as big a deal for him personally as it was for us collectively. Johan had never thrown a no-hitter before? That might be the best argument for no-hitters not being that big a deal. If Johan didn’t have one, how splendid could they be?

That, though, overlooks the forty miles of bad road Johan had to overcome to pitch at all in 2012, which is what informed the garment-rending Terry Collins did in determining whether an extra 19 pitches beyond a made-up, arbitrary pitch limit was going to do in Santana before Santana could destroy our 50-year gnawing void. It also pretends Johan isn’t human and wouldn’t want a no-hitter to tuck in among his Cy Youngs and other superlatives.

The bit about Johan “taking the decision out of Terry’s hands” by telling him, in so many words, yo, I got this after six innings Friday brought to mind a story I adore from Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s kickass oral history of the ABA. Kevin Loughery was coaching the Nets and drawing up the final play of a tight game when Julius Erving laid one of his enormous hands on one of Loughery’s shoulders and assured him, “Kevin, I’ll take the last shot.”

Loughery was amenable to that strategy, but wanted to have a contingency plan in place. “OK, guys,” he told his players, “if Doc misses…”

“The hand came back on Kevin’s shoulder,” goes the anecdote, “and Julius said, ‘Kevin, I won’t miss.’”

That settled that. And Dr. J didn’t miss. And Johan wasn’t coming out of that game no matter the pitch count. And we weren’t going to be waiting any longer for that first no-hitter.

So now that we’ve got it, what’s next? I feel like I’m in the car with Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage after Edwina and Hi kidnap Nathan, Jr., in Raising Arizona: “Everything’s changed!” In the case of the movie, Hunter’s Ed was trying to convince Cage’s Hi not to hold up convenience stores any longer. Our everything changing looms as more cheerful, but a marks a fundamental shift in our lives nonetheless.

When a Met pitcher has a Santana going in the sixth or seventh inning, what will that be like? We’ll want it, natch, but how badly? What will it be like rooting for the second no-hitter in New York Mets history? If it’s Niese or Gee or Harvey or Familia or whoever, will the impulse be more “I really hope he gets this” as opposed to the reflexive “I really want us to get this”?

And what’s left of a never-got-one nature to ache for anyway? Put aside a World Series championship even if you’ve never seen one before, because the Mets have two of those. They have cycles, triple plays, a 6-for-6 night, 10 consecutive strikeouts, a batting title and now a no-hitter. What is left hanging out there on the vine that can be attained on the field? An MVP has to be voted on, so that’s not it. A perfect game would be something, but that’s like waiting for the clouds to rain candy. Not everybody has one of those, so it’s not as if the Mets are being left out. Ditto for a four-homer performance. We’ll love if it happens, but it’s rare enough to advise against holding breath for.

The phrase “the end of history” was thrown around a bit as the Cold War faded, but history just kept on coming. We no longer have our one glaring quest to intermittently preoccupy us, but I’m sure a singular outcome we hadn’t anticipated anticipating will take the place of the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. As biographer Richard Ben Cramer suggested Bob Dole’s governing priorities would have been had he been elected president, “something’ll come up.”

While we get used to having a no-hitter in our backstory, we’ll also be figuring out where Johan Santana’s gift to Mets fans will stand in our eternal esteem. Right now, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened, but a little of that is the euphoria talking. When it’s not yesterday’s headline but something that happened a while ago, where will the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History…I was going to say “rank,” but that cheapens the thought process. I’m not looking to say it’s better than this but not as good as that; I prefer to love every wonderful thing that happens to us without choosing among them.

I’m mostly curious if the no-hitter from 2012 will come through the years unblemished or if it will be battered by circumstances we can’t yet fathom. I’ve been witness to so many moments, games and seasons that while they were going on were universally embraced yet after a while were shunted into obscurity or, worse, came to be dismissed or derided because they weren’t enough.

Will Santana’s night of transcendence hold up as the singular episode we know it to be right now or will we decide (because we are the way we are) that there’s a “Johan’s Curse” attached to it because Mike Baxter got hurt preserving it and Ramon Ramirez got hurt celebrating it? If Terry’s fretful instinct proves right and Johan isn’t able to go five innings in his next three starts, do we view June 1 as the mountaintop or the beginning of the next tumble downward? If by August Dickey or Niese throws a perfect game, does Santana’s measly no-hitter seem merely adequate? How soon will it take for a fan at Citi Field to hold up the sign with the wrong letter when a party patrolman asks him to name the pitcher who threw the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History? (And how galling will it be that he’ll win the prize pack anyway?)

I’m resigned to accepting that not every Mets fan is destined to remember great Mets moments as they happened. I’ve been in too many conversations with too many people I like who were with me when such great Mets moments happened in which I’ve learned they not only didn’t retain the salient details but they forgot they were there altogether. So I don’t know in which direction the narratives of others will take the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History. It is my blessing and curse to have what I’ve been told is an unusually uncanny memory. Inside my head, it’s not a chorus of names and dates that take center stage, for anyone with Google can look those up. What makes my memory a pageant of pungent recall is my ability to recreate the feeling of — to paraphrase Walter Cronkite — the way it was. It’s knowing that something happened, that it unfolded as it did and that it carried a particular meaning in its day that needs to be understood later on if it is going to be appreciated in context.

Hence, years from now, if the first time a Mets starting pitcher went nine innings and gave up no hits to the opposing team is remembered as anything less than the essence of sublime, I’ll know it will be a disturbingly inaccurate portrayal of the way it was.

But I’ll also have to concede that when it comes to time, interpretation and retention, that’s the way it is.

Not incidentally, the First No-Hitter in New York Mets History has been great for business, as Faith and Fear’s WordPress-era viewing records have been shattered since Johan Santana changed history. Thanks for thinking enough of us to come here for what Jason and I were thinking in the wake of the night we were never sure we’d really see. And thanks just as much for sharing your own thoughts on this event like no other. The comments of the best blog audience in all of Metsdom have never been more of a pleasure to read.