Johan Santana’s Rite of Spring

SPSANTANA 5 MUNSONIn January of 2008, a few months after one of the more epic collapses in baseball history cruelly deprived Met fans of a chance at redemption for the call third strike that kept us from the 2006 Fall Classic, The Mets acquired arguably the best pitcher in the game for 4 unproven prospects. In Minnesota, a land of 10,000 lakes and 10,000 heartaches (if you’re a Twins fan) this was the latest gut wrenching expulsion of a cherished mainstay in a stretch that saw the Twins lose Luis Castillo, Torii Hunter, and 2 time Cy Young winner Johan Santana.

The Santana trade was Billy Smith’s first foray into the “blockbuster” business as the fledgling GM in training under the watchful eye of Terry Ryan, the longtime Twins General Manager. It was rumored that Ryan wasn’t thrilled with the specifics of the trade with the Mets and that Smith approached him during the final days leading up to the trade in an effort to obtain something akin to a blessing. Ryan didn’t give it, refusing to put what would have amounted to a seal of approval on the trade. His rationale was that he didn’t want to undermine Smith’s “final word” authority, Ryan wanted it to be understood that it was Smith’s team now.

In the months leading up to the trade another story had been quietly brewing in this quiet corner of the baseball universe. Santana was not happy. He’d voiced his disapproval of General Manager Terry Ryan’s tendency to periodically dismantle and rearm as the circuitous exercise in perpetual mediocrity the fans believed it to be. In August of 2007, Santana unleashed his sentiments to Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“I’m not surprised. That’s exactly how they are. That’s why we’re never going to go beyond where we’ve gone.”

“It’s not just about hope,” Santana said. “In a realistic world, you have to really make it happen and go for it. You always talk about future, future. … But if you only worry about the future, then I guess a lot of us won’t be part of it.”

“Why waste time when you’re talking about something that’s always going to be like that? It’s never going to be beyond this point. It doesn’t make any sense for me to be here, you know?”

johan santana twinsSantana was upset because the Twins had traded Luis Castillo to the big market big spending N.Y. Mets for Dustin Martin and Drew Butera, a defensive catching prospect with no real value and a low level outfield prospect with a decent eye and little else. It was a salary dump of some two million dollars. It was said Ron Gardenhire, the Twins manager wasn’t Happy with Castillo dating back to October of 2006 during the division series when, inexplicably, Luis failed to put down a bunt during a critical point in 8th inning of Game One.

Half way through the following season he was shipped off to N.Y. even though he was on pace to amass 200 hits and the team was only 6 games back. It was a strange trade for several reasons, beyond the fact that the Twins weren’t really out of it, the return for Castillo, who was having a good year, was minimal. The trade also happened so quickly there was speculation that Gardy wanted him out fast.

There was talk that the Twins clubhouse, which had in earlier years been a model of cohesion, was fractured. There was again tension between some of the younger players and the veterans dating back to an ugly confrontation at the conclusion of the 2005 season when Torii Hunter took a swing at young slugger Justin Morneau.

Following the Castillo trade when it was clear the Veterans would be sold off for parts, they weren’t happy about it and they let it be known. Castillo went on to the Mets where strangely the clubhouse began to fracture as well. There was talk that certain players were skirting the press and one incident where an unidentified player pretended his English was poorer than it actually was to avoid the Media. Meanwhile, Reyes was struggling with his hamstrings, and the team in general seemed to play poorly whenever Castillo was in the lineup, in fact it had become a strange and glaring reality how badly they played when Luis manned second.

It seemed like Reyes wasn’t himself. I don’t know whether Castillo saw Reyes as just another “Juan Pierre” speedster batting ahead of him or as the phenomenal talent he actually was, but I found it odd that 2009 was a lost year for Reyes while Castillo enjoyed his best year as a Met. Ironically it was said Castillo and Reyes clicked more off the field (as Reyes began to keep later hours) than they did on the field. I’d always been astounded by the arrogance of Castillo’s talk when he first came to the Mets about taking Reyes “under his wing,” as Reyes was already a far greater player by then than Castillo ever was, but I took it in stride and gave Luis the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he just didn’t understand how good Reyes was.

Eventually Castillo’s 4 year 25 million dollar deal would become one of the worst contracts handed out to a Free Agent by the Mets, as Luis found it harder and harder to stay on the field, or get on base, or even slap the ball onto the outfield grass, while Luis’ delusions of being on equal footing with Jose (or even his mentor) became absurd and comical in hindsight.

Santana, meanwhile, in 2007, had what you might call an off-year for a guy who’d won two Cy Young awards in the three preceding years and who arguably should have won a third. His era rose to 3.33 after averaging 2.75 over that 3 year span. I mention this because for some, Santana’s discontent with management was carried onto the field, not in an overt in your face manner, but in a “why should I give it my absolute best?” Kind of way. In his first season with the Mets Santana’s ERA dropped back down to 2.53, adding some credibility to this perception.

I admired Santana when he was on the Twins and was thrilled beyond belief when the Mets landed him, but while I liked Santana, the player, I always had reservations about Santana, the person. I remember the fuss he raised when he was working out of the bullpen in 2001 and parts of 2002, the way he bashed the Twins front office in 2007, the weird “be a man” comments, and of course the “consensual” incident on the golf course in 2010, but ultimately it was Johan’s disappointing performance on the field, the injuries, and the unfulfilled promise that deflated all my positive feelings. Sure, he’ll forever get a pass for delivering our first no-hitter, but as someone who has seen more than most fans’ share of Santana, in person, back in the hideous Metrodome, as well as on SNY, it was hard to get past the fact that Johan on the Mets was nothing like the Santana I remember on the Twins.

The Twins offered him 6 years and 100 million and eventually he went with Minaya’s offer of 7 years at 137 million. People decried the trade as a gift to the Mets, as absurdly one sided, but Deolis Guerra the youngest prospect with the highest ceiling in the Santana trade is still in the Twins organization and has quietly turned a corner while Carlos Gomez had a breakout season last year, albeit on another team. Even more valuable for the Twins, however, is the money they aren’t paying Santana in 2013, not to mention the money they didn’t pay him in 2012 and 2011. Smith is no longer GM of the Twins, Ryan took his old spot atop the organization back from his apprentice who never quite got past the failure of Santana’s return.

Sandy Alderson’s peculiar preemptive torpedoing of our de facto Ace and opening day starter yesterday was odd. Was he anticipating discontent from his oft-injured ace? Is there any truth to the whispers about Santana staying to himself and failing to connect with non-Latin players? You don’t really get the sense that Johan has taken Harvey or Wheeler “under his wing.” Has Santana become the new Castillo? The proud veteran struggling to come to grips with his own decline?

“I think there was an expectation that when he came in, he’d be ready to pitch,” Alderson said. “But I think that was his expectations too, regardless of the winter that he had. I don’t think there was disagreement; I don’t think there was a disappointment on our part or an acceptance on his part that that’s the way it would be. But it was clear over the first few days he wasn’t ready. So we’re going to get him ready.”

Santana’s response was somewhere between disdain and quiet indignation, “I’ve been doing this for years,” Santana said. “I know what it takes. And that’s what I’m doing right now — getting ready for the season, not for spring training. I’m very focused. I know exactly what I have to do, so that’s what I’m doing.” The following morning he decided to finally step out onto a mound, commenting, ”What is spring training for? Training.”

What I find more odd than Santana coming in with a weak shoulder, is Alderson’s cold hard criticism leading me to speculate that Santana is history. If he can get a handful of decent starts under his belt he’s gone, you can bank on it.

I was hurt when we traded Dickey, crushed when we lost Reyes (a loss I may never recover from as a fan), strangely though, and I’m not entirely certain why, I will not mourn the loss of Santana. He’s no Tom Seaver, in fact, he’s not even Pedro. Players age, performance declines, the years pass and we all get older. Some of us handle it better than others, and my thinking has always been that playing in the major leagues and getting paid 25 million a year would certainly be enough motivation for me. I understand wanting to win, but after a while the noble pursuit of glory becomes the awkward product of an unsustainable ego in an aging body. Still, Baseball returns every spring filling us with hope and promise, a strange and beautiful game.

About Matt Balasis 151 Articles
A Met fan since August 1969 when the Red Cross placed my family on the 6th floor of a building in Willets Point because of a fire. I could see Shea from our balcony. I missed the fall of 86 because I was in Boot Camp and I've been serving penance ever since in Minnesota. I write about the Mets to share with a tradition that made much of my childhood worthwhile. Follow me on twitter: