HEN I'M KING of the World . . .
The Johan Santana hand-wringing will cease . . . OK, the Mets will have the awesome lefthander with the changeup from hell at the front of their rotation. And the Phillies will have Old 629, Adam Eaton, at the back end of theirs. That by itself is no reason to contemplate Charlie Manuel's superb nucleus being dragged to also-ran status by inferior component parts. The pressure is all on the Mets. And when all the zeros are finally in place, the 28-year-old Venezuelan's enormous contract and the Himalayan expectations wrapped around it will subject Johan to more fan and media scrutiny than any pitcher in the history of a city, the Sour Apple, that has made a lot of grown pitchers cry. Hideki Irabu, Jeff Weaver and Kevin Brown come immediately to mind.
Santana has pitched his entire big-league career in Minnesota, where pressure is getting shut out in an ice-fishing tournament. If Santana fails to tip a waitress in New York, it'll make the front page of the Post under a headline like "El Cheapo" or "Senor Stiff." Imagine if he loses to the Nationals, which happened last June in the Metrodome, when Ryan Zimmerman beat him, 3-1, with a three-run homer. Santana also four-hit the Mets at Shea for his only 2007 shutout. Oddly, Johan got only one of his 235 strikeouts in that game.
Fortunately, the team behind Santana will be basically the same one that went into the tank last September and helped the Phillies win their first East title since 1993 with only 89 victories. Rag-armed catcher Paul Lo Duca has been replaced by defensively superior Brian Schneider. But, really, do last season's .235 and 54 RBI terrify you? First baseman Carlos Delgado played a lot older than 35 last season. Moises Alou turns 42 in July. The leftfielder hit .341, but 89 of his 112 hits were singles, and it takes a triple to score him. Luis Castillo had one homer and 38 RBI in 135 games between the Twins and Mets. The guy's a Hoover at second, however.
The Phillies have a better starting eight, trust me. Chase Utley drove in 103 runs last year while missing a month. Unfortunately, they still have Eaton. It says here one of the Phillies' undervalued minor league pitchers - my favorite is Josh Outman - will knock somebody from the shaky back end.
When I'm King of the World . . .
The weekend before the Super Bowl will be declared Alternative Sports Weekend. You remember them, right? The events we used to watch all the time before football and college hoops took over the winter 24/7. Remember "Wide World of Sports" and all those oddball disciplines? Well, last weekend was a feast for the oddball senses. The only football in sight was the controlled NFL scrimmage called the Senior Bowl, which was dreadful. The Australian Open completed a dazzling fortnight run in Melbourne with no Americans left standing after the quarters. The women's side produced the most cosmetic final in Grand Slam tennis history, a wonderfully watchable match in which 20-year-old veteran Maria Sharapova drubbed sizzling Serbian Ana Ivanovic. For comparison's sake, picture a 20-year-old Angelina Jolie with longer legs, travel-mag tan and killer forehand. As for the men, any time Roger Federer loses a Slam match, it's stop-the-presses time. Serbia's dynamic Novak Djokovic dispatched Federer in the semis, then outlasted Muhammed Ali look-alike Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a charismatic Frenchman, for his first Slam title. Three of the four finalists are 20, and Tsonga is 22. Tiger Woods was simply sick at Torrey Pines, a space alien with golf sticks spitting fire.
The other can't-stop-watching event of Alternative Sports Weekend was the Winter X Games. If you can't be entertained by a guy doing a handstand in a blizzard while attached by his fingernails to a whining, 500-pound snowmobile traversing 150 feet of very thin air, then you've been watching too many NFL combine workouts. But the hairiest Winter X action for me was the six-pack of crazies careening down a winding downhill course interrupted by moguls the size of tour buses, hairpin turns and one jump toward the end that caused more crashes than you see at Talladega. On three successive runs, a total of five skiers were strapped onto litters and ambulanced for emergency repairs. The entertaining homage to our winter daredevils fittingly ended with Shaun White, the fabled "Flying Tomato" of Winter Olympics fame, reclaiming his halfpipe gold medal in a wind-driven snowstorm under the lights.
Earlier in the evening in St. Paul, Minn., veteran Johnny Weir finished in a flat-bladed tie with defending U.S. Figure Skating champion Evan Lysacek. But Evan retained the title by narrowly winning the free skate.
When I'm King of the World . . .
A transcript of Joe Paterno's recruiting pitch to Jeannette High QB super prospect Terrell Pryor will be published . . . Oh, to be a fly on that wall . . .
Condolences to longtime colleague and Boston Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan on the death of his 37-year-old son, Keith Ryan. Keith worked at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. The State Department initially said his death, by a gunshot to the head, was an apparent suicide. A Pakistani newspaper wrote that police sources close to the ongoing investigation are leaning toward murder. Stay tuned . . . And a hearty get well to Washington Post columnist and ESPN "Pardon The Interruption" co-host Michael Wilbon, who is recovering from a heart attack suffered while getting ready to leave for the Super Bowl. Slow down, guys, slow down. *