By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
Admit it, you've already forgotten about the Giants. (Those Super Bowl commemorative books you didn't buy are on the half-price tables.) The real reason for your Giants euphoria was that you needed something to help you get over the Mets' and Yankees' late-season humiliations. But the Super Bowl high didn't last, did it? By the afternoon of the following day, you woke up with a hangover and moaned: "But what about the pitching?"
Here's what about the pitching. The hopes of New York's teams rest on two powerful arms—one left, one right. The lefty, Johan Santana, age 29, is called, by most observers, the best pitcher in the game. The right-hander is 22-year-old Joba Chamberlain, who, many observers feel, has the potential to be the best pitcher in the game.
Early projections had the Mets finishing behind the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves in the NL East this season, but Mets fans—and more importantly, Mets players—believe they can win the division with Santana. If he's as good for the Mets over the next six years as he's been for the Twins in the last five, he'll become the third-best pitcher in team history, after Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden—and he may well prove, over the long haul, to be better than Gooden.
Chamberlain looks to be the most intimidating right-hander that the Yankees have had in more than half a century. "In his velocity and his fearlessness," says baseball writer Roger Kahn, "the pitcher he most reminds me of is Allie Reynolds, who was the ace of Casey Stengel's five consecutive World Series winners from 1949 to 1953." Like Reynolds, who was part Creek Indian, Chamberlain is Native American on his father's side—the Winnebagos of Nebraska—and, like Reynolds, he can both start (which he did in college, for Nebraska) and relieve (which he's been doing for the Yankees). "A big difference between them," says Kahn, "is that Chamberlain is eight years younger than Reynolds was when he came to the Yankees. Another difference is that he throws even harder than Allie."
In terms of experience and media coverage, the two couldn't differ more. Chamberlain has thrown fewer than 400 major-league pitches, but his meteoric rise, fueled by the polio-stricken, wheelchair-bound father who taught him how to pitch, has already inspired more copy in a fraction of a season than Santana has in eight seasons and 251 games.
Joba is everyone's All-Native-American Boy who likes to chew gum (he supposedly sticks the wads on the back of the pitching mound after each inning), text-message, follow Ultimate Fighting matches on pay-per-view, and watch movies with his favorite actor, Jamie Foxx. He is a beat writer's dream, rattling off one-liners at warp speed. Venezuelan-born Johan Santana, magisterial and sometimes seemingly aloof, is polite but bored by long interviews. That's OK, so long as he wins. The Mets didn't get him to entertain anywhere but on the pitching mound.
Despite the differences in their personalities and experience, though, the two men have one thing in common: They are the linchpins for the city's baseball teams this year. The fortunes of the Yankees and Mets, the hopes of their fans, and the reputations of their front offices will rise and fall with them. The expectations, and thus the stakes, couldn't be higher for both Santana and Chamberlain.
If on September 12, with 17 games left to play, you had bet on the Mets to lose the division, Vegas would have given you nine-to-one odds. It took Philadelphia Phillies fans the better part of a generation to get over the team's famous swoon toward the end of the 1964 season; last year's Mets choke makes the '64 Phillies collapse seem like a hiccup.
How humbling was the experience? The first joke to make the rounds after the season ended was that vandals broke into the box office at Shea Stadium and returned their playoff tickets.
If there was one good thing to come out of the disaster, it was that it pointed out a clear difference between the Yankees and the Mets. The Yankees would have reacted by finding a scapegoat and canning him; Omar Minaya and the Mets reacted by addressing the problem. Luckily, that problem was easy to identify: The rapidly aging Mets pitching staff was a disaster waiting all season to happen. The team nearly got away with its lack of pitching depth in 2006; in 2007, the team ERA rose faster than Village Voice ad rates, from 3.5 runs per nine innings in April to a stupefying 5.7 the final month. In those infamous last 17 games, Mets pitchers allowed nearly 6.8 runs per game.
As to whether the starters or the relievers were most to blame, that argument was academic and pointless: Both were horrendous. The bullpen, though, had an excuse: The collapse of the overaged starting rotation dragged an overworked relief corps down with them. The obvious cure was a starter who could eat up more innings—and it went without saying that they must be effective innings.
Santana's six-year, $137.5 million contract, the richest ever for a pitcher, will be cheap at the price if the Mets win the pennant and—here's your late-season homemade sign at Shea—erase the disgrace. The money the Mets save from Verizon alone in those calls to the bullpen should take the sting out of his paycheck.