- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Johan Santana would give back the $2.5 million, every last cent. If he knew he was cutting a Faustian deal with the Mets, he would have walked out of that negotiating room rather than nickel-and-dime a franchise that would make him live to regret it.
In the winter of 2008, the Mets offered Santana $135 million and their blue-chip recruit insisted on $5 million more. Santana walked into the room an ace and left it a closer. He agreed to split the difference and put his golden left arm in the hands of an organization forever leading the league in empty promises and broken hearts.
So two seasons and two starts later, after knee and elbow surgeries, after his new team choked in Year 1, collapsed in Year 2 and finished its sixth home game of Year 3 with a lost series to the unworthy Nationals and a 2-4 record, I asked Santana if he regretted doing business with the Mets.
Had his water been spiked with truth serum, his answer would've sounded like this: "What do you think?"
Dressing alone at his locker, refusing to darken the mood inside the losing Citi Field clubhouse, the serum-free Santana said, "No, it's not my first time. I've been there before, man. I think we're working on it, making some adjustments. We've got the right guys to do it, and we just have to make it happen, be more consistent, start doing the little things."
He had surrendered a first-inning grand slam to Josh Willingham a few hours earlier, allowing himself to be outdueled by Livan Hernandez, who looked like he belonged in a Flushing park playing high-arc softball.
Santana had positively nothing at the start. His changeup wasn't biting and his fastball was cutting when it wasn't supposed to cut.
"I was all over the place," he said.
Nyjer Morgan's leadoff triple and a pair of walks preceded Willingham's trip to the plate. Santana threw a flat changeup, Willingham crashed it against the outfield wall, and after a surreal sequence in which Adam Dunn flattened Rod Barajas and Santana executed a Jeter-like flip to the plate to get Willingham, the umps went to the tape and ruled Willingham's shot a grand slam.
"And just like that," Santana said, "the whole game changed."
So did the whole season, all six games worth. The Mets couldn't afford to lose this Santana start against a wretched opponent, not when they were facing a six-game road trip featuring five games started by Mets not named Johan Santana.
But lose it they did, pushing Jerry Manuel closer to the brink, and leaving their home crowd with one highlight to savor (the eighth-inning video of the New York Rangers taking a 1-0 lead in Philly) and one lowlight to cheer (the ninth-inning dustup after Francisco Rodriguez nailed Willie Harris).
Yes, Santana has to be wondering what in the world he's gotten himself into. He's only human. That voice in the back of his head is growing louder, moving to the front, telling him he should've put his money on a different horse. He was a frequent playoff participant in Minnesota, and his friend and fellow recruit, Rodriguez, was another October regular who won a World Series with the Angels.
"I'm sure [Santana] is in the same place I am," K-Rod said. "We came here with the expectation to be part of something special, and that's what we're working on. I think we're going to do it.
"I don't regret coming here, and [Santana] doesn't either. We've had really tough moments in our career here, but we don't regret anything. I'm extremely happy to be here, and if you ask Johan that question he'll say the same thing."
In fact, Rodriguez said, Santana's happiness will manifest itself in a big way. "He's going to win the Cy Young this year," K-Rod predicted. "He's hungry, very hungry. He went down with that injury last year, so he's hungry to win."
Told about K-Rod's forecast, the two-time American League Cy Young Award winner wouldn't commit to his first in the National League.
"It's only two games," Santana said. "I'm going to compete, that's for sure. Time will tell."
He said his elbow is fine. But if another Mets season spirals out of his control, Santana will feel more pain in his heart than his arm.
He was all set to go to the Yankees, too. That's what everyone in baseball thought, Santana included. And just his luck, the Yankees decided to keep their kid pitchers and wait to pay CC Sabathia the following year.
Against all odds, the Mets landed him for Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, Deolis Guerra and a contract extension to die for. The Mets received a 72-hour negotiating window to do a deal with Santana; they wouldn't have made the trade with the Twins unless they signed the ace long-term.
Those 72 hours weren't enough. After Santana flew into town to join the talks, the Mets asked Minnesota to extend the window. Team and player were at a standoff over 5 million bucks. Finally they reached a 50-50 compromise. Santana decided he could win the championships in New York he couldn't win in Minnesota, and everyone knows the rest.
In 2008, after Santana pitched a three-hit shutout against Florida on short rest and on a torn meniscus, the Mets couldn't secure a playoff berth the following day. In 2009, before Santana left for elbow surgery, the Mets couldn't put a competent or relevant team on the field.
In 2010, after the Mets failed to land a legitimate No. 2 starter to complement him, Santana helped his undermanned team fall to 2-4.
"We have to stay positive," the ace said. "If we stay healthy, we've got a very good chance to do something."
Hope. Yes, the Mets always have hope.
But given their rich history of betraying expectations, you wouldn't have to play poker for a living to figure this out:
If he could give back that $2.5 million today, Johan Santana would surely cash out of Queens.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Johan Santana won't admit it, but he'd cash out on the Mets if he could.