When you grow up a New York Mets fan, you get used to the near-no-hitters. Despite an impressive array of pitching talent throughout its history – 14 pitchers who’ve won a Cy Young Award have donned the orange and blue – Mets fans learn to accept the fact that their organization is star-crossed when it comes to no-hitters. There are, on average, two no-hitters thrown per season, but none of them have been thrown by a Mets hurler. Sure, the Mets have thrown a record 35 one-hitters in their history, but no no-nos. Call it an inconvenient truth or an unfortunate reality, Mets fans grow up knowing that not seeing one of their pitchers throw a no-hitter is their fate.
I grew up watching Mets games on a portable, black-and-white television with a four-inch screen in my bedroom and, on April 28th, 1992, I watched David Cone mow down the Houston Astros with ruthless efficiency at Shea Stadium. Cone was the Mets’ ace and I was used to seeing him pitch effectively, but that night was different. Even my 12-year-old eyes could see that Cone’s great splitter and slider seemed to have a little more bite, his blazing fastball a little more juice. The Astros couldn’t touch him and, after Cone kept them hitless through five innings, I started to get excited. After six no-hit innings, I convinced Mom to turn the color, 30-inch television in the living room to the Mets game, which was on WWOR that night. Cone got through the seventh with no problem, once again retiring the Astros without allowing a hit. The Mets were already ahead 4-0, and I was rooting for a quick bottom of the seventh so I could see Cone continue his run toward baseball history.
The eighth began with Casey Candaele grounding out. Cone then walked Eddie Taubensee, missing with a 3-2 pitch. The pitcher’s spot in the order was due up next and Benny Distefano was summoned to pinch-hit. The Brooklyn-born Distefano had never hit much at the Major League level, spending most of his career in the minors; the Astros called him up from Triple-A Calgary just three days prior and he was getting just his second Major League at-bat of 1992. Cone’s first pitch to the lefthanded hitter was a ball. The next pitch was a good pitch, a breaking ball down and away, and Distefano managed to hit it off the end of the bat. The baseball rolled slowly down the third-base line where Mets third baseman Dave Magadan watched helplessly; there was no way Magadan was going to throw out Distefano and he had to hope the ball rolled foul. It didn’t. Distefano had his first Major League hit since 1989 and the Mets were still without a no-hitter in their history. Cone settled instead for a two-hit shutout. Even though the Mets won, I remember feeling empty after the game. David Cone was so close! I thought to myself, as I lie awake in my bunk bed that night. And, of all people, Benny friggin’ Distefano was the one who ended it? Who the heck is he? It’s hard to fall asleep when you keep shaking your head.
I had a different feeling on September 29th, 2007 when I watched the Mets battle the Florida Marlins in the season’s penultimate game, accompanied by my girlfriend, a friend of ours and his wife. My 10-year high school reunion was in Manhattan that evening so, through connections cultivated thanks to my job as the radio broadcaster of the Mets’ Double-A affiliate in Binghamton, New York, I was able to snag field-level box seats down the first-base line for that afternoon’s game at Shea. John Maine, a very talented righthander who was having a very good season, was having little problem with the Marlins’ young lineup. The Mets’ lineup had few issues with the Marlins pitchers, knocking out Florida’s starter in the second inning and building an 8-0 lead after three. I’d kept score at every Major League game I’d been to over the previous decade or so but I didn’t keep score that day, content to spend a relaxing afternoon with friends and show my girlfriend around Shea Stadium, which she was visiting for the first time. I even broke what had been one of my cardinal rules and left my seat while the game was in progress because I wanted to take my girlfriend to the Nathan’s Hot Dogs stand and have her partake in their legendary crinkle-cut french fries (she was a vegetarian at the time, so no delicious Nathan’s frankfurters for her). I noticed Maine was keeping the Marlins hitless, but I was conditioned; neither Maine nor anyone else for the Mets was ever going to throw a no-hitter, so no big deal.
My friend wasn’t feeling well, so he and his wife decided to leave during the seventh inning. Just before they departed, he turned to me.
“He’s going to get it,” my friend said.
“No. No he’s not,” I responded.
“Yes he will. It’s going to happen.”
I shook my head. My friend didn’t grow up rooting for the Mets, so how could he know? I hoped he was right, but I knew he’d be wrong.
Maine started the eighth by retiring the first two hitters. Maybe he will do it, I thought. He’s only one out from eight no-hit innings. Maine got ahead in the count against Marlins catcher Paul Hoover, a 31-year-old, September call-up who was playing in just his 15th Major League game. Hoover then beat a 1-2 pitch into the ground and up the third-base line; the ball didn’t go more than 50 feet. However, neither catcher Ramon Castro or third baseman David Wright would be able to get to the ball in time to throw Hoover out at first base. And, once again, the Mets were denied a no-hitter. Mets manager Willie Randolph pulled Maine after that hit, and the fans gave him a rousing ovation. The Mets bullpen didn’t allow a hit in the 13-0 win and I went on with my day and to my high school reunion that evening without giving a second thought to what I’d just seen. I’d long ago accepted that Mets pitchers don’t throw no-hitters, no matter how talented or dominant they are.
That changed on Friday.
I’m not much of a New York Mets fan anymore. I still like them and still want them to do well, but the strong affinity I had for them as a youngster has dissipated, a victim of my career covering baseball for a living. But, on Friday, I became a Mets fan again.
I was at Kauffman Stadium, covering the Kansas City Royals, who were hosting the Oakland Athletics, when I saw on my Twitter feed that Mets pitcher Johan Santana had thrown five no-hit innings against the St. Louis Cardinals at Citi Field. Then six no-hit innings. Once the seventh inning began, I was following along on my iPhone, using Major League Baseball’s At-Bat app. When Santana got through the seventh without allowing a hit, I knew At-Bat would allow the eighth inning to be broadcast free of charge – you normally have to pay a fee to watch the television broadcasts of games – because a no-hitter was in progress. I watched the eighth as a clearly out of gas Santana worked around a walk, but still prevented the Cardinals from getting a hit. I thought Santana – who underwent shoulder surgery that prevented him from pitching in 2011 – would be pulled in the ninth inning in favor of a fresh arm from the bullpen. You don’t like to see pitchers removed when they have a no-hitter going, but I thought that would be the prudent move in this instance.
But, I continued to watch on my iPhone as Santana went back out for the ninth. I breathed a sigh of relief when Matt Holliday lined out. Allen Craig’s lineout was followed by a fist pump. David Freese swinging over an off-speed 3-2 pitch for the final out got me out of my chair and led to more fist pumps. Santana did it! He threw a no-hitter!
And, then, I stood in disbelief. Not only did Santana throw a no-hitter, but he threw a no-hitter for the Mets. This wasn’t Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, the two greatest pitchers in Mets history, throwing no-hitters after they left the Mets – adding insult to injury, Gooden threw his no hitter for the crosstown Yankees. This wasn’t Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan, two hard throwers who never figured it out with the Mets, going to other teams and tossing no-nos – Ryan throwing a record seven no-hitters after departing. This was Santana, whose surgically repaired shoulder hadn’t thrown more than 108 pitches, tossing a career-high 134 pitches and running on empty over the last couple of innings. There were no journeymen catchers or light-hitting utility players to spoil Santana’s moment, the Mets’ moment. The Mets had finally become like every other team (except the San Diego Padres, who still don’t have a no-hitter). Now, when a Mets pitcher takes a no-hitter deep into the game, Mets fans will believe it’s possible for their pitcher to get 27 outs without allowing a hit and, if that pitcher loses the no-no, Mets fans won’t think it’s because their team is cursed. If Johan Santana can do it, then any Mets pitcher can do it.
But, man, why couldn’t Benny Distefano’s ground ball have rolled foul?Follow @raford3