|Johan, in April|
My father called during the seventh inning. I was up in New Hampshire, sitting in the living room of my college roommate’s lakehouse after the four of us — my wife, Bryan, his partner and me — had returned from dinner. We were settling in to watch Lions for Lambs, a 2007 drama with Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford (who also directed) that I had never heard of.
“Are you in New Hampshire?” he asked, checking up on our itinerary, I figured. “Have you checked in on the Mets at all tonight?”
I didn’t get where he was going at first. “I saw Duda homered and they were up like 5-0,” I said.
“Yeah. Well, Johan’s through seven now, too. The Mets have the bases loaded …” And then he went on to explain what the Mets had done in the bottom of the seventh. But I didn’t care about that anymore.
“Oh! Right!” I said, cutting him off. “We’re about to watch a movie, but I’ll watch the game online.”
“I didn’t want to jinx it, so I wasn’t going to say anything. But your mother” — of my parents, she’s the bigger Mets fan — “said I should call you.”
“No, she’s right,” I replied. After a few more words, we hung up and I pulled out the iPad. “Commercial break in progress,” it said. We were heading to the top of the eighth.
Bryan stoked the fire and started the movie. I pulled out headphones and put them halfway in my ears, trying to follow the beginning of the movie in between Gary, Keith and Ron describing the game, commenting on history in the making.
One, two, walk, three — Johan Santana was through eight, becoming the first Mets pitcher to take a no-hitter into the ninth since Tom Seaver in September 1975. He was, in fact, just the second person to take a no-hitter into the ninth for the Mets, because Seaver’s three instances were the only other occasions.
But the pitch count is high — 122 — especially for a veteran coming off shoulder surgery and a year rehabbing. His spot in the lineup comes up in the eighth, and he strides to the plate, getting a closeup view of six pitches, then walking back to the dugout. The Mets are retired, and it’s on to the top of the ninth.
I haven’t been following the game, so I know nothing of Mike Baxter‘s amazing catch or Carlos Beltran‘s apparent hit down the left-field line ruled foul. I don’t know how many balls have been hit hard or how many plays have saved hits, even in the early innings when anything beyond routine is just a nice play, not a history-saving highlight. I don’t even know where the Cardinals are in their lineup, having spent the eighth half-watching, half-following the movie. But now I’m all-in; the earbuds are shutting out the dialogue on the TV. I’m not about to take my attention away from the game to see who is due up, so I just take it one batter at a time. It’s probably better that way.
Matt Holliday is first, and I only have a moment to ponder how dangerous he might be before he swings at the first pitch and sends what at first looks like a soft, looping line drive into shallow center field. Well, that’s it, I think. But it’s not, it’s out No. 25, hanging up long enough for Andres Torres to jog in and make an easy catch. I haven’t watched baseball in a week; my judgement on fly balls off the bat is a little off.
Up comes Allen Craig. He’s not a superstar, maybe even not quite a regular yet — his biggest moments in last year’s World Series came as a pinch-hitter — but he’s still young. Maybe he’ll become an All-Star. Maybe he’ll be a bit better than Jim Qualls. But his anonymity relative to the hitters on either side of him worries me. But on a 2-2 pitch, he flies out to Kirk Nieuwenhuis in left field.
Two outs. One more to go.
And it’s David Freese. Uh-oh. Last year’s NLCS and World Series MVP. The guy who is no stranger — and apparently has no fear of — pressure. A guy who quit baseball because he wasn’t motivated, then came back to it and became an October hero. Santana falls behind immediately, then deeply — three straight balls. And Yadier Molina‘s on deck — the guy who drove Baxter into the wall in the seventh, the guy who kept the Mets from the World Series in 2006. Double uh-oh.
But Johan doesn’t give in. He gets a called strike on a fastball on the inside corner — though he probably could’ve asked Freese where he wanted it, and still Freese would’ve watched it go by. Then Johan goes back to the changeup, though this late in the game, on his 133rd pitch, his 80-mph changeup is only 6 mph slower than the fastball on the previous pitch. Freese swings and gets a piece — but not enough, fouling it off. There’s really little doubt as to what pitch is coming next: A changeup. Diving toward the dirt. No chance it’s a strike, unless — YES! Freese swings and misses! Strikeout! No-hitter! History!
Sitting there in a New Hampshire cabin, I softly hiss, “YESSS!!” and raise my hands above my head and clap three times. Everyone in the room jumps. Casey, who’s used to this kind of thing from me, explains to the guys, “Yeah, this is what happens.” I smile, my heart pounding as I watch the celebration on the screen, and apologize, explaining the significance of what just happened. They’re not big sports fans, though they do follow the Red Sox and attend an occasional game. But they humor me with “Wow” and “That’s cool” comments.
A flurry of texts and tweets with my mom and a few friends follow as I watch the interviews online. It’s Mom — who has followed the Mets from the beginning, or close to it, who probably enjoys it more than any of us — who had the misfortune of being away from home with no MLB.TV account to follow it, and no sympathetic bartenders in the Philadelphia area who thought to switch off the Phillies game or whatever NBA playoff game was on one of the half-dozen TVs. You’d think they’d turn one of them to MLB Network or SNY (if they have a sports package) just so they could root for the inevitable hit, another close call for Mets fans.
But that hit never came. From the moment my dad told me what was happening, I knew I had to be watching through the last out. I don’t know if it was just a hidden sense of this is finally it or the detachment from baseball I’d had all week along the Maine coast, where the only baseball I watched was the Red Sox game, if it was on in the bar. I think it was more that I didn’t have a chance to think ahead, to predict when the hit would come, or to dread it’s arrival. I guess it seemed fitting that it would happen when I was away from home — away from work — and not fully invested in the day-to-day of the Mets, or any baseball.
And I’m glad we don’t subscribe to the events-that-shall-not-be-named theory. Not mentioning a no-hitter in progress is for the dugout. Maybe for the ballpark, if you’re in the stands and want to play along. But somewhere along the way, back when the streak was in the 7,000s, I decided that approach hadn’t worked for 40-something years of Mets history, so maybe another approach would.
This time, it did. And of course it would be Johan Santana to do it — though I had started to believe that it had been so long that the first no-hitter in Mets history would be pitched by someone like Chris Schwinden, someone who would turn out to be a journeyman, with no chance of having his uniform number join Seaver’s on the wall. (No offense to Schwinden, but his recent waiver acquisition by the Blue Jays makes him an apt and recent example.)
I woke up on Saturday morning with that familiar feeling of not knowing where I was, which often happens after the first night in a new bed. The rain on the roof reminded me I was in the loft of a cabin on Lake Winnipesaukee, and then I remembered what had happened the night before. It wasn’t yet 8 a.m., but I reached for the iPad and pulled up MLB.com’s extensive coverage, starting with the game story and working my way through every other link on the page. I learned about Beltran’s near-hit and watched Baxter’s catch again and read every word. History was made and I got to watch it and nothing else mattered at that moment than being a Mets fan.