I still remember the shock in the press conference room at Citi Field back in September 2010, hearing the news that Johan Santana was seriously injured.
He'd torn a capsule in his shoulder, thanks in part to the remarkable decision by the Mets to allow their ace under contract through 2013 for tens of millions of dollars to throw a bullpen session despite shoulder pain.
But still: Santana, out for the rest of 2010, and all of 2011, was hard to fathom.
It may not be so easy to remember that idea of Indestructible Santana, especially after news came down late last week that the rehabbing pitcher, just weeks away from a return to a major league mound with the Baltimore Orioles, tore his Achilles tendon.
It's the kind of break that ends careers. It took Santana nearly two years to get back to pitching-ready form, thanks in part to an odd whispering campaign by the Mets in the spring of 2013 that rushed him back to the mound. But really, the odds are against a pitcher with as much injury history as Santana, who's now 35, has anyway.
So why take what Peter Greenberg, Santana's agent, said about his client as more than just agent talk?
"No, not with this guy," Greenberg told SB Nation's Chris Cotillo.
It's easy to understand why.
Before Santana was the pitcher who's thrown 117 innings, total, since the end of 2010, he was a workhorse who threw 219 innings or more for five straight seasons from 2004-2008. The first four of these seasons, for the Minnesota Twins, were the most dominant ones: three straight times atop the leaderboard in strikeouts per nine innings by a starter, two Cy Young Awards, impeccable control and fewest hits per nine innings.
To summarize: You couldn't hit or walk against him, you'd strike out more against him than anyone else and he'd pitch the most of any starter. Not a bad combination.
That 2008 season with the Mets served as both a final valedictory for his era of dominance, along with an unfortunate harbinger. He led the league in innings pitched, with 234 1/3. A team with many stars was ultimately undone by a number of roster failings around them, including a comically bad bullpen. Accordingly, Santana left as little to chance as possible, throwing at least 105 pitches in his final nine starts, pitching at least eight innings six times from July 4 on. That the Mets lost four games Santana pitched at least into the seventh (and two games he went eight full innings), in a season they ultimately fell one game short of the playoffs, only emphasizes that Santana was right to take things into his own hands.
Then came that glorious penultimate day at Shea, when Santana tried to pitch the Mets into the playoffs all by himself. On three days rest. With a knee injury that ultimately required postseason surgery. Nine innings, three hits, three walks, nine strikeouts. His no-hitter in 2012 is more talked about, because it was the first in team history. But no one believed that no-hitter meant anything more significant for a flawed team that ultimately finished well off the pace.
The final great moment at a ballpark, on short rest, to try and will his team into the playoffs? That's Santana to me. I saw him with the Twins, where his acute pitching intelligence mixed with astonishing stuff. But Mets Johan, that's the guy he'll need to be to ever pitch again.
He can do it, too, if his body simply cooperates, even minimally. Santana figured out how to get major league hitters out with a consistent high-80s fastball and that changeup, his signature pitch, the one anyone who saw it will reach for as comparison with young pitchers for the next generation.
And perhaps, after consideration, Santana will choose to retire. There'd be no shame in it. If his career's peak was too short to merit Hall of Fame induction, he'll still be remembered for a peak as great as virtually anyone's. (And there's an argument to be made for Santana to get in, on the Dizzy Dean track.)
My guess, though, is that anyone who's seen Santana pitch, or knows him, will give him an opportunity to go to the mound and prove he can make it one time, through one more season, for as long as he wishes. There's a lot of Dean in Santana, which may seem strange to look at or listen to the pair, Santana a smooth speaker from Venezuela, Dean the scourge of teachers all over America for his mangled English.
But the two had limitless confidence in their abilities, almost identical innings pitched, ERA+ and great seasons on their resumes. Both were adept with the bat, too, and great athletes. Incidentally, Dean, like Santana, went out to pitch through an injury, and may have ruined his arm as a result.
But six years after throwing what many believed would be his final pitch in 1941, Dean was working as a radio broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns in 1947. Late in the season, after spending much of the summer telling his listeners he could still get major league hitters out, he came out of retirement for four scoreless innings. Oh, and he also singled.
Only then, following the game, did he make the pronouncement: "I still think I can pitch well enough to win, but I ain't agoin' to try."
He'll say it a bit differently. But until Johan Santana makes a similar statement, we'll all be working under the assumption that he'll find a way to do it once again.