Each time the thought of being the most lusted-after bit of baseball flesh is suggested, Mark Langston turns his head away. Reality comes before fantasy.
He left the fantasy, he said, when the New York Mets didn't get him from Seattle and the Montreal Expos did. That's reality. He won't become a free agent until the season is over.
He's now the Dwight Gooden of the Montreal pitching staff, and the Expos are giving Langston something to think about other than his own record. The Mets have shown their vulnerability, and the Expos are in contention, something Langston has never experienced before.
Now, if it's fantasy you like, that belongs to Joe McIlvaine, who was writing the fantasy for the Mets. All winter and all spring McIlvaine, the Mets' vice president, thought of the pitching he was going to put together.
"It staggered me," McIlvaine mused Tuesday night. Count 'em: Gooden, Langston, Darling, Ojeda, Cone. It suggested the Cleveland Indians of Lemon, Wynn, Feller and Garcia or the Orioles of Palmer, McNally, Cuellar and Dobson -- and more.
"We were about as close as you can come to making the deal on a number of occasions," McIlvaine said.
The Mariners hadn't even tried to sign Langston. He was too good, worth too much. They had to make a deal.
Langston saw himself in the rotation in McIlvaine's mind. "That many top pitchers; they would push each other to new levels," he said. "If you're a competitor, that kind of thing is great. It doesn't mean jealousy."
McIlvaine had determined that Langston had the best lefty promise in the American League. He'd pitched for a bad team and in a tiny ballpark, and he'd get only better for the Mets.
Langston, 28, had five seasons with Seattle. He was an eye-opening left-handed pitcher. He has a high kick that brings Warren Spahn to mind. He throws a fastball consistently in the 90s, has an outstanding slider and knows how to pitch a little bit. He had won 70 games and lost 62. Once he even won 19 games. Three times he had the most strikeouts in the American League.
McIlvaine made the well-reported offers of Howard Johnson, Sid Fernandez, David West -- the bright pitcher of the farm system -- and their top minor-league right-hander, Kevin Tapani. And the Mets wanted a 24-hour window to get Langston to agree to an extension of his contract. "I think we could have done it," McIlvaine said.
How could the Mariners not go for it? Well, you have to know a little about the Mariners, as Langston does. In his five seasons he never saw a sign that owner George Argyros would spend a quarter to win anything. Each time the deal was on the brink, it was pulled back.
And, as it turned out, the Expos got in with an underbid of three unproven pitchers. Langston understands that better than most. "Now the Mariners are rebuilding," he said. "They've been rebuilding for 12 years."
McIlvaine said he last talked to Woody Woodward, the former Yankee general manger who runs the Mariners as best he can, at 9 p.m. May 24. If Argyros was balking at the potential cost of the quartet from the Mets, McIlvaine restructured the deal.
"If the truth be known," he said, his last offer was two pitchers from the major-league roster. Presumably Fernandez and Roger McDowell or Rick Aguilera -- he won't say who. Argyros would save some money.
"I was thinking there wasn't going to be a trade," McIlvaine said. When he woke up the next morning, the Expos, who didn't get into the running until the last week, had Langston. The price was Gene Harris, Brian Holman and Randy Johnson -- not exactly household names in Montreal, Seattle or New York.
And abruptly the Expos had made a giant leap up to the best in the division. "If somebody else in our division had got him, I would have been shocked if we had won," Dave Dombrowski, the Expos' young general manager, said.
He said the Mariners had a scout at each of the Expos' spring-training games, and at the end of camp the scout said, "Dave, I wish you guys had shown some interest in Langston."
Forty games into the season the Expos' rotation was getting shaky, and Dombrowski, convinced he couldn't get the window of negotiation he also wanted, offered the young pitchers the Mariners' scout wanted. And all three came with minimum salaries.
Now Langston is looking forward to the challenge of the contender in other ways. "I look forward to the pressure," he said. "I want it. I want the chance to find out how good I can be. I'll benefit from it. Which situation do you like, pitching for first place or being 35 games behind?"
Some players are more effective when the game means nothing. "I want to be part of something every time out that means something," he said. "When it's over, then I'll think about free agency."
The offers will be staggering. The Expos are counting on Langston finding Montreal a pleasant place to play. The organization is ambitious, and he likes his teammates. And if he keeps the Expos in the race, maybe the excitement will hold him. "If we win here, that's the situation everybody plays for," he said.
Now every city and every stadium is a new experience. Almost every batter is. But he's noticed that he likes the "leadership" on the Expos. Spike Owen, the feisty shortstop "leads with personality." Tim Raines "leads with performance." Langston never felt that with Seattle. The Expos already have an edge.
McIlvaine called that "the incumbency advantage." He sounded jealous.