“Everything ends badly. Otherwise it wouldn’t end.” That’s a quote about relationships — I thought I remembered it from some distinguished novel; it turns out, nope, it’s from “Cocktail” — but, as you might expect, it also applies to pitchers. There are exceptions, but not many. At only age 34, Mets ace Johan Santana is the latest to go down before he should rightly go down. After a 2011 lost to injury and a briefly brilliant but abbreviated 2012, he’s re-injured his shoulder and is almost certainly done for the year, and quite possibly, though you still have to hope not, just done. Shoulder injuries are bad news, say people who know about these things, and shoulder re-injuries even more so.
Watching Santana pitch was, for a decent stretch of time, about the most fun a baseball fan could legally have at the ballpark. When he was at his best, with the Twins, with whom he won two Cy Young awards and deserved every inch of them, he dominated with a light, graceful touch. His fastball zipped around the strikezone in the low-90s, his slider slid — but most of all there was his changeup. He delivered it, to all appearances, just exactly the way he delivered his fastball, and it made hitters look ludicrous. Santana usually seemed like he was having a good time, too. So would you if the best sluggers in the game were either a mile ahead or behind on your pitches, furiously muttering to themselves as they stalked back to their dugout.
He had not been that guy for a while, but he still had his moments, major ones, after being traded to the Mets. In 2008, his first year in New York, he put his team on his on his back, as much of an ace as you could ever ask, and won the penultimate game of the season 2-0 over the Marlins with a complete-game shutout to preserve the Mets’ playoff spot. To the extent that you can apply the term to a baseball game, it was downright heroic. (Strangely enough, the fact that the Mets lost the final game of the season, and therefore their playoff spot, the very next day, somehow did not diminish the impressiveness of Santana’s effort, but emphasized it.)
And then, of course, there was June 1 last year. It was a Friday, and I was out at Italian restaurant with my boyfriend; we were finishing our entrees and most of the way through a bottle of wine when both of our cell phones started going nuts. Get to a TV. Johan Santana. Eighth inning. Get to a TV. Now. We told the waitress there was an emergency, threw money down, did not wait for change, and dashed down Court Street until we found a bar with a TV, P.J. Hanley’s, where we watched the last three outs with a hearty contingent of deeply freaked-out yet hopeful Mets fans, many of whom had arrived after similar text messages. At the last out there were shouts and hugs and free shots. It’s one of the nicer baseball memories I’ve got, and I’m not even a Mets fan. It’s not every player who gets a “I remember exactly where I was” game like that one.
If Santana had a few more great years, or even a bunch more pretty good years, he would be a Hall of Famer. Of course, he’s hardly alone there — there are dozens if not hundreds of players you might at least wonder about. The longevity, the build or the delivery or the luck or the combination of those things that it takes to ward off injury and get to that point, is the rarest thing most Hall of Famers have going for them. And of course every baseball fan knows that pitcher health is fragile. But it takes something like this for you to feel just how unfair that is.
There will be some debate about whether the no-hitter contributed to this injury, or whether the ticked-off bullpen he threw after the Mets questioned his preparedness this spring had something to do with it, or whether it would have happened anyway. We can only guess, and quite possibly even his doctors aren’t sure. I won’t say that it doesn’t matter, because we (and the team) should take whatever lessons we can glean from what happened, if we ever find out. Still, it won’t be what I dwell on. It’s hard not to be sad about this apparent ending for Santana, but we got to see quite a lot from him before this. He will not be forgotten by Twins fans, Mets fans, pitching aficionados, or any batter who ever got fooled by that changeup.