Former Mets ace Dwight Gooden was watching Le-Bron James and the rest of the Miami Heat struggle against the aging but proud Boston Celtics in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when he decided to check on his former team.
Johan Santana had carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Gooden was intrigued. He initially flipped back and forth between the NBA game and the drama unfolding at Citi Field as the lefthander with the surgically repaired shoulder continued to stifle the defending world champions with a big fastball complemented by an assortment of offspeed pitches.
Then there was no changing that dial.
"Once it got to like the seventh inning,'' Gooden said, "forget the Heat game."
For so long, he and other distinguished Mets pitchers sought to accomplish the feat, only to be undone by late-inning bloops and bleeders, if not line drives and home runs. Gooden started to wonder if a no-hitter would ever happen for a franchise that sent Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan, Gooden himself and so many other golden arms to the mound.
When Santana finally kept that elusive zero intact through nine unforgettable innings in an 8-0 victory over the Cardinals in the Mets' 51st season, Gooden -- who pitched a no-hitter against the Mariners for the Yankees in 1996 -- struggled with his emotions.
"It's hard to put into words," he said during a conference call Saturday. "You would think with the history of great pitchers who came through the organization, you can go on and on with the Seavers, the Ryans, myself, Sid Fernandez, even Pedro [Martinez] came through there at the end. There were so many guys . . . David Cone, [Bret] Saberhagen, you can keep going on and on . . . [Jon] Matlack, Koosman and not to have one for 50 years. Once it got that close, you figured that had to be it."
In the Mets' 8,020th game, far longer than any team in major league history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was.
Ron Darling felt as though other distinguished starters who wore the Mets uniform shared in Santana's historic breakthrough. St. Louis had endured the second-longest wait at 4,826 games.
"We were all legitimate before it, but I feel more legitimate,'' said Darling, who now broadcasts the team's games. "It brings attention to all of the other guys who pitched for this organization, especially the starting pitchers."
He thought Santana, a two-time Cy Young winner who had followed such a long road back after extensive shoulder surgery, was the right guy to end the drought.
"I can't speak for all pitchers, but I'm just happy it was a guy like Santana," Darling said. "It wasn't a combined bullpen no-hitter or a call-up from Binghamton [of the Eastern League]. It was one of the best pitchers who ever wore a uniform."
Gooden tried to imagine all of the emotions Santana must be experiencing after following such a circuitous path back to stardom.
"He's probably just emotionally drained with the emotions of everything he went through last year and even the year before with the surgery and the rehabilitation," he said. "Just to get back on the field again, to go through all that, not knowing if he would be the same pitcher again or knowing if the injury is over.
"I'm sure he's reminiscing about the last couple of years. Even though he's been pitching great this year, to have this happen, it really puts a stamp on the dedication he has for the game."
Darling recalled that he sustained a no-hitter through seven innings in a road game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Just when he started to wonder if he would be the one to do what no Mets pitcher had done before, Greg Gross ripped a clean single to left- center to open the eighth. The franchise would have to live with that ignominious bit of history a while longer -- quite a while longer.
"I think all Mets players and pitchers knew because the biggest face of the franchise was Seaver, and he was the best," Darling said. "And everyone who knows Seaver's story knows he took three into the ninth."
"I never looked back on losing a no-hitter as long as we won," Seaver said in a statement released by the Mets. "I would trade a no-hitter for two wins."
Gooden and Darling both expressed a sense of relief.
"You want it so much, not just for [Santana] but for the fans as well as the Mets organization," Gooden said.
Darling does not believe no-hitters will come more easily after this.
"It will have no effect, no effect at all," he said. "It's just a beautiful moment in time and the most significant thing to happen in this building."