Johan has low-key take on hyped debut
New Mets ace excited, not nervous, about Opening Day nod
To many, it is a celebration, or at least a renewal of spirit. The game means so much to the people who monitor it, examine it, analyze it, obsess about it, or simply enjoy how it fills an evening, an afternoon or a summer. To those most involved in it, those whose professionalism demands a more dispassionate view, it's the first day at the office, and little more. They can't afford to let it be more than an assignment, no different than the dozens that will follow in the subsequent six months.
Such is the approach Johan Santana intends to take Monday afternoon when he removes the ribbon and wrapping paper from the Mets' 2008 season and pitches against the Marlins. Straight, objective, Joe Friday baseball.
Just the facts, ma'am.
"I'm not going to do anything different," Santana said, employing the phrasing he used before he threw his first batting practice pitch in February, and his first exhibition game pitch on Leap Year Day. He's going to low-key it.
Yep, a pitcher worthy of two Cy Young Awards and $137.5 million, making his debut for a team representing New York in a season following an epic collapse and starting on Opening Day, is going to low-key it.
And on Tuesday, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Tom Cruise will seek to go unrecognized in the foreground of a pay-per-view special staged at noon in Central Park.
If Santana does as he has through most of his big league tenure, he will produce a delightful episode for the Mets, and pay the first, on-field dividend on the enormous investment the club made Feb. 2. The Mets don't have to win Monday, and Santana doesn't have to smoosh the Fish either. The season won't be irreparably damaged if neither happens. But life around the Mets sure would become less stressful if he were to run off six or seven scoreless innings in a handsome team victory.
"I'll take that," general manager Omar Minaya said after that fantasy had been presented to him weeks ago, when the Mets' clubhouse was an infirmary and Opening Day seemed too close.
Santana acknowledges a sense of excitement about his first assignment as something other than a member of the Minnesota Twins.
"A lot of people are looking forward to this," he said.
And he included himself in that group. Though the Twins played in four postseasons during his time with them, he never has played with a team with so many weapons, aspirations and expectations, or such an impressive Opening Day resume. The Mets have the highest Opening Day winning percentage in the game, .630. Santana's first Mets team is intent on doing something different -- playing in the World Series for the first time since 2000.
"I know the responsibility," he said.
He sought it in the days that followed the Mets' trade agreement with the Twins. He sought the millions, more of them than any pitcher ever had been paid. And he understood the responsibility is permanently attached to them.
He embraced the whole scenario when he showed up at Shea Stadium on Feb. 6.
"This team will have everything it takes to go all the way, to make it happen," he said. "New York is the capital of the world, a great baseball city, and I'm looking forward to that."
That he is taking the ball for the first time in a football-first stadium, a mere two hours south of where the Mets have spent the last seven weeks, seems inappropriate for an event of this stature. But the Mets will let that ride if they can be assured of home games in late October with their No. 57 throwing changeups to any American League opponent.
Santana has started Opening Day games only twice in four years as a full-time starter -- 2006 and last year. He won one and lost the other. Even after he won his first Cy Young, for the 2004 season, he was the Twins' second-game starter.
"It didn't matter," he said.
Nor would he have been unsettled if the Mets had given this Opening Day assignment to Pedro Martinez. When he pitches is second to how well he pitches.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.