There are times when we all come out of our respective fan caves to meet in the proverbial town square, not as partisans of a particular team but as disciples of a given sport. A season-long march is being made on a heretofore unassailable record; a farewell tour is underway for an indisputable icon; an event that is both rare and impressive is unfolding in a hurry.
A no-hitter in baseball certainly qualifies under that last heading. Rare? There've been just a shade over 200 of them in the past 100 years. Impressive? Well, let's see: You're asking one pitcher to stifle nine batters (maybe more with pinch-hitters) for nine innings, thus keeping them from doing the thing they are paid to do... paid handsomely to do, mind you, because they do it as well, as a professional class, as anybody on the planet.
They make their living by hitting, and for one game, you, the starting pitcher, are preventing all of them from actually earning their money. Is there even an approximate equivalent for this kind of compressed individual phenomenon in other team sports, and if there is, does it come up with a catchy, compact name like "no-hitter"?
With ESPN and the MLB Network, depending on who's got the rights to show what, the modern baseball fan doesn't just hear that a no-hitter happened. He is brought right into the distant city and alien ballpark to watch it develop in full on a moment's notice. When the alert is sounded and the siren song of the no-hitter is absorbed, one of those channels becomes our shared town square. We put aside our provincial allegiances and we cheer the feat for the sake of the feat.
What's that? Roy Halladay is through eight? Justin Verlander has got one out in the ninth? Jered Weaver is how close? Phil Humber has not only not given up a hit but hasn't allowed a baserunner of any kind? Quick! Change the channel! I may not be a Phillie phanatic, a Tiger trumpter, a Halo howler or a White Sox wearer, but by gum, as long as history is on the verge of being made, I want in on it.
That's generally how I treated news of a no-hitter being thrown by a pitcher on a team for which I didn't root... which before last Friday described every damn one of them. When I said "yes" to a successfully completed no-hitter, it was strictly as an aficionado of the sport and as a voyeur of the human spirit. My baseball-loving soul might have been fleetingly enriched when a pitcher for somebody else somewhere else nailed that last out, but deep down, I lacked no-hit nourishment.
Because I'm a New York Mets fan. And New York Mets fans never had a no-hitter to call their own.
We had other stuff. We had two world championships. We had remarkable incidents involving grand slam home runs that turned into singles because our players celebrated their good fortune 190 or so feet short of home plate. We had legends involving black cats spreading bad karma to Chicago Cubs. We had a rookie first baseman who made three catches while falling over railings and onto his head in his first few big-league weeks just a couple of years ago (which might explain why Ike Davis can't snap out of his endless slump, since nothing else explains it). We had Casey Stengel after he was a genius and Nolan Ryan before he was a virtuoso and Yogi Berra when he was at his most quotable... but we'd never had a no-hitter. Per Mr. Berra from his Met blue period, when it came to discussing no-hitters on this side of New York, it was over before it was over.
Then that way of thinking was over, thanks to every Mets fan's new favorite Met of all time, Johan Alexander Santana, left-handed ace import from the Minnesota Twins, gutsy recoveree from serious shoulder surgery and now, at long last, author of the first no-hitter in New York Mets history.
Johan did it. He really did it. On June 1, 2012, against the highly decorated and undeniably skilled defending world champion St. Louis Cardinals, Johan Santana pitched nine innings without giving up a hit while the Mets scored a bunch of runs. Those elements equal no-hitter.
It's the first one I ever watched from the first inning on. In the beginning, it was just another regular-season game. The Mets had played 8,019 of those; I had been to the 8,019th, in fact, two nights earlier. Somebody texted me a couple of hours before Santana was to pitch No. 8,020 and offered me an available ticket. I declined the gracious invitation.
Though I suppose if I'd known a no-hitter would be pitched, I might have reconsidered.
But at 5:30, just like at 7:10, the Mets and Cardinals were just another game for all anybody knew. As the hours ticked by and the outs ticked off, it was clearly more than that. It was liberation, exhilaration, a half-century of release from the mysterious forces that held the Mets back from having what every other team except the younger San Diego Padres had.
In the ninth inning, it was David Freese striking out to make it official. The Mets, via the magic of Johan Santana, had one of these.
My standard reaction of appreciative applause and vicarious grins for all those no-hitters tossed by admirable strangers in vaguely familiar uniforms was subject to blackout when it came to what I was experiencing via the television from Citi Field. This was an occasion for hyperventilating, for hugging, for literal tears of joy. The lack of a no-hitter among Mets pitchers had grown into a communal thread of angst within the Mets fan culture in recent seasons. We'd always known we hadn't had one. Of late, as soon as a Jimmy Rollins or a Brian McCann delivered a clean single in the first or second inning, we'd taken to reminding each other en masse that we weren't getting one for yet another night (thanks, Twitter). The curiosity had grown into an obsession. When would we get our no-hitter?
June 1, 2012 revealed itself as the answer. I haven't settled down from the realization yet, and neither has any Mets fan I know. We weren't familiar with how these worked from the inside, so we're still getting used to it. We love getting used to it. We could get used to getting used to this for an eternity, to tell you the truth.
So if you came out into the cable sports television town square last Friday night and noticed a commotion and wonder why you're still hearing a palpable buzz emanating from our neck of the woods, please understand that it's all too new and all too beautiful for us to put a lid on so soon.
And on a personal note to Padres fans, we won't call the cops on your celebration the night you guys finally get yours. May it happen for you soon, because every fan base should feel like this at least once.
Greg W. Prince is, with Jason Fry, co-author of Faith and Fear in Flushing, the blog for Mets fans who like to read. His upcoming book project, The Happiest Recap, will examine "the 500 most Amazin' wins" of the Mets' first 50 years...with a likely epilogue devoted to the most transcendent Mets victory of their 51st.