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YORK -- The image persists. Reporters from seven major metropolitan dailies, each with better things to do and report, were waiting endlessly for a UPS truck to arrive at the Minor League clubhouse at the Mets' Spring Training complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and deliver a custom-made baseball shoe designed to limit the stress on the big toe on the right foot of Pedro Martinez. It was February 2006, and the editors in the Big Apple thought Pedro's toe was big news.
The delivery of the shoe masqueraded as news that day. The arrival time of the truck was noted, the driver was interviewed. Martinez eventually removed his sock and showed off his grotesquely mangled big piggy. And that made the story bigger, though no better.
As the Mets' camp moved forward, one newspaper chose to refer to Martinez as Martoenez. How clever! As April approached, assistant general manager Jim Duquette exercised poetic license and hung a nickname on the camp -- Port St. Lamisil -- because of Martinez's toe. Not since the days of Donnie's back, Namath's knees and Rickey's hammys had one body part caused such a fuss in these parts.
The days on the calendar were, according to Cliff Floyd, "Sunday, Monday, Toesday."
And so it went. Updates were daily, so was concern. And the uncertainty prevailed. It followed the Mets into the regular season, and even as Martinez pitched in rotation for three months, manager Willie Randolph squirmed because he never knew when Martinez might stub his toe, so to speak. Finally in late June, Martinez injured his hip in Fenway Park, of all places, and missed a month. Randolph became frustrated with the new phase of uncertainty.
"It's not Pedro's fault. He has a real problem," Randolph said. "But he's a very big part of our team, and not knowing whether we can count on him from one start to the next can work against us. You want to move forward as smoothly as possible. No surprises. We can't do that. And because he's so important and he's one of the guys who can take us where we to go, the uncertainty is like leadership in reverse."
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The phrase was not new to Mets history. Twenty-nine years ago, Joe Torre was in his first weeks as Mets manager, Tom Seaver was in his last days as The Franchise. The trade that moved Seaver to the Reds and set the Mets back six or seven years happened June 15, 1977. Two days earlier, Torre noted Seaver's presence with the Mets and all the fuss that was swirled around him and referred to it as "leadership in reverse."
And now, Johan Santana is putting away his changeup, rebuilt fastball and savvy and shutting down for the rest of the 2012. Now the Mets do have a degree of certainty -- not one they wanted -- about an asset, the one they had hoped would be their most valuable in 2012. After weeks of "does he or doesn't he?" and "should we or shouldn't we?" the club knows for sure. Sadly, Santana has gone from no-hit to no pitch.
But uncertainty and leadership in reverse have been eliminated. Of course, the Mets would be better off with Santana healthy and effective. But his lower back has made that impossible. The next best thing would be to have him pitching effectively despite some physical malady (see Mets' Game 161 in 2008). But how long could that last? Now that Santana is in shutdown mode. The Mets are better off in one regard, they can move forward and meet their 162-game obligation without thoughts of their fallen comrade. They weren't going to win the division anyway.
To paraphrase Randolph, it's not Santana's fault. He has a real problem. But he's a very big part of the team, and the Mets not knowing whether they can count on him from one start to the next can work against them. They want to move forward as smoothly as possible. No surprises. They couldn't do that. Because Santana is so important and is one of the guys who can take them where they want to go, the uncertainty was like leadership in reverse.
Terry Collins didn't say that Wednesday. The manager challenged the notion.
"Uncertainty comes with the job," he said. "That's what the job is -- managing, making due, juggling what you do have to make it work."
No one would expect anything different from the Mets' manager. He concedes nothing. He revels in challenges. From what he has demonstrated in his tenure with the Mets, he does his best work -- his words -- "when the sun isn't shining."
For the Mets, the sun has been in full eclipse since the All-Star break, in small measure because Santana has been far less of a force than he was before the break. But his injury and ineffectiveness are only components of the problem that is not Collins' to solve. All of this falls to Sandy Alderson and his crew. Whether they have admitted it, 2013 and beyond has been the focus for weeks. Some folks in the clubhouse whispered that once the Mets allowed the Trade Deadline to pass, it was compelling evidence that 2012 had passed as well.
Alderson said he expects Santana to be restored by Spring Training. The general manager's words Wednesday were: "I'm very confident that he'll be back next season and ready to go, and hopefully in a stronger position than he was coming into this year. If you look back at the season and what we reasonably could have expected at the beginning of the year, he's actually accomplished quite a lot."
How can that be said? Santana required knee surgery after his first Mets season, 2008, elbow surgery after his second. His 2010 was abridged because of a need for major surgery on his shoulder, and now, after his absent 2011, his lower back is an issue. He'll be 34 -- not 24 -- when next season begins and four years removed from the type of year that prompted the Mets to invest in him. Where is the basis for optimism?
As a full-fledged admirer of Santana, I hope he returns full force come March. And he may if only dedication is needed to heal and regain strength, stamina, stuff and command. He had enough of those to pitch a no-hitter June 1 and produce a 4-2 record with a 2.77 ERA in six starts and 39 innings that month. He and the Mets were quite encouraged.
Since then, he is winless with an unsightly ERA in five starts. Uncertainty for next season already is in place.