Asterisk and Reward

Stand tall. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Johan Santana was going to throw the first Mets' no-hitter, or the Mets would never have a no hitter. I felt this keenly when witnessing Friday night's historic game. As Santana's pitch count escalated, the inherent danger of putting such a strain on a reconstructed shoulder loomed over his every offering. But it was clear to anyone watching the game--and anyone who'd ever seen Santana pitch--that to remove him from the mound at that point would have required a shotgun.

It reminded me of the complete game shutout Santana executed in game 161 of 2008 while operating on three days' rest and a torn meniscus, still one of the most unreal, electric games I ever saw at Shea. With the Mets' season hinging on the outcome of that game, it was obvious from his very first pitch that he was simply not going to allow the opposition to score. Mets fans have seen many close calls when it comes to no hitters, many games where a bloop hit or a sinking line drive or the dinkiest of bunts broke up a no-hit bid. And yet, once Santana got past the rough early innings with a 0 in the H column, you got the feeling that he would will his no-no to the finish line.

When looked at rationally, the Mets never having a no-hitter for 50+ seasons was more statistical anomaly than a sign of the baseball gods' wrath. But this is obviously an occurrence that defies sober reflection. It was a rare event that made millions of people, regardless of team allegiance, to stand up and cheer, and make the cynical sports press--who are especially cynical when it comes to Mets matters--pen wide-eyed columns full of Little League earnestness. I can't tell you how many people with zero rooting interests in the Mets congratulated me in the last few days, and I'm sure the same is true of many other Mets fans. (I, of course, stupidly responded with "thanks!", as if I deserved some of the credit for Johan's feat.)

Not everyone was overjoyed about this turn of events, though. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized Santana's accomplishment by placing an asterisk next to the word NO-HITTER in its backpage headline. This was because a Carlos Beltran liner ruled foul by third base umpire Adrian Johnson in the top of the sixth actually hit the chalk. Third base coach Jose Oquendo and manager Mike Matheny protested to Johnson, with the same level of success as every coach who has ever argued with an umpire. Beltran eventually grounded out, and Santana all but cruised the rest of the way (thanks in large part to a collarbone-destroying catch by Mike Baxter in left field).

As someone who has screamed loud and long for Bud Selig to join the 21st century and institute expanded review, do I have to throw this no hitter back? I have to respond with a resounding "no."

The play in question happened so quickly and was so close, the umpire's mistake was understandable. In the annals of blown calls, I'd say it's a fairly mild one, nowhere near as egregious as the one made by Jim Joyce that took a perfect game away from Armando Galarraga. (Sort of a Johan in reverse.) You can watch the slow-motion replay and scratch your head, but if you watch the play in real time, it is far less cut and dry.

Even if Johnson's error had been more brutal, when it comes to a baseball game, we can only deal with actual outcomes, not some fan fiction idea of shoulda coulda woulda. If review was in place, Beltran's knock could have been ruled a hit. And if you needed five balls for a walk instead of four, Santana could have issued fewer free passes. Both of these scenarios are equally pointless to ponder, because they are both completely defiant of the rules of the game as they exist now.

You might as well wonder what might have happened if Honus Wagner didn't play in the deadball era. Or what Sandy Koufax's numbers might have been if he had to pitch at the modern mound height. Or what what would have happened back in 1998 if the game had mandatory steroid testing. Had that testing been in place, a certain red-haired slugger who wore a Cardinals uniform and was covered by the Post-Dispatch on a daily basis might not have hit 70 homers. The fact is, while steroids were technically illegal at the time, MLB's rules for testing and punishment were such a joke that they almost constituted a tacit approval of their use. There is no asterisk next to Mark McGwire's tater totals, nor should there be. However McGwire hit them, he hit them under the rules and culture of the game as they stood at the time.

Attaching an asterisk to Santana's no hitter obliquely insists that every other no hitter has been free from questionable calls, an assumption that is specious at best (as amply demonstrated by this Fanpost from Brooklyn Dodgers Mets Fan). How many no hitters were aided by favorable strike calls? Is getting a strike call a foot off the plate any better than Johnson's error? I'd say this makes Santana's feat even more remarkable, since he was decidedly squeezed in the game's early innings by home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom.

Blown calls are part of baseball. They shouldn't be in the year 2012, but they are. The Mets don't have to give back their first no hitter any more than the Cardinals have to vacate last year's championship because they benefited from a blown call in a World Series game they went on to win. Every single team in the majors has both benefited and suffered from an umpire's mistake. In last night's game alone, we saw a Cardinal runner get called safe at first on a play where Ike Davis had his foot on the bag, and we saw Daniel Murphy get a generous out call at second on the time-honored "neighborhood" play.

If we take away Santana's no hitter, or even qualify it, we'd have to similarly invalidate or downgrade pretty much everything that has ever happened in the history of baseball. The record books would contain nothing but asterisks.

Since the end of the 2006 season, the Mets have packed several decades' worth of misery into a very short period of time. Much of this woe was the result of bad management, poor decisions, and shortsighted team building. Some of it was just horrid luck. None of it can pinned on the fans. I pity the kind of person who would begrudge those fans this moment of joy because they want to apply a standard of purity to Santana's no hitter they refuse to apply elsewhere.

But I'll tell such people these grapes taste sour anyway if it makes them feel any better. And I'll be glad to lend them some asterisks the next time their team benefits from a bad call. There's plenty of these asterisks laying around unused, since apparently the Mets are the only team whose accomplishments must carry them.

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