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Mets’ Johan Santana’s epic no hitter resonates across Buffalo

No-hitters are always special; on average, three such games occur in the Major Leagues every year. Yet last Friday, as the New York Mets and ace pitcher Johan Santana were marching toward the late innings of their game against the St. Louis Cardinals, word was spreading fast across Buffalo. Social network sites Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with the news; friends were calling friends. Sports bars across the area were tuning away from that evening’s Yankees game on YES and the NBA playoffs to find the Mets game on SNY.

This one was special. This one was different. To begin with, the New York Mets had never pitched a no-hitter in their entire franchise history. Several times they came close—think Tom Seaver in 1975. The team had gone 8,019 games going back to their founding in 1962 without achieving this milestone, and it weighed on the organization. A website called was launched in 2008, its nightly tweets to thousands of followers always marking the moment when that game’s no-hit bid was snuffed.

As the final innings, and the final outs, were recorded, a clear and clearer Buffalo connection came into focus on several fronts. Consider:

• Mets Manager Terry Collins, who managed the Buffalo Bisons from 1989 to 1991, made the courageous decision to leave Santana in the game in the eighth and then again in the ninth inning, despite an alarmingly high pitch count and Santana throwing on a surgically reconstructed arm. An emotional Collins later admitted that he told Santana, “You are my hero,” as the date with history unfolded.

• Had Santana been lifted, it was reliever Elvin Ramirez who was warming up in the bullpen to secure the final outs for the team no-hitter. Ramirez had just been called up from Buffalo a day earlier and had never pitched in a Major League game.

• Every no-hitter seems to be saved by an amazing defensive play. Mike Baxter, who played for Buffalo in 2011, made that leaping catch and then crashed into the centerfield wall. That play put him on the injury list.

• In the ninth inning, the three outs were recorded as a fly ball to Kirk Niuwenhuis, a fly ball to Andres Torres, and then a strikeout on a 3-2 pitch caught by Josh Thole. All three players are former Bisons.

• And in fact, one day earlier Thole was in Buffalo playing as catcher against the Columbus Clippers, here on an injury rehabilitation assignment. Just 36 hours later his mitt and equipment were being catalogued for a trip to the Hall of Fame.

The Buffalo Bisons were on the road while history was being made at Citifield in Flushing Meadows, but manager Wally Backman, a long-time player with the Mets and a member of the 1986 World Series championship team, was watching from far away as the no-hitter was falling into place.

Interviewed by phone, Backman reported that he and the Bisons players got to see the historic game take place from the comfort of the visitors clubhouse in Toledo. “We were done for the night, and got to see the eighth and ninth innings. It was exciting to see what was unfolding. It was great to see Santana pitch and get the no-hitter for the team. He was certainly deserving of that honor.”

Backman is very much aware that the string of no no-hitter futility was becoming a growing focus, but scoffs at the idea that this is a monkey off of the back of the Mets organization. “Sure, it’s nice,” said Backman. “But keep in mind that a no-hitter is something that doesn’t happen too often. Hundreds, thousands of games are played every year. It takes a special convergence of circumstances for something like that to happen. The fact that the Mets finally got one is great. I’m happy for all of us. I’m happy for Santana. But an 8-0 win with no hits counts the same as a 1-0 win with five hits.”

For what it’s worth, Backman has never been personally involved in a no-hitter, either as a player or as a coach. “Nope, never been in one, but for anyone who has been a part of one, I can tell you that it is something they will remember forever,” ha said. “It’s memorable in that sense. Take a look at Josh Thole. The day prior he is catching the game for me here in Buffalo, the next day he is on national TV, and everywhere across the country the networks are cutting in to this historic game, and he gets to catch the final strike for that final out. How good is that?”

Can Buffalo fans take special pride that they have a piece of this accomplishment? “Sure they can,” said Backman. “The players we’re sending to Terry [Collins] are quality individuals and they know how to play the game the right way. Former Bisons who played in Buffalo were a big part of what happened last Friday. [Omar] Quintinilla made a couple great plays at short to preserve the no-hitter. Look at those outfielders: Niuwenhuis, Baxter, all played here. This was a feat in itself, and Buffalo can wear this great night as much as Mets fans back in New York.”

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