No one can speak for every Mets fan, and only a fool would even want to, since it seems like a stressful job that wouldn’t pay very well and might involve engaging with Joe Benigno. We’re a diverse group, with representatives from every ethnicity and outlook and every spot on the political spectrum, from Ron Artest to Jerry Seinfeld and Bill O’Reilly to Tim Robbins. Ask 100 Mets fans their opinion on Carlos Beltran’s place in team history and you are likely to get 105 unique responses and quite possibly at least one punch in the mouth.
Allowing for all this, I have no problem saying that Johan Santana is revered by 99 percent of all Mets fans, a status he enjoyed even before throwing his no-hitter last Friday. Santana possesses two things the Mets’ fan base looks for in a player: Wally Backman-esque dirty uniform mentality and being really good at baseball, not necessarily in that order.
That’s why I was so baffled by a Deadspin post in which Barry Petchesky wondered if Mets fans wished someone other than Santana had thrown the first no-hitter in franchise history, under the premise that Santana is not a beloved/true Met. Leaving aside the “true Met” thing for a moment, this is half true: most Mets fans wish they could have seen a Mets no hitter several thousand games ago, ideally pitched by Tom Seaver or Doc Gooden but also quite acceptably authored by Bruce Berenyi or Armando Reynoso or Nelson Figueroa or Tom Glavine or Mike Glavine—five decades without a no-hitter does great things for this sort of tolerance.
However, the contention that Santana is not beloved would raise the eyebrow of any Mets fan who saw him pitch a complete game shutout on the penultimate day of the 2008 season on three days’ rest and a torn meniscus. Regardless of what happened in game 162 (look it up if you can stand it), Santana more than earned iconic status in game 161. He has done nothing since to diminish it.
During the past few terrible seasons, fans have blamed many of the team’s best players for its downfall—Beltran, Carlos Delgado Jose Reyes, even David Wright—and yet Santana has largely escaped the criticism levied at that group. There has rarely been as much anticipation for a Met’s return as there was for Santana’s most recent comeback, which began with a series of tensely observed and intensely parsed bullpen sessions in spring training. We watched in part to see if he could return to his old form, but also, I’d say, because he is genuinely loved. He has earned it, which is to say that he has—by a manner of accounting—earned those tens of millions of Wilpon family dollars he has been paid.
Santana is probably overpaid, but his contract does not inspire the hair-pulling ire reserved for the Jason Bays or Oliver Perezes of the world. To call him a mercenary ignores the fact that Mets fans have never had a problem with mercenaries, particularly when they turn out to be awesome. See: Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza, or anyone else who seems to enjoy playing for the Mets, and makes the team more enjoyable for his efforts.
And anyway, even if I’m completely off-base about Santana’s status among Mets fans, the weight of NO NO HITTERS became so asphyxiating (particularly in the last decade or so) that it almost didn’t matter who pitched it. Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman could’ve combined to blank the Cardinals and the fans still would have been delirious.
But in truth, it does matter who pitched this game, and there is no better Met to pitch a no-hitter than Santana. He perfectly embodies what the Mets have become this season, and much of what they’ve been throughout their 50 years of existence. Free of expectation and regarded as damaged goods, Santana and his teammates have played blissfully ignorant of these judgments and, on nights like last Friday, even flirted with transcendence. And that, in the end, is what Mets fans, and every other fan of every other team, want.