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When Johan Was Hall That

For the sixth consecutive Thanksgiving, Mets fans’ thankfulness index implicitly included “Johan Santana was ours.” SNY put the holiday to good use and aired what must be its most-aired Mets Classic, the game of June 1, 2012. It served as an after dinner reminder of who Johan Santana was and what he did for us. We shouldn’t require a reminder, but it’s always handy to receive one.

Through May 31, 2012, the Mets had played 8,019 regular-season games and achieved zero no-hitters. It kind of bugged us. You might not remember how much anymore because on June 1, 2012, in the 8,020th regular-season game the Mets played, Johan Santana went the full nine innings and gave up absolutely no hits. [1] From there on out, giving thanks for Johan (along with Mike Baxter’s sacrificial instincts and Adrian Johnson’s aversion to chalked lines) became the decent thing to do. Secondarily, SNY could give thanks that it had the one Mets Classic no fan in his Wright mind ever tires of getting sucked into watching for the umpteenth time.

Welcome Regional Sports Network programming decisions aside, Johan Santana is on the fringes of top of baseball mind at the moment, as he has this month made his Hall of Fame ballot debut [2]. Can you believe how quickly that happened? Five-and-a-half minutes ago he was pitching us a no-hitter and you turn around and learn, no, that was five-and-a-half years ago. There’s always a little of that reaction when you start seeing in the context of Cooperstown names of players you assumed were about to finish their St. Lucie rehab assignment. Johan hasn’t made the link between him and retirement any easier by never technically retiring. After the injury that ended his active Met tenure in March of 2013, he said he’d be coming back. He still hasn’t said he won’t be. For all we know, he’ll be in Spring Training on a minor league deal with the Orioles or Blue Jays. He did that, you know [3] — signed with Baltimore in 2014 and Toronto in 2015. I guess it didn’t take. I say “I guess,” because I know too much to put anything past Mr. Santana.

Given that he hasn’t pitched in the major leagues for five seasons, Johan is indeed Hall-eligible, which explains why he is appearing on a ballot near you, a first-timer, same as presumed certainties Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. Holdovers Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman were darn close last year, so they seem likely to jump the 75% threshold and also find their way upstate come late July.

Santana? Probably not, judging by the lack of buzz surrounding his candidacy in the spate of articles that declare who’s an immortal lock, who’s a righteous cause and who’s necessarily a pariah. That’s strange, considering no buzz ever made the swarm of noise the rumors that we were gonna get Johan Santana made almost ten years ago. Oh my goodness, it was loud and pervasive and hopeful and, eventually, real. We got Johan Santana. It was one of the biggest deals the Mets ever pulled off. [4] Johan Santana was, in the six or so seasons before he donned 57 and smiled for the cameras in Flushing, the best pitcher in baseball. That’s why it was a literal big deal that the Mets would get him. I’m still surprised it happened.

Johan had a Johan year for us his first season as a Met and Johannish follow-ups the next two years. Then he was out for a year. Then he returned and threw that no-hitter among several excellent starts. Then he was out for another year. And that was it, save for those minor league contracts elsewhere and his intermittently reported determination [5] to work again from atop a major league mound. In the mind’s eye, that’s where he belongs. He was the king of the hill in his time, time that lasted long enough to spellbind the sport, if not long enough to stake a claim to eternity.

The balloting has just begun. So has the nattering nabobism of who should get a check mark and who shouldn’t. Perhaps there’s momentum in Johan Santana’s immediate future where this Hall of Fame vote is concerned, but to date I sense he is being practically universally overlooked. Once your 2018 locks are certified and your 2017 near-misses are waved in, you’ve got the tired arguments to relitigate. Should the PED suspects who overwhelmed the game get a fair shake or the brushoff? Can a full-time DH be justly enshrined? What about a dynamite hitter aided by swinging a mile high in the air? Say, what do you make of a pitcher who can’t shut his post-career trap but who couldn’t be touched in October? Is defense as important as offense? Is relieving on the same plane as starting? Does quiet excellence speak volumes?

Then there’s the guy who took a back seat to nobody for a while, but probably not an extended enough period. That’s Johan Santana, Koufaxian [6] for the Minnesota Twins, close enough for the New York Mets. A helluva competitor. A helluvan accomplisher. Kept our team going when nobody else could or would. Rewatching the action of June 2012 from the vantage point of November 2017 diminished not a whit how impressive he was almost always.

With Mike Piazza safely inducted, I’m not hanging on every Hall of Fame pronouncement these days. I’d like certain legends to be ratified for ages. I’d be fine if a few others weren’t. There’s a lot of taking or leaving in between. We each immortalize of our volition, and neither my head nor heart takes its cue from the BBWAA’s blessing. Yet I understand what it signifies. Thus, out of respect for what he did for the Twins and out of appreciation for what he did for the Mets, I sincerely hope Johan Santana garners some semblance of his share of check marks. Memories can’t be so short that he fades from the ballot in a blink.

Five minutes. Five years. Five percent. What’s the rush?