(Also: Why I Love Johan Santana)
Note: I submitted this as a Fanpost over at Amazin’ Avenue weeks ago, but I figured I might as well post it here, too.
We’ve all had a little while to process and grieve the loss of Folk Hero Robert Allen Dickey. The trade rumors dragged out for a few days and then once the actual deal was done we still needed to wait for Dickey to sign an extremely accommodating contract extension with the Blue Jays. If the Mets were in a position to win now (not three years from now), and if the Wilpons weren’t broke criminals, maybe he’d still be here. Unfortunately for the hearts of many Mets fans, Sandy Alderson felt the need to sell high, treating the most beloved Met as a valuable commodity. Considering the circumstances and the haul coming back in return, it was probably the right move. And one that has bothered me on an emotional level much less than most Mets fans.
As popular as R.A. Dickey has been in New York, the face of the team has obviously been David Wright, despite his (relative) struggles from 2009-2011, which caused many fans to cry TRAID. Wright is the only Met left from the heartbreaking teams of 2006 and 2007, while Dickey, whose ascension to the summit of knuckleball-dom made him a big draw last September, was on the team for just three seasons, during an era of crushing despair. At times, Dickey was the lone bright star in a Mets’ universe approaching heat death (tolerable if the Wilpons were also wiped out). Yet that description of Dickey’s tenure helps explain why it’s not too hard for me to let him go.
Dickey has pitched for three irrelevant Mets teams, consisting of the flotsam lovingly referred to as #OmarsTeam. The last year the Mets competed was 2008, when the team was still legitimately good, but let down by a trash bullpen that led MLB in meltdowns. Sure, 2010 and 2012 looked decent halfway through the season, but spectacular crashes on the far side of the All-Star Break ended hopes quickly both years. 2008 was also the last year the Mets brought in a great player: Johan Santana.* I remember driving home from a night class and turning on WFAN, only to hear the words “trade”, “Mets”, and “Johan Santana”. I yelled and slammed the steering wheel over and over, envisioning a playoff run with the best pitcher in baseball acting as the Mets’ savior after the Collapse of ’07. As already pointed out, it didn’t turn out that way.
*Even before he turned into a mannequin, I would argue Jason Bay was merely “good”. There’s a reason he came at half the cost of Matt Holliday.
Santana, though, was as amazing as advertised, doing everything short of getting the clutch hits the team desperately needed at the end of the season. From July 22nd on, he averaged 7 1/2 innings a start at a 1.82 ERA clip. He pitched a complete-game shutout on three days’ rest on the penultimate day of the season, a game I was lucky enough to attend. It’s tough to beat experiencing an all-time pitcher at the height of his power in a playoff atmosphere. I was there the last time Shea Stadium rocked.
That game was enough for me to go and buy my first authentic jersey (for 50% off, of course): a Santana home jersey with the Shea patch, the same uniform he wore that game. Santana remains, along with Wright, the last link to good Mets teams. As Wright had his best season in years, everyone described him as “the old Wright,” the player who, in 2008, Bill James chose as the one he would want to build a team around. As devastating as those 2006, 2007, and 2008 seasons were, I have to imagine any Mets fan preferred them to the drudgery of the last handful. Baseball games in September with playoff implications (not to mention actual playoff games) are cooler than games where a pitcher is going for his 20th win.
No-hitters are also cooler than one-hitters, even if each are usually the result of bounces one way or the other — or blown foul ball calls. As Dickey was entering his Pedro-level run, right after he had thrown two straight 10+ K games, Santana had to go and throw the first no-hitter in Mets history, after lifelong fans had sat through 8,019 games without one, cringing at the tally every time the opposing team got their first hit of the game. No longer would the Mets be clumped in with the Padres, a team that never had a Tom Seaver or Dwight Gooden.
And once again, somehow, maybe due to wearing his jersey, I was there to experience a legendary Johan Santana performance. My dad called me in the 8th inning to double-check that I was at Citi, since I had told him a few days before that I might be going. My dad was watching the game with his dad, who was in a rest home recovering from hip-replacement surgery. Three generations of fans awaiting history. Up to that last out, I didn’t think it would happen. When Santana went 3-0 on David Freese with his 131st pitch of the game, I thought for sure it was over. Either he would walk Freese and his pitch count would continue to pile up, or he’d lay a meatball over the plate. Instead he threw an 86-mph fastball on the inside corner, followed up with a changeup fouled back, and then another changeup at the ankles, vintage Johan, to strike Freese out. I was hugging my friends, high-fiving strangers, and yelling on the phone while I talked to my dad, both of us in disbelief. Going out in Astoria afterward, I had people “congratulating” me at the beer garden, and fellow drunks yelling at me from across the street at 4 AM, all due to wearing that Santana jersey. There was really nothing Dickey could ever do to top that experience.
I don’t mean to denigrate Dickey’s incredible season, but emotions are inevitably stronger when the stakes are higher, even if they are just the result of randomness over a 50-year stretch. We’re lucky to have seen such a collection of games from a man who throws a baseball differently than anyone in the history of the world. We’re even luckier that it was easy to turn him into a folk hero: a man who toiled for years, but managed to unlock the secrets to an ancient pitch, all while missing a ligament in his elbow; a man with a glorious beard and a locker filled with books that would get a high school baseball player beat up; a man who climbed a mountain to raise awareness for human trafficking and has bunnies named after Star Wars characters.
I would just argue that Dickey’s great run with the Mets occurred in a relatively meaningless vacuum. He appeared in 2010 and has only improved since then, giving us those back-to-back one-hitters which are probably the most dominant consecutive starts in baseball history (Johnny Vander Meer walked 8 hitters in his second no-hitter!). He was even willing to play for this rebuilding franchise at Ryan Dempster-money, but he was instead used to help bolster that very future Sandy Alderson is building toward. That is the future of Zack Wheeler, Travis d’Arnaud, Noah Syndergaard, and the already-arrived Matt Harvey.
Only 23 years old, Matt Harvey exploded onto the Mets landscape this season, throwing 99-mph fastballs and 88-mph sliders to the tune of a 2.73 ERA — the same number as Dickey, arrived at with an arsenal on the opposite end of the pitching spectrum. While most of the Mets world embraced Dickeymania, I was more interested in watching Harvey. I even got together with some fellow Mets fans for his first start against the D-Backs, braving a derecho to drink beers while watching Harvey exceed all expectations. The future was finally here, and it looked brighter than the present, especially if Zack Wheeler was supposed to be better than this pitcher who had just blown away major league hitters.
Maybe I’m being too optimistic about the future (I think my optimism is limited to baseball). I remember back in 2010 looking forward to 2012 and the Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo contracts coming off the books. I also believed that, after the crushing end of 2006, a new Mets’ dynasty was beginning, a sentiment shared by many others.
But this regime appears to have a well-thought-out plan, one where there’s literally no player on the books for 2014 other than Wright and Jon Niese. You can take issue with the amount of money spent on middling relievers or the Angel Pagan trade or the complete lack of legit starting outfielders, but I think all that has been shuffling around ultimately insignificant pieces on a bunch of teams without a realistic shot at contending in a strong NL East. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to look at 2014 and 2015 as the light at the end of the Wilpon-Madoff Tunnel. Matt Harvey represented the first beam of light trickling in, and that’s why he was my cause for excitement in the second half of the year, even more than Dickey.
Dickey could have been part of the future, too, of course. Instead, he’s left to help the Blue Jays’ present, with two catchers in tow, to team up with Jose Reyes again. And I’m happy for him. Through the magic of MLB.TV, we can still watch R.A. Dickey. He might even get to pitch in some big-time September games, or, if current Vegas lines are to be believed, October games. The entire nation (two nations, actually) would get the chance to embrace Dickey the way New York has.
Meanwhile, I’ll be content with waiting for the future, watching Jon Niese and Matt Harvey, hoping Zack Wheeler and Travis d’Arnaud come up and contribute, and praying the infield continues to form a solid base. Johan pulling a Beltran and bringing back a prospect mid-season would be a bonus. Such a move would signal the end of the transition to the Alderson Era. It would finalize the process begun by cutting Ollie and Castillo — the same process that chose Wright as the cornerstone player to retain, since position players of his caliber and age now hit free agency with scant frequency. It would only be fitting if the Dickey trade became the best move of these lean years. He’d be the folk hero who disappeared just as we got to know him, leaving the world behind him with a path toward a better future.