Saturday, June 2, 2012

Johan Santana and the Night I Never Thought I'd Live To See

Bar on A is a pretty low-key establishment. It's at the corner of 11th street and Avenue A, it's not particularly nice, and last night the bartender appeared to have some bizarre foreign accent even though talking with her revealed that she was from Long Island. I've been to this bar many many times, mostly because they have a happy hour deal where all draughts are $3 -- though I found out last night the price had jumped to $4. In a lot of ways it's one of several default bars I lean to throughout the city, and it serves its purpose just fine even if it lacks anything particularly noteworthy about it.

I was checking the score of the Mets game while I was sitting at the bar, and I saw the Mets were winning, 2-0 at first, 8-0 later on. The Mets are doing surprisingly well at the moment and I was happy to see another win on its way, but I wasn't particularly struck by the zero in the scoreline. It seemed like another of many insignificant wins all like the other that are nice in the moment but not ones you'll remember forever. Around 9:30 however, my friend Weg texted me with two words.

"You watching?"

It took a few seconds to register, and I told him that I was at a bar and all I knew was the score, when suddenly it hit me. Johan Santana was throwing a no-hitter. And I wasn't watching.

To try to understand what a no-hitter would mean to a fan of the New York Mets is to undertake an exercise in diagnosing those specific pains and neuroses that plague the suffering. The Mets are a franchise rich in pitching history with men like Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Doc Gooden and others that have all toed the rubber in Queens at one point or another. This has been the backbone of the organization through its first 8,000 games and yet with all that talent and all the opportunities, the no-no remained elusive.

There have been plenty of close calls. Most Mets fans can recall the near-misses even if they weren't there to see them, such as Jon Niese's flirtation with a no-no earlier this year, a stretch in 2003 in which the Mets carried a no-no into the fifth inning or later on three straight days, or the three times Seaver got into the ninth inning without allowing a hit. People who know the team's history can tell you with ease that it was journeyman Jimmy Qualls of the Reds who broke up Seaver's perfect game bid in 1969 with one out in the ninth inning. They can also tell you that the Mets' 35 one-hitters are, comically, the most of any team in Major League History. And yet, those 35 times they just couldn't keep that one base hit off the scorecard.

In a sense, the lack of a no-hitter became almost a badge of honor for the team, but one we eagerly awaited shedding while accepting that it was a moment almost certainly never meant to be.

The even trickier issue of a no-hitter is its unpredictability. The Mets play 162 games each summer and watching all of them is a tall order that I no longer even attempt. Life simply gets in the way too much and if you plop yourself on the couch for all 162, that life that might get in the way will basically not exist.

As a result, you can never guarantee that you'll see the no-no. I would be lying if I didn't admit that in years past -- and this summer -- the thought hadn't crossed my mind of missing the first ever no-hitter in team history should I be in Europe or another foreign continent at the time. I would never really forgive myself for not seeing the moment, though I know I can't make my plans in constant fear that I might miss the one unpredictable day in 50 years of baseball history. Because you can never predict when a no-hitter will happen, you can't exactly assume that you will or won't see it when it happens.

But that fear of missing it, as a Mets fan, still drives you. Last night, I realized that I was in very real danger of missing one of those moments, and as I was drinking in a bar in Alphabet City in Manhattan, I had no excuse for failing a television with the game on. As I pulled the bartender over she simply said, "I know, I know, Johan Santana is pitching a no-hitter."

"No, we don't get cable!"

The bartender knew only of sports bars that were several blocks away, which, should it come to that, I would have made the trip to, but I knew there needed to be a better option. I ran outside and dragged my friend Samantha with me. Sam was my date to my high school prom nine years ago, and while it seems cheesy to say that your high school prom is one of those nights you'll always remember -- it is. And for someone like me, seeing the Mets finally throw a no-hitter, which I may see as many of as I did senior proms in my life, would have to be right up there.

As Sam and I jumped outside and left my friend Dave to finish his whiskey, I simply yelled out, "WHERE IS THERE A SPORTS BAR?" A group of hipstery 20-somethings laughed as I walked by them and I didn't think much of it, but one of them was curious enough to ask me what I was looking for. I told her I wanted to find the Mets game at which point she said, "Oh, the Mets are on at 11th Street Bar."

Not to be confused with Bar on A, 11th Street Bar is just as unexceptional, though probably far nicer of the two directionally-named bars on that corner. As we headed over we found that yes, indeed, the game was on and people were huddled around their two TVs. It was the bottom of the eighth and Santana himself was batting in an 8-0 game where the only thing left to be decided was whether or not Santana would finally end that most woeful of Mets streaks. Apparently two wild calls had already played their part. The first was a sixth-inning foul ball by former Met Carlos Beltran that, upon further review, was clearly a fair ball. The other was a catch against the left-field wall an inning later by Whitestone, NY native Mike Baxter that left him aching on the warning track, but kept the no-hit bid intact.

Most no-hitters or perfect games have a few breaks or gifts that go your way. On this night it seemed the Mets got theirs and as Santana tried his best to hasten the eighth inning and get back to business, there seemed the odd thought that maybe, just maybe, it was actually going to happen this time. There was some concern of whether or not Santana should even be pitching this late into the game of course. His shoulder had supposedly been aching all week and theoretically he was on a strict pitch count. At the start of the ninth he was already at 122 pitches, but all angst over his shoulder aside, Santana had been pitching phenomenally all season. In his last start before Friday night, Santana threw a complete-game four-hit shutout against the San Diego Padres. Of the 96 pitches he threw in that game, 74 of them were strikes. It was marvelous to watch. I should know. I was there. Collins admitted later that he thought he made the wrong decision to leave Santana in the game, but the GM, team president and even former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told Collins that the decision was a no-brainer.

As the ninth inning started, Santana was gifted two quick outs against the defending champions, and then up came David Freese, the World Series MVP from 2011's miracle run for the Cardinals. Perhaps Santana could sense the excitement as he ran the count to three balls early and bounced the first pitch to Freese, but he battled back and then, finally, as I watched at the 11th Street Bar, after 50 years, he did it.

There was an almost embarrassing amount of screaming and hugging in the bar, and I ought to say that Sam was a champ for putting up with it, but there were really no words that could define the catharsis that this moment represented for a Mets fan, though this morning every newspaper in New York tried. But if you knew a die-hard Mets fan and knew him well, you knew what this meant -- and my friends certainly did. Within moments I was flooded with text messages, facebook wall posts and Twitter mentions. My cousin, who by the grace of fortune was actually there, promised me a ticket stub from the game.

The stub will be nice, and I'm awfully excited for it. But in the end, really, all that matters is that the wait for the Mets' first ever no-hitter, all 27 outs of it, is finally done. It happened, it happened with the right pitcher and the right group of guys. It happened against the National League's top hitting team and the defending World Series champions. It happened dramatically, spontaneously and with a certain kind of interpersonal love of the moment that can't quite be explained. Even the bartender at Bar on A gave me a hug when I returned and demanded to know what shot we were drinking.

It happened, and I saw it. In the end, after 8,020 games, that's all that matters. Short of dementia I will never forget where I was the night the no-no hex finally came to its end, and neither will any other Mets fan because we all know what it meant to us to finally see it. As SNY finished its coverage of the game last night, there was one exchange between broadcasters Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen that to me encapsulated everything about the drama and how Mets fans felt about finally seeing their long awaited no-no.

"And I ask you the question, Gar. Did you ever think it would happen?"
"No," Cohen responded without even missing a beat. "But now it has."

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