Johan Santana celebrates throwing the first no-hitter in franchise history.
If you’re not a die-hard Mets fan, you probably don’t get what all the fuss is about. Yes, Johan Santana hurled the first no-hitter in the Mets’ 51-year, 8020-game franchise history on Friday night. But Santana’s gem wasn’t even the first no-hitter in the majors this year: Phillip Humber, a former Met who was part of the trade for Santana, tossed a perfect game (only the 21st in baseball history) for the Chicago White Sox on April 21, and Jered Weaver turned in a no-hitter of his own for the Angels on May 2. Indeed, the Mets’ no-no-hitter streak wasn’t even the longest in baseball history; the Phillies once went 8945 games—almost six additional seasons—without a no-no, ending with Jim Bunning’s 1964 perfect game against (who else?) the Mets.
Nor does the 8-0 victory for the Mets count any more in the standings than any other win. Indeed, what Friday night’s result really signifies—that Santana is fully recovered from shoulder surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season—has to be far more significant in the long term than the quirky fact that, in the process, he held the St. Louis Cardinals without a hit.
So why does it seem that every Mets fan shares the reaction of ESPNNewYork.com columnist Ian O’Connor, who wrote that “[t]he Mets have been liberated for keeps” by Friday’s no-no? Why does even a cursory perusal of the blogosphere and Twitterverse make it seem as if a curse has finally been lifted, along the lines of the Curse of the Bambino that the Red Sox finally exorcised by rallying from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS and then sweeping their way to their first World Series title since 1918?
The answer isn’t obvious, but I think it is straightforward: For all the great pitchers to don the blue and orange, and for all the great seasons those pitchers put together, there’s never been that one moment of exultation—of crowd-driven frenzy over an accomplishment from 60 feet and 6 inches away. Instead, there’s always the ever-present instant of disappointment when, no matter how well things were going, it becomes another night of the same old, same old. In that regard, the dearth of no-hitters had fit perfectly into the broader psyche of Mets fans—one so fragile that we just expect to be disappointed even when things appear to be going well, whether in the form of a blown save in the bottom of the ninth inning or a blown divisional lead late in September. And so the no-hitter psychosis played right into that more general psychology; every time a Mets pitcher flirted with history, we just knew that it wasn’t going to last, and we waited dutifully for the other shoe (often in the form of a soft liner into the outfield) to drop. We gave the requisite standing ovation when—as they always did—a Mets pitcher deep into a potentially franchise-defining performance finally gave up a base-hit. Until someone came along and broke the streak, that was the best we could do.
Santana on the scoreboard just after being hit with a shaving cream pie.
But inasmuch as the no no-hitter meme helped to define the psyche (and psychosis) of Mets fans, it may also have been a contributing cause of it. After all, both mathematically and contextually, there’s no rational explanation for why it took 8020 games for Friday’s feat to occur. There have been 132 no-hitters in the majors since the Mets debuted in 1962, six of which have been thrown against the Mets (including Bunning’s perfecto and Sandy Koufax’s blanking of the Mets less than three months into their first season). Going on the law of averages alone, at least four or five should’ve been hurled by the Amazins. By comparison, every team that has been around as long as the Mets can claim at least five no-hitters (and the Dodgers have thrown 22!). What’s more, other than the San Diego Padres (who are still stuck at zero), every team to come along after the Mets has thrown at least one—including the four 1990s expansion teams, which have already combined for seven.
Forget the league-wide figures, though. What always made the statistic truly staggering as applied to the Mets was the quality of pitchers the club has historically fielded, from Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, and Nolan Ryan to Dwight Gooden, David Cone, Pedro Martinez, and Johan Santana. As a franchise, the Mets have always been defined by their hurlers—for better or, as in the case of Armando Benitez, for worse. Hell, Seaver and Gooden combined to win four Cy Young awards in Mets uniforms! But it’s that single-game accomplishment that was always lacking. Before Friday, the greatest single-game pitching performance in franchise history was known as the Imperfect Game (the first of the three times as a Met that Seaver took a no-no into the ninth inning, only to have it broken up), with David Cone’s 19-strikeout masterpiece—which came on the last day of an otherwise disappointing and utterly forgettable 1991 campaign—a distant runner-up.
Suffice it to say, in a sport driven by numbers, the absence of no-hitters going into Friday was a positively bizarre statistical quirk. And yet, it had also become a franchise-defining one. At the end of the day, the Mets’ no-hitter futility was as good a microcosm of the life of a Mets fan as anything else. The Mets have won championships (twice). They’ve been to the playoffs more recently than plenty of other teams (2006). And they’ve fielded their fair share of lovable stars and journeymen in their half-century in Queens. But disappointment has always lurked just behind the corner. The Mets of the 1980s should’ve won more than one World Series. The Mets of the late 1990s should have had more to show for their prowess than one pennant (which itself culminated in a World Series loss to the Yankees). And don’t even get me started about 2006 (Carlos Beltran still hasn’t swung). Losing a no-hitter late in the game when things seem to be going so well may not seem remotely comparable, but multiply that by 8019 games, and that’s the life of a Mets fan—at least it was, until Friday.
When David Freese swung over a Santana changeup for the final out on Friday night, Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen shouted that “It has happened!” Now that it has, what’s a self-respecting Mets fan to do? The world is suddenly new and scary.
Steve Vladeck is a life-long die-hard Mets fan who spends his spare time teaching constitutional law at American University Washington College of Law.