Home / Clark Booth on Sports /

Santana ‘no-no’ sends Mets aficionados into orbit, but for the rest of us, it was hardly a big deal

All of New York is agog, and it takes a fair amount of juice to get the worldly-wise sophisticates of lofty Gotham in this much of a lather. The mayor may proclaim a five-borough holiday, once he brings the soft beverage industry to its knees. Might a ticker-tape parade be in order next?

The Mets, who in recent years have looked more than ever a sad-sack outfit wallowing deeply in the muck and mire of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, are again being acclaimed “Amazing.” All this the result of an odd sporting moment called the no-hitter. It could only happen in baseball.

Some background may be useful in the event your leisure time has lately centered on what may seem worthier pursuits, like devotion to the Celtics’ quixotic playoff quest, or your annual re-reading of War and Peace.

On a balmy evening June evening in the village of Queens, the New York Mets’ oft sore-armed lefty, Johan Santana, defeated the defending world champion Cardinals, 8-0, scattering five bases-on-balls among the 134 pitches that he threw but allowing no -- we repeat, NO – base hits. Or at least none that were ruled hits. Replays affirmed that a hard bouncer smote by the Cards’ Carlos Beltran (an ex-Met) in the 7th inning (as the drama was approaching impossible heights) was really a fair ball and legitimate double. Nor was the call close.

But that’s not how the ump saw it and if his judgment was blurred by a sentimental yearning to preserve an elegant moment, that’s his secret and so it shall remain. As for New Yorkers, they’re not letting yet another blunder by a poor umpire spoil such a good story.

And so Santana prevailed, and when he finished with a dramatic whiff of Yadier Molina, there was an explosion of raw glee in Queens unmatched since that unforgettable evening 26 years ago when Mookie Wilson’s squiggly grounder squirmed through Billy Buckner’s fragile wickets. For this was the very first no-hitter a Met had ever thrown. “So what,” says you. But here in the provinces we never suspected how much this deficiency had weighed on their self-esteem. Mets’ diehards had somehow seen themselves as so many accursed Ishmaels aimlessly adrift in the lost hope of redemption. So for them, Santana’s triumph was a Biblical moment.

Said Jay Horwitz, the Mets’ legendary public relations don who has been trumpeting their ups and downs for exactly 50 years:

“It’s almost like that… ‘Now I can die in peace’ … type of thing.”

As another New York legend, Phil ‘the Scooter’ Rizzuto, liked to say when faced with the inexpressible: “Holy Cow!”

And we thought all that stuff about The Curse of the Bambino had gotten a bit silly.

Actually, these stray no-hit items aren’t so odd. In baseball’s interminable annals, there’s been an average of more than two per year, which reasonably qualifies them as unusual but hardly rare. Red Sox hurlers have spun 20 and have had 13 spun against them. Earlier this season, hitherto unknown Phil Humber of the White Sox not only no-hit the Mariners but he also pitched a perfect game, and “perfectos” are significantly more difficult, there having been only 19 in the modern era, dating back to 1901.

If there’s no denying the journeyman Humber his magic “moment,’ the odds are strong that’s all it will be: just a “moment.” At 29, he started the season with a mere 11 wins and since his masterpiece six weeks ago, he has won just one more. It would hardly be surprising if Mr. Humber found himself back in the minors next season. Another still active member of this illustrious perfect-game club is the little less obscure Dallas Braden of the A’s. His 26 lifetime wins include a 2010 “perfecto” against the Rays, but he has been chronically sore-armed since.

That many authors of no-hitters have been obscure, even bush-leaguers, says plenty about both the nature of the achievement and that innate mystery that makes baseball, among all games, most compelling. When you get right down to it, this game, with its “Euclidian geometrics” (John Updike’s hallowed words), often defies reason. On any given day, something nutty can happen.

What do no-hit maestros Welden Henley, Bobbie Burke, Don Black, Nick Maddox, Mal Eason, Daffy Dean, Ed Head, Rex Barney, Cliff Chambers, George Culver, Don Nottebart, and our own Dave Morehead have in common? None of them won even 50 games in their entire careers.

After Charlie Robertson of the White Sox pitched a “perfecto” against Ty Cobb’s Tigers in 1922, nobody turned the mighty trick for 34 years until the Yankees’ Don Larsen famously broke the spell in the ’56 World Series versus the Dodgers. Lifetime, Robertson was 49-80. As for Larsen, his magic moment kept him gainfully employed 14 years, but he never escaped the shackles of “unlimited promise,” finishing just 81-91.

It’s remarkable, really. Rookie Bill McCahan no-hit Washington for Connie Mack’s A’s in 1947 and subsequently won just five more games. The Braves’ George Davis no-hit the Phils in 1914, then won only six more. In 1981, the Expos’ Charlie Lea no-hit the Giants, finished with five wins, and promptly disappeared the next year. My favorite example, though, is the immortal Bobo Holloman. In his first start with Bill Veeck’s legendarily awful ‘53 St. Louis Browns, dear Bobo no-hit the A’s, won two more, and slid into history -- along with Veeck’s Browns -- at season’s end. Bobo’s lifetime log was 3-7, but gallant.

All no-no’s are memorable but few parlayed a single great performance into more celebrity than the supremely wacky Robert (Bo) Belinsky. Wild-eyed and left-handed, Bo‘s epic came in the LA Angels’ first month of existence (1962), making him an instant darling of Hollywood’s smart- set, which introduced him to a string of starlets. Alas, that considerable strain took its toll. Bo lasted -- mainly for his comic-relief -- seven more seasons while compiling an appalling lifetime mark of 28-51.

Another favorite is Dave Morehead’s gem in September 1965, fashioned before about a thousand people in what had become the Fenway wasteland. The occasion is best remembered for having been the same day that Tom Yawkey finally woke up and fired his loathsome GM, Pinky Higgins. Then toiling for WBZ-TV, Ch-4, I’ll let history observe that it was my first big sports story.

No-hitters have contributed hugely to baseball’s lore and legendry. Many, though not all, of history’s greatest hurlers have spun them. The most notable are Messrs. Ryan, Koufax, and Feller with the likes of Mathewson, Young, Joss, Spahn, Hunter, Haddix, and Bunning not far behind. With their no-hitters in hand, contemporaries Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander might yet join such privileged company if they stay healthy, as might the young BoSoxers in the club, Masters Lester and Buchholz, although I wouldn’t bet on either.

Back in the good old days, there was the wonderful case of Johnny Vander Meer, still the only fellow to throw two no-no’s in a row. It was an accomplishment deemed dazzling in the summer of 1938, which was late in the Depression and before WWII, when we were all, admittedly, more easily dazzled.

In 1934, the Cards’ Dizzy Dean blanked Brooklyn in the opener of a double-header. In the nightcap, Dizzy’s less capable kid-brother. Paul, unfairly known as “Daffy,” blanked the Dodgers again while also holding the Bums hitless. “Jeez,” Dizzy is purported to have said to Daffy, “why didn’t you tell me you was going to throw a no-hitter and I’d have thrown one too.” Just wonderful, is it not!

Surely no-hitters have a certain magic quality even if they only translate into just one more W in the grueling season’s essential win-loss column. Does it really matter whether you win 1-0 with high “perfection” or 11-10 in a jangled, jumbled, artless, awkward, messy affair? Not really, at the end of the day.

In their desperate striving for redemption, the Mets can ascribe as much meaning to their first no-no as their hearts desire. But they are better advised to worry about whether the heroic Santana, who lost all of last season to complicated shoulder surgery, can rebound from his hugely strenuous 134-pitch effort. In the end, that is what matters most.