02/06/08 9:52 PM EST
Mets usher in Santana era at Shea
Introduced to media, prized lefty proud to join New York
By Marty Noble / MLB.com
No computer confetti, but the air was thick with anticipation as the club brass marched into Shea Stadium's Diamond Club, the room where George Foster, Gary Carter, Robin Ventura, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner and even Fred Wilpon have made their Mets debuts in the last 27 years.
Somehow, this gathering seemed bigger, brighter, bolder and more important.
The Wilpons, the executives, the lieutenants, the agents, the family, the manager, the third baseman and ... finally, the pitcher marched in, and one day after the city rejoiced in its Super Bowl success, Omar Minaya said, "Welcome to the city of baseball."
The arrival of Johan Santana charged the air, and to listen to the Mets, changed the calendar. Some eight weeks before Opening Day, Minaya declared the 2008 season already underway.
"Congratulations to the Giants on winning the Super Bowl," the general manager said. "But today unofficially starts baseball."
One day after Hillary, Obama, Mitt and McCain were running everywhere, the primary news in New York was the Mets' newest acquisition. To the Mets, it was Super Wednesday.
Santana casually slipped into uniform No. 57 and into the club's future, saying all the right things, of course. "I look for us to celebrate like that too," said Santana. "This team will have everything to go all the way." Including, now, a No. 1 starting pitcher.
Whether Santana is an Opening Day starter is another issue. Willie Randolph had said Pedro Martinez would be, but no one is holding him to that. "It's nice to have two," the manager said.
Santana was in that first-day, willing-to-accept-anything mode. "They want me to be No. 1, a No. 5, I'll do it," he said. "It's good to have choices. I'll do what they want to me to do. I'm looking forward to a great season and to a great era of Mets baseball."
He bear-hugged the city where he expects to pitch -- and win lots of games -- during each of the next seven seasons.
"All I want to do is play the game and enjoy everything I do," he said as if that were a modest plan. "It's a new chapter in my career, and I look forward to that. I look forward to having a good time in New York. You come to New York, where you know you're going to have a chance to win. And I really like that idea. It wasn't a tough decision. It was something I was looking forward to."
He said he wasn't auditioning the Mets or Shea Stadium in June when, as a member of the Twins, he pitched masterfully in a four-hit shutout of the team he has since joined. But those around him have said his first preference after remaining with the Twins was to play in the National League. And the thought of pitching for the Mets had definite appeal.
He tried on New York for size on Tuesday night, dining in Manhattan with the Wilpons, his agents, his family members, his new GM and his manager. Santana was taken with Wilpon's sense of pitching and -- of course -- the owner's relationship with Sandy Koufax. A Spring Training rendezvous with the Hall of Fame patron saint of left-handed pitchers is planned.
"Fred was talking pitching with Johan ... 'This is how I turned it over. How do you turn it over?'" is how agent Peter Greenberg told the story. "Johan said to me later. 'I was in Minnesota for eight years, and I never even met the owner.'"
Santana probably will live outside the city eventually -- he wants room for his two daughters. And his father often visits from Venezuela. But he has tentative plans to rent on the Upper East Side for the first year and find out what works and where everything is. Chances are he can afford multiple residences, beyond the ones he owns in Fort Myers, Fla., and the one he no longer needs in Minneapolis; $137.5 million will go a long way in NYC.
His 56-year old father Jesus was quite an influence. Although the two-time Cy Young Award winner is left-handed, he began his baseball as a shortstop wearing his father's right-handed glove. "He said 'Johan always wanted to do what I did," agent Ed Greenberg said, quoting he senior Santana. "Now he wants to be like his son."
The older Santana still plays baseball and softball in Venezuela, although rotator cuiff surgery may slow him down now. But he played until he was 55 without a problem. So his son, who turns 29 next month, might have geneology that will allow him to pitch throughout the term of the contract -- six seasons guaranteed and an option year that can vest in several ways, including his pitching 215 innings in 2013 when he will be 35.
"Johan is confident about the option vesting," Peter Greenberg said. That confidence played a significant role in the negotiations for the contract. Santana wanted a seventh year; the Mets identified a seventh year as "a deal breaker." The Greenbergs were sure. But why chance it?
The idea of an option was explored. "He said OK as long as he could [be involved] in the vesting," Peter Greenberg said, meaning his client wanted a means by which he could assure, not guarantee, himself that seventh season.
If the contract doesn't provide that assurance and the Mets don't exercise the option, they can buy out the seventh year for $5.5 million. If Santana pitches the seventh year, 2014, he will earn $25 million. for the year, and the value of the contract -- all other clauses excepted -- will be $157 million.
"We didn't even realize it, but that number was there again," Peter Greenberg said. "Perfect."
The Mets believe Santana is a perfect fit at the perfect time.
"He'll help us look forward and forget last year," Minaya said.
Moreover, Santana is the type of No. 1 starter the Mets haven't had since Bret Saberhagen or Frank Viola. They've been to three postseasons -- and nearly a fourth -- with pitchers who haven't been identified as No. 1 starters, almost by default. Martinez wasn't strong in 2005 or 2006. Al Leiter did provide some No. 1 moments, and Mike Hampton passed through so quickly in 2000 and never lived up to what was advertised.
Now Santana is in place, and chances are Martinez, though seemingly healthy again and now more than a year removed from shoulder surgery, isn't what he was in 2004. Whether or not he abdicates to Santana, he will be the No. 2 man in the rotation, no matter who starts March 31.
Perhaps because Martinez and Curt Schilling had a strained relationship with the Red Sox, there is a sense that Santana and Martinez could become involved in a tug of war with the Mets. So far, their relationship appears to be one of reciprocal respect.
Santana has a collection of baseball autographed by other Cy Young Award winners. And Martinez has won three awards. A few years back, Santana asked through channels, that Martinez provide two autographed balls -- one for each of his homes. Martinez accommodated and sent four, two unsigned, with the request that Santana return the favor.
Santana was struck by the request and uncertain what to write, besides his name. "He sweated over it for a half hour," Peter Greenberg said.
"Pedro Martinez wants my autograph?" Santana said almost incredulously. "That must mean I've made it." The Mets think so.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.