I have been watching baseball since at least 1964, which also happened to be the third season of the expansion New York Mets. I don’t know when I first saw the not-yet-Amazin’s on television as I am pretty sure they weren’t a regular fixture on the old NBC Saturday afternoon Game of the Week.
Still, with the Metropolitans in the same division as the team I followed, the St. Louis Cardinals, I learned about their club through the eyes and radio voices of Hall of Famers Jack Buck and Harry Caray.
The arrival of George Thomas Seaver in 1967 (did you know his real first name?) could be argued as the first major turning point for a franchise that had always been woeful. How bad was it? The first five Mets clubs were an aggregate 275 games below .500.
Yet as great as Tom Terrific’s career with New York was - and it was - he never accomplished what I witnessed Johan Santana do at Citi Field last Friday night. As the entire baseball world knows, the Mets left-hander spun the first no-hitter in his team’s history. Just weeks after returning from a long rehab from shoulder surgery, the Venezuelan native threw 134 pitches in the process.
It was the club’s 8,020th game since coming into existence in 1962 and the first no-hitter I had ever attended at any level of play.
I watched Santana fire low-90’s fastballs past St. Louis Cardinals hitters as if they were at least five miles per hour faster. Though his velocity is down from his Cy Young Award-winning heyday, Santana threw his changeup and slider at least 10 mph slower and with what looked to me as the same arm movement as his fastball. It was devastating.
Despite all the focus on one unfortunate play, there were actually two plays of the game, in my opinion.
The blown call by third-base umpire Adrian Johnson marred the no-hitter for some. That included a St. Louis headline writer who re-kindled the old feud between the two cities when he had the audacity to include an asterisk in the title of a Santana no-hitter article.
Johnson incorrectly ruled that former Met Carlos Beltran's sixth-inning scorching liner over third base was foul. Replays clearly showed the ball kicked up chalk as it hit the line about six feet past the bag. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny later noted an impression of where the ball hit the line remained visible, but admitted he did not bring it up because he knew Johnson would simply eject him.
It seemed a bit odd but perhaps apprpriate that Beltran was the hitter involved in the play. Before the series-opening game, he had been the focus, mobbed by the New York press in his return to his seven-season home following his 2011 deadline trade to the Giants.
To me, the missed call controversy was no different than the perfect game lost by then-Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga almost two years to the day prior to Santana’s gem. Umpires make mistakes and the technology of today accentuates every one. Unless we want four-hour games to become the norm, a full implementation of instant replay doesn’t appear to be the answer.
Every no-hitter seems to have a signature play and this one was no different. It was made with one out in the seventh. Mets killer Yadier Molina shot a line drive to deep left. It looked like it might be over the head of left fielder Mike Baxter. Instead, Baxter flagged down the ball while running at full speed. He had reached the warning track by then and almost immediately slammed into the wall, pulled in for 2012. Though Baxter crumpled to the ground, where he remained motionless, he held onto the ball. It was obvious that his left shoulder was at least separated. He’ll be out six weeks, but his willingness to give up his body saved the no-hitter.
The bonehead play award has to be given to Ramon Ramirez. Already well-traveled, the reliever may not have strengthened his Mets future by suffering a hamstring injury - during the post-game celebration. The immediate price of the no-hitter was two players to the disabled list as the right-hander joined Baxter the next day.
The suspense through the final innings was heightened as Santana’s pitch count zoomed up toward its final mark of 134. It was a career-high for the left-hander that carried increased risk due to his recent health issues. Yet manager Terry Collins really had no choice but to let his ace remain in the contest. After all, the skipper had his own future to consider as well as Santana's.
Though it was hardly the first game in which fans stood and cheered during the entire ninth inning, this one was clearly different. Every Santana pitch and every step by the Mets defenders had tremendous importance, not just for that evening, but for its potential to end over half a century of trying but falling short.
Even those of us who were not Mets fans - or at least weren’t supposed to be - were caught up in the excitement of a historic event unfolding on the field right in front of our eyes.
I took the above photo just after the final out was secured. In the foreground, the Mets media relations staff celebrates as Santana is shown doing the same on the monitor at the upper right. Breaking the no-cheering rule in the press box can surely be excused on this occasion.
I was working in the press box, so while I have my media credential, I don’t hold a ticket to prove I was in attendance. As I joked on Twitter during the game, though the announced crowd was 27,069, I expect 227,069 will insist they were at Citi Field for the masterpiece.
Little did I know how right I would be. Here’s how it will come about.
The club is selling reprinted tickets from the game for a cost of $50 plus shipping and handling fees. That way, if you couldn’t attend, you can “prove” you did, anyway. Season-ticket holders can order the tickets for free, because after all, at least they paid for the seats.
Never missing an opportunity, the Mets devised another method to make more money from the event.
The club is hawking “No-han” t-shirts in their team store. It seemed a nice move – until one saw the price, that is - $32 (since dropped to $25). It is true that everything is more costly in The Big Apple.
What about Seaver, you ask?
The press elevators at Citi Field open into a wood-paneled lobby where there are many beautifully-framed photos of Seaver, taken after great moments in his career. After all, he was a Rookie of the Year, was voted three Cy Young Awards, won 311 games, including 25 in the magical 1969 World Championship season, and so much more.
Seaver had thrown five one-hitters with New York, including two no-hitters that were broken up in the ninth inning. He never celebrated one in a Mets uniform, however.
Ironically, Santana has joined Seaver in one related category. Johan is the eighth pitcher in history to throw a no-hitter at the Cardinals. Seaver was the fifth. Sadly, at the time - June 16, 1978, Seaver was no longer with New York. He was wearing the uniform of the Cincinnati Reds, following one of the biggest mistakes in Mets history – Seaver’s 1977 trade.
Now, Santana has made sure that the Mets can be ashamed no more. Even if Seaver didn’t accomplish it, they finally have their no-hitter. And I was fortunate enough to be there to take it all in, an experience that was truly priceless.
Brian Walton was the 2009 National League Tout Wars champion, scoring the most points in the league’s 14-year history. Though he is the only one to remember or care, he also finished second in each of the two subsequent seasons. His work can also be found daily at TheCardinalNation.com and thecardinalnationblog.com and in-season at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.