NEW YORK – Johan Santana, already the greatest pitcher in the world, is working on perfecting a new craft. It, too, requires dexterity, creativity and the style that Santana exudes on the mound.
Over the last year, Santana has turned the handshake into an art form. Forget the standard clasp, the modern daps or, Lord help us, the forearm bash. Santana is single-handedly evolving the handshake from greeting to performance, each a true embodiment of intelligent design.
Just watch Santana before his starts. He runs a conga line along the New York Mets' bench. Everyone gets a unique handshake, usually born in Santana's mind, practiced once or twice and tested minutes before his start. If it works, it sticks. Otherwise, it's back to the test lab, a fertile place with four days in between appearances.
"I'm working on a couple more," Santana said. "Everybody needs one. We all have to be involved."
That Santana is the impetus behind baseball's answer to LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal's before-the-game antics registers as quite the surprise, pre-start superstition and pitchers inextricably linked as they are. Santana, of course, is no ordinary pitcher, neither in performance nor personality nor his ability to disregard every preconceived notion of a starter and run it through a wood chipper.
Never have the Mets questioned giving Santana a $137.5 million extension for six years after trading four players to the Minnesota Twins for his rights, not even with the fragility of pitchers' arms. Not only did Santana last year thrust the Mets into a playoff race eventually torpedoed by the bullpen, he made the rarest of impressions for pitchers.
"Honestly, I think he's the leader on this team," Mets veteran Fernando Tatis said. "When it's time to pitch, he pitches. When it's time to have fun, he has fun. Everyone on this team responds to him. It's real, what he does for us."
Numbers illustrate the first part of Santana's contributions. Entering his start Friday against the Washington Nationals, his 0.43 earned-run average leads the National League. His 27 strikeouts are best in the major leagues. Opponents' .396 OPS against him is the lowest for a pitcher with at least three starts. Already this is the best April in the career of the 30-year-old Santana, who has always been a better second-half pitcher.
Santana's handshakes seem to mirror his pitching acuity. He delivers them with the savoir faire of a glad-handing politician, only they maintain the genuineness from whence they came.
The key to a good Santana handshake is creativity. His ideas spring from everywhere. Though Santana's greatest reservoir of material comes from body parts, he's far from a one-shake shaker. Down the line he goes, starting each shake with the same base – closed fist bopping on top, then bottom, then at the knuckles – followed by a variation, like a pizza with a hundred potential toppings.
Last season, when Santana started the shakes, he and pitcher John Maine patted each other on the back 10 times, the 10th a righteous thwack. This spring, when passing time in the outfield, Santana shuffled from side to side and drew heavy laughter from Maine. Soon enough, they incorporated the dancing into the handshake, and now it looks like two men who can't decide whether they want to tango or beat each other up.
"It's gotten even more painful," Maine said. "But that's fine if Johan keeps pitching like this."
The proliferation of handshakes around the Mets' clubhouse isn't only Santana's doing. Jose Reyes has drawn the ire of Philadelphia with his routines. Maine himself said his repertoire consists of up to 20 handshakes.
And yet he dare not attempt to usurp the master. Santana will poke fun at an old teammate (with the large-lobed Tatis, they flick their ears) or a new one (like outfielder Jeremy Reed, whose longish hair inspired Santana to push up on the back side of his head, even though, Reed said, "I don't really poof the hair"). Santana will throw fake pitches (changeups to Oliver Perez and Reyes) and undo fake clothing (he pulls down an imaginary zipper with Carlos Delgado).
"No way I could do it," outfielder Daniel Murphy said. "That's why I left college. I couldn't remember that much stuff."
Somehow Santana does. Mingling with all the knowledge from scouting reports is handshake after handshake, burned into Santana's brain. He wants to do them. He likes doing them. And if he's going to do them, he's not screwing up, because Santana and failure don't mix.
Despite his best efforts last season – Santana didn't give up more than three earned runs in a game over a 14-start stretch from July 18 on, and his three-hit, on-three-days-rest shutout on the season's penultimate day is one of the great games ever pitched by a Met – the team crashed, burned and watched Philadelphia win the World Series.
Not again, Santana vows. Not a third straight collapse.
"That's what I'm here for," he said. "I know every time I go out there it's going to be very important, and every time I'm out there I try to make it special."
For that, he needn't try too hard. The Mets believe in Santana, in who he is and what he does. After years of trying to find legitimate No. 1 starters who turned out to be no great shakes, the Mets finally have their man.
And some great shakes to boot.