How do you frame a moment in sports history that essentially frames itself?
After all, Johan Santana’s 134-pitch masterpiece Friday night was the first no-hitter in the half-century-long history of the New York Mets. That’s really all the framing you need from a wide-lens perspective.
But what makes a great moment so special is that, when you zoom in on that instant in time, whether it’s the three hours of drama or the few indescribable moments of ecstasy, is that it takes on a special meaning on a personal level.
Everyone knows what Santana’s no-hitter means to the fanbase, but what does it mean to the fan? The answer, of course, is different for everyone. Here’s what it means to me.
I grew up a Mets fan, hearing stories of the past. Most were of disappointment, some where of sheer joy, others were of what-could-have-been. One of those that falls into the latter category is the infamous story of Jimmy Qualls, who, on July 9, 1969, singled with one out in the ninth inning to break up Tom Seaver’s perfect game.
On that day, my father recalls, he turned the game on and in about the third inning, decided to rest his foot on a chair. That foot never moved until the ninth when Qualls, who must have been unaware Mets fans would suffer through about 43 more years of no-hitter-less games, broke up the perfect game. “I realized I couldn’t feel my foot,” my dad fondly recalls every time he tells the story (and believe me, there have been many times).
Fast forward to Friday night.
Some time around the third inning, when Santana still hadn’t allowed a hit (and as Mets fans, no-hitters become apparent after the first batter is retired), my dad turned to me and said, “He’s gonna need 135 pitches to get this done.”
I guess he was going for a different approach tonight, I thought to myself. Rather than try not to jinx it, he’d talk openly about it.
In the bottom of that third inning, he turned to me again and said, “Dueling no-hitters?” with a bit of a smile on his face.
He’s going for the whole thing.
With each passing inning, he grew more confident that this would be the night. “18 more outs!” “15 more outs!” “12 more outs!” “9 more outs!”
And with each passing half-inning, I could tell — the man had a full-on smile going on. That kind of ‘I-know-something-you-don’t-know’ smile. Maybe, just maybe, my father knew that Johan Santana was going to finish off the impossible. I had my doubts; after all, 50 years without a no-hitter will do that to you, even at the age of 24.
Anyway, in the top of the seventh inning, Mike Baxter made his remarkable, game-saving catch, and that’s when it happened. The moment my dad and I share on rare occasions at sporting events when something special happens.
We turned to each other and said nothing. Eyebrows raised, mouth half-open and silent. Similar to the way Ray Kinsella and his wife, Annie, looked at one another in the movie Field of Dreams when they realized they both had the same dream about Fenway Park, and that Ray had no choice other than to head to Boston.
But different, in that it’s our look.
And that’s when I realized what this moment would mean if, of course, it finished like everyone hoped. That’s when I framed the gravity of June 1, 2012.
This would mean everything to him. To me. To us.
Baseball, like a fine wine, is best shared with company. History is best shared with family. Moments like that are best shared with the man who played catch with you in the backyard when you were five, the man who taught you to love the most beautiful game in the world, the person you call after every half-inning or during every commercial break when you’re 3,000 miles away on another coast.
At least that’s what I thought this moment would mean. As I found out a little later, it would mean even more than that.
Fast forward to the ninth, one out away from history. The crowd is standing, my dad and I are waiting, and then it happens. Santana throws pitch No. 134 (remember, my sage of a father said two hours earlier it would take 135 pitches to get it done; he was close). David Freese swings and misses. Pandemonium ensues.
Then the hug. Might have lasted a second, might have lasted a minute. All I know is, it will last an eternity.
Celebration ensued, the crowd eventually filed out, the joy never died down in the concourse or the parking lot.
Then I turned to my dad and said, “I guess you can finally move your foot.” He smiled, ear to ear. “Yeah, you’re right,” he responded.
After a mostly-silent car ride spent listening to the post-game show on WFAN and soaking in the moment, we got to our house and walked up the steps. I told my dad not to go to sleep yet, that I would pull up highlights of the game on the computer so we could hear Gary Cohen’s call on SNY and Howie Rose’s on the FAN.
My dad said he wouldn’t be going to sleep for a long time, that he was all wound up from the game and the moment. He rarely says things like that, having weathered 61-plus years of sports. He rarely shows emotion like that at sporting events, because he was at Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals when Willis Reed hobbled onto the court and sparked the Knicks to a title. He witnessed, on television, the Rangers erase 54 years of suffering in 1994.
He’s seen almost all of it, so there’s not a lot of emotion left to exude.
But Friday night, there it was on full display, the highest of highs.
So I said to him, “Feels like you’re a little kid again, doesn’t it?” He paused. “Yes, it does,” he responded.
So that’s what this moment means to him, to me, to us. That’s how to frame Friday night. It took my father back to his youth, to when he was a kid, when he dreamed of days like this. He was bubbling inside, probably even more than he would let on, like a little kid who had just come home from a ballgame. At 61 years old, he felt like a little kid.
That’s what Friday means to him, to me, to us. I got to share with my dad a rare moment when everything else goes away, and it’s just two people enjoying that special occasion when the greatest game ever invented produces one of its indelible moments that will last for a lifetime.
That’s how to frame Friday night. That’s the feeling that sums everything up.
Finally, after he went to bed and I watched every sports channel imaginable to see the highlights, I realized something: Other than for a brief moment between innings here and there, he never took his sunglasses off. With no sun.
Do the glasses have corrective lenses, or was he trying not to jinx it? I don’t want to know the answer. Because maybe, just maybe, all night long, I was sitting next to that 18-year-old kid, watching the game on a small, regular-definition television, unwilling to move his foot. And this time, unlike almost 43 years ago, it played out like everyone hoped.
Was 50 years of waiting for this moment worth it? You bet it was.
If you want to read more stuff from Grant Tunkel, check out his blog thrillaonmanila.wordpress.org.