The Savior of Port St. Lucie
Johan Santana has yet to throw a pitch for the Mets, but his arrival in camp has lifted the gloom from last season's historic collapse and given New York a reason to believe again
Posted: Tuesday February 19, 2008 9:19AM; Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2008 9:23AM
After the worst week of the worst month in the history of the New York Mets, assistant general manager John Ricco decided it was time for some group therapy. The 39-year-old Ricco is one of those young baseball executives trained to read contracts and prepare arbitration cases. But he also took enough psychology classes at Villanova to know about the different ways people cope with loss.
So, after the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 to play last September, Ricco composed a memo for his devastated front-office colleagues entitled "The Five Stages of Grief." With the help of a Google search Ricco typed a description of each stage -- denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Then he provided an amateur psychoanalysis of each of his fellow workers, specifying which were stuck in denial and which had moved on to anger, depression or bargaining.
To most Mets executives the memo was artful jest, designed to lighten the mood at a difficult time. But to Jeff Wilpon, the Mets' chief operating officer and the son of principal owner Fred Wilpon, it would prove to be a useful document during a long and therapeutic off-season. Wilpon kept it tucked inside his desk, and he would pull it out to scribble notes in the margins or update the emotional state of his staff.
The memo stayed in Wilpon's desk until Feb. 7, the day after the Mets' introductory press conference for 28-year-old lefthander Johan Santana, whom they acquired from the Minnesota Twins for four prospects and signed to a six-year, $137.5 million contract. To celebrate, Wilpon marched into Ricco's office at Shea Stadium with the memo and said, "You can take this back now. We're moving on. We are starting the five stages of redemption."
Santana, a two-time AL Cy Young Award winner, believes he's coming to New York to headline the Mets starting rotation, ease the burden on their bullpen and hoist the team to its first world championship since 1986. And while all that is true, he was also acquired for another, equally significant reason -- to help the organization move past its historic collapse and ensure that nothing like it ever happens again. "It's like we were on the Titanic and he is our lifeboat," says Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. "Someone is coming who can rejuvenate us, who can help us heal."
Santana's spring training entrance was inconspicuous by New York standards. When he arrived at the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., on Feb. 13, there was practically no one there to greet him. A tropical storm was soaking the grounds. Most of the players -- and all of the catchers -- were gone for the day. But Santana wanted to work, so Randy Niemann, the rehabilitation pitching coordinator, grabbed a catcher's mitt. Peterson found a dry mound that had been covered by a tarp, and for 15 minutes, as Santana's father, Jesus, napped in his car, the Mets' new ace threw in the rain. "That wasn't rain," Peterson says. "It was healing water."