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Waiting for Superman

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Warming up... Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE
Warming up... Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-US PRESSWIRE

On Tuesday, the entire Mets world watched Johan Santana's spring debut with bated breath. (Or if you were like me and had no viewing options available, you watched your Twitter feed with bated breath.) Santana hadn't pitched since late 2010, felled by the kind of shoulder injury that has killed many other careers. Everyone knows the Mets' chances this season hinge on his left arm, and no one pretends otherwise. And when I say "chances," I don't mean "competing for a playoff spot" as much as I mean "being watchable."

You had to be encouraged by what you saw. Santana threw two scoreless innings and didn't labor all that much in doing so. His velocity sat mostly in the high 80s, and you would expect those numbers to increase a tick or two by the end of the spring training. Yadier Molina, who has no vested interest in making Santana feel better about himself, thought his changeup was of vintage strength.

It would be foolish and premature to read anything into anyone's first spring start, and the real test will be how Santana feels in the next few days, particularly when it's his day to throw. And yet, there is just something about seeing Santana back on the mound that is reassuring. Because you know that once he gets up there, it will take a forklift or a grenade to get him off.

If there is an indelible image of Santana in a Mets uniform, it is him on the mound for game 161 in 2008. Even if you lived through that time, it's hard to express in words the sense of doom that hung over the team then, the dread of the inevitable, with everyone--fans, press, even the team itself--thinking This is going to happen again, isn't it?

As we all know, yes, "it" happened two years in a row. I'm uncomfortable with calling 2008 a collapse, especially compared to 2007. Let's just say that for two straight seasons, the Mets missed out on the playoffs, and haven't been heard from competitively since.

But still, that game 161. I was there. I didn't really want to be at Shea, but I had tickets and the thought of wasting them hurt my wallet. I went out of obligation, some small part of me hoping the Mets would lose and remove all hope so I could get on with the rest of my life. Everyone else in attendance felt the same way. You could just feel it. When 40,000+ people are in one place and they're all in the same miserable state of mind, their emotions become almost visible.

And then, Santana took the mound, and from the moment he threw his first pitch, you could tell they would not lose this game. He would not allow them to. A crowd that had been doornail-dead moments before suddenly gained Herculean strength and confidence. Apart from playoff games, I have never been to a Mets game with that kind of insane energy. It was like Shea was a flaming Viking ship, and Santana was steering it between the icebergs for as long as he could. He went nine innings that day only because that's all they needed. He could have gone twice that and more, I'm sure of it.

Right before the game, I ran into a friend from high school who just happened to be sitting the next section over, someone I hadn't seen in a while. We talked for a little bit, and then the game started, and we were riveted. We didn't speak except to cheer strike outs. We didn't move except to give Santana a standing ovation. And then the game was over, and we said goodbye and went our separate ways. What else was there to say to each other after watching that?

Santana still has a long way to go. To think he can make it through a long, grueling season coming off of a shoulder injury is a lot to ask. And he might never again have the pure "stuff" he once did. But I saw him pitch a complete game shutout on three days' rest with a torn meniscus that nobody knew anything about, and momentarily give hope to fans that had absolutely no reason to have any.

So if you told me Santana will be 75 percent of what he once was, I'd tell you I've seen it, and it's more than enough.