Sans Johan, Mets can still be magical

Johan Santana was just as tough as the city he represented, tough enough to alter the sadsack course of New York Mets history by throwing their first no-hitter. He will be forever remembered for that June night, and for the fact many fans believe those 134 magical pitches against St. Louis validated his $137.5 million contract, and then some.

Some Mets fans will also never forget that in 2008, with his team falling apart at the end of a doomed playoff race, Santana delivered a three-hit shutout against Florida on short rest and with a torn meniscus in his left knee.

"It's time to be a MAN," read the handwritten quote Santana had posted on the clubhouse wall.

He was the man for the Mets, at least when he was healthy, and yet the obituary on his Shea Stadium and Citi Field career will report he wasn't healthy enough, not even close. Knee surgery and elbow surgery preceded the serious shoulder surgery on his torn anterior capsule in September 2010, which preceded Thursday's bulletin that Santana suffered the same tear and probably needs the same season-ending, career-threatening surgery all over again.

He's likely done at age 34, after pitching only 109 games for that six-year, $137.5 million deal the Mets gave him. Was this the predictable result of pushing it for that no-hitter after shoulder surgery and a full season off? Did Santana blow out his shoulder again that spring training day he threw from the mound in an I'll-show-you rage after Sandy Alderson, GM, claimed he didn't arrive in pitching shape?

"We don't know when it happened," Alderson said, "how it happened."

And that was that. The GM said the $25.5 million balance on Santana's deal wasn't insured, another encouraging piece of financial news for a franchise operating in a never-ending recession.

But truth is, Santana was going to start the season on the disabled list and the Mets weren't expecting much from him in 2013, anyway. They saw how he came undone after last year's no-hitter, and they knew the wear and tear had diminished him for keeps. In their hearts and minds, they'd already moved on to Matt Harvey and, soon enough, Zack Wheeler.

So this can still be a season for the Mets to pleasantly surprise a fan base that has come to expect the worst-case scenario. This would be the perfect time for a mid-major franchise in a high-major town to become baseball's answer to Florida Gulf Coast University.

With the Yankees said to be on the verge of ruin, Roman Empire style, the Mets could fill the void by bucking their zillion-to-one odds. They will open up against San Diego on Monday with a Long Island Ducks outfield and enough holes up and down the roster to suggest they might be done playing meaningful games before the Knicks are eliminated.

"But nothing is out of the realm of possibility," Bobby Valentine, the Mets' old manager and new pre- and postgame voice on SNY, said by phone before the Santana news broke. "I don't think you have to think about them as Florida Gulf Coast. You've got to think some of the National League will come back to the pack a little, and every year in baseball you have teams that surprise you."

Baltimore won 93 games last year after winning fewer than 70 over five straight seasons. Oakland won 94 games last year after spending four of the previous five seasons south of .500.

Why can't the Mets, for once, stand among these inspiring underdogs, rather than shock the world by showing just how uninspiring they can be on and off the field?

"I'd really like to see it happen, because it's what baseball needs," Valentine said. "I think it will happen. I just feel like it will. I haven't seen the Mets up close and personal yet ... but I just look at the individuals they have, and I think that's a good start.

"I like their corners, David Wright and Ike [Davis]. I've always liked the [Lucas] Duda kid. I like [Jonathon] Niese. I like Harvey. I've been with Ike and David so I can tell you that they're made of the right stuff. I've been with Harvey a couple of times and I like the feel that I got."

No, Valentine wasn't predicting a Mets run to the Elite Eight (or the Terrific Ten, counting the extra wild card in each league) on his first official day as an SNY analyst for 12 to 15 games, 12 to 15 games that will undoubtedly compel Terry Collins to DVR the pre- and postgame shows. But as a guy who thought he'd be starting his second year managing the Red Sox instead of kneeling in the on-deck circle as Sacred Heart University's athletic director-to-be, Valentine understands that a six-month baseball season is a wildly unpredictable beast.

Powerful franchises with limitless budgets can collapse just like that, as Valentine's Red Sox did in 2012, finishing dead last at 69-93. And Loserville teams such as the Washington Nationals can average 91 losses over a seven-year span before fielding some of the most dynamic young players in the sport, going 98-64, and winning the NL East.

Can Matt Harvey be the Mets' Stephen Strasburg? Can lumbering Lucas Duda at least match the power output of the speedy and athletic Bryce Harper?

Conventional wisdom says no, not yet, especially on the Duda-Harper front. But conventional wisdom often doesn't hold up over 162 games.

"Baseball is such a long season," Valentine said, "and so much of it is contingent on the health of your players. Right now it seems the Yankees don't have enough of their good players healthy, but they might before it's all over. It looks like the National League East has health returning to Philadelphia and Washington, but you don't know if that will hold true as the season goes on.

"I have to see the rest of the competition, but if the Mets develop some chemistry, they can be an interesting and exciting group."

Valentine's presence made the Mets a more interesting group at the start of 1997, his first full season at Shea. The home team had suffered through six consecutive losing seasons, finishing a combined 98 games under .500, before Valentine won 88, 88, 97, and 94 games across a four-year run that culminated in a 2000 World Series death match with the Yankees, a crushing five-game defeat.

"We captivated the entire town," Valentine said. "It was a spectacular time, a great time to be a Met."

Six years later, Willie Randolph led the Mets to Game 7 of the NLCS. Ever since, Mets fans have been subjected to a staggering pair of end-of-season choke jobs, four consecutive losing seasons, the Bernie Madoff meltdown, and, of course, the Johan Santana breakdown.

They barely had time to bask in Santana's no-no.

So Mets fans could use a good bounce in the worst way. "They deserve it," Valentine said. "They deserve a team they can be proud of.

"It would be great for the city and for baseball if the Yankees were good at the same time. The Mets fan will take sole ownership if that doesn't happen, but I don't see the Yankees going away like people think. I think they're going to be where they always were."

The Mets? They don't have to be where they've usually been, even without Johan Santana. Sometimes mid-majors come out of nowhere, and this is one mid-major baseball team in a high-major town that is long overdue.