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The Savior of Port St. Lucie
February 25, 2008
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
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February 25, 2008

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

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But Minaya would have to wait to get his shoes. The Mets had a 72-hour window in which to negotiate a contract extension with Santana, and after those 72 hours were up, Santana was still sticking to his asking price: $140 million. The Mets were offering $135 million. Santana was sitting at the negotiating table, prepared to reject the Mets' offer and go back to Minnesota, however uncomfortable it might be.

The Mets could not let that happen, not after what had occurred in September. In the past they've had great success recruiting players face-to-face. They went to the Dominican Republic to court Martinez. They went to Puerto Rico to woo Beltran. Now they flew Santana from his home in Fort Myers, Fla., to the team's corporate offices in Rockefeller Center.

Wilpon gave Santana his best pitch. "I explained that we are a family business, that we are not going anywhere, and that we are not done improving this team," Wilpon says. After the Mets requested and received a two-hour extension to negotiate, Santana agreed to a compromise: $137.5 million. The deal, two months in the making, was done. The Venezuelan pitcher was in New York for good.

Just like that the Mets went from stragglers to favorites. When Randolph called his players before spring training, he could hear the excitement in their voices. "You can't forget what happened [last season]," Randolph says. "It will always be there. But this is a chance to redeem yourself.... I love the fact that we can dispel some of that hurt and pain." Even Beltran, usually quiet and diplomatic, is making guarantees. A year after Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins declared that Philadelphia was the team to beat in the NL East, Beltran responded in kind. "Without Santana, we felt we had a chance to win our division," he says. "With him, I have no doubt. So this year, to Jimmy Rollins, we are the team to beat."

Of course, the Mets have another Cy Young Award winner from Latin America, and it is hard to tell how he will react to the new order. Martinez still views himself as an ace, and when the Red Sox made him their de facto No. 2 starter behind Curt Schilling in 2004, he did not exactly take the demotion gracefully.

But Martinez is 36 now, coming off a season of injuries, finally confronted with his baseball mortality. He needs all the help the Mets can offer him. "I can breathe now," Martinez says. "This is like getting a big glass of cold water when you're really thirsty." It probably helps that Santana has shown Martinez the proper deference in the past. Two years ago Santana sought out Martinez and asked him for his autograph.

INITIAL REVIEWS of the trade favored the Mets. But before anyone dismisses the Twins as another plundered small-market team, remember how many of these deals have worked out in their favor. In 1989 they sent veteran lefty Frank Viola to the Mets for a package that included Rick Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, both of whom helped pitch the Twins to a World Series victory two years later. In 1998 Minnesota sent second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to the Yankees for a package that included lefthander Eric Milton and shortstop Cristian Guzman, who helped the Twins win three straight American League Central titles beginning in 2002. And in 2003 they sent catcher A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco for young pitchers Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, a mind-staggering steal. "We've been down this road before," says Twins president Dave St. Peter, "and based on that history, we have great confidence."

While both sides profess their happiness with the deal, Wilpon still had one more piece of business to attend to when it was complete. He drove to Richards, a clothing store near his home in Greenwich, Conn. He ordered a pair of black Prada lace ups and had them shipped to Port St. Lucie. When Minaya arrived at spring training, the shoes were waiting for him.

Right now, everything about the Mets looks polished and shiny. No one can imagine them starting this season the way they finished the last one. That is the seductive power of spring, and of Santana. Without throwing a single pitch to a batter, he has already delivered his new team to the all-important fifth stage of grief: Acceptance.

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