By Andrew Lipsett
Tonight, we come to bury Caesar. Today, though, we come to praise him.
Some time not long after 7:05 pm tonight, Pedro Martinez will do something he’s never done before: stride to the mound at Fenway Park in the bottom half of the inning. For 7 years, we watched him open ballgames, baffling hitters with a brilliant mix of pitches that at times resembled nothing more than art. Tonight, he’ll make that art for another team, and we’ll be rooting against him for the first time. It’s a bittersweet reunion, bound to evoke strong feelings from a fan base not long removed from breathing his name as they would a deity. We must remember it all; the uncertainty of his arrival, the thrill of his introduction, the awe of his prime. We must remember the injury worries, the heated negotiations, the departure. We must remember the joy, the laughs, and the heroism. For 7 years, Pedro Martinez – more than Nomar, more than Ortiz, more than Vaughn or Schilling or Varitek – was the Boston Red Sox. Today we have a unique opportunity to honor him even as we compete against him.
Mention his name to most Sox fans, and the discussion inevitably turns to a particular word, more potent than any other. Pedro Martinez, they’ll tell you, was an artist. What he did was less pitching and more creation. In an era dominated – as we’re now coming to learn – by the strongest, fastest, mercenary hitters in the history of the game, Pedro was the most powerful man to wear an MLB uniform. He didn’t just get hitters out. He made them look like they had no business being there, and it didn’t matter if they were a journeyman infielder or the best sluggers in the game. When Pedro was on – and during his prime he very rarely wasn’t – it barely mattered who he was facing.
His eyes were what started it. When he stared in from the mound, the look was indescribable; equal parts intense, calculating, and bored. He looked at hitters as though their very existence was an affront, and he knew exactly how to make them walk away from it feeling useless in the face of perfection.
His arm was what followed; a whip, a bolt, a catapult that extended his frail body and turned it into a cannon. Pedro was beyond simple mechanics. His changed arm slots on a whim, invented pitches on the fly, improvised like the greatest jazz musician.
His fingers closed it; long and flexible, they gave life to movement that has never been rivaled. His fingers gave him three of the most devastating pitches the game had ever seen: a 95-97 mph fastball with sharp movement, a pinpoint curve ball that defied basic physics, and a changeup that couldn’t have done what it did if it were on a string. Each were perfectly controlled, thrown with pinpoint accuracy, diving and tailing into the catcher’s mitt every time.
His mind was what brought it all together. The intensity of his eyes, the improvisation of his arm, the control and variation of his fingers, all were controlled by a mind that seemed to read hitters’ thoughts. When Pedro considered you, you were as good as dead. When he got mad, he made it hurt. He was fearless and mean. He’d knock you down, and you were never sure if it was a message or a strategy; regardless of what it was, the pitch that followed was nearly an afterthought. His physical talent was endless and extraordinary, but his mental acuity made him a god.
No one has ever seen anything like 1999. Not before, not after. You had to pinch yourself to believe you were seeing it even then. At the age of 27, Pedro Martinez created the greatest season any pitcher had ever had. In a year where pitchers struggled more than at any point in the history of baseball, where hitters and homers ruled every game, Pedro did things that seemed inhuman. His 2.07 ERA that year was 145% better than the league average; only 6 others had ever done better. His 313 strikeouts in 213 innings gave him a 13.2 K/9, a mark that had never been exceeded (though Randy Johnson eclipsed it in 2001). Pedro started 29 games in 1999, and walked 37 batters. He allowed more than 2 runs in only 4 starts that year, and more than 3 only twice. He struck out 10 or more batters in 19 of his 29 starts, and the majority of the rest saw totals of 8 or 9. A year after Mark McGwire had hit 70 home runs, an entire league – a total of 835 batters – hit exactly 9. He was, in one of the most boring elections in history, a unanimous choice for the Cy Young award.
Pedro was so good that season that, in the most important and possibly the greatest start of his career, he dominated even with second or third-string stuff. With the season in the balance, coming off an oblique strain that endangered the Sox’ chances in the 1999 ALDS against the Cleveland Indians’ Murderers’ Row, Pedro Martinez came out of the dugout carrying New England on his back and shut down the most dangerous lineup in 50 years. His fastball rarely rose above 91. He couldn’t overpower them, so he outthought them. He effectively won the most important start of his career to that point with the power of his mind.
But beyond the numbers, beyond the basic realities of performance, those of us that watched him every game saw a phenomenon born and grow. He revolutionized the idea of being a Red Sox fan. He made this team colorful, fun, exciting. From Dominican flags to the K men to the finger pointed skyward, he made every start a circus and a Baptist sermon. Groans were audible whenever the first opposing batter reached base, because up until that point – whether it came in the first or the ninth – everyone in the park thought they were going to see history.
That was Pedro’s first legacy. Nomar had begun it in 1997, and Pedro solidified it in 1999. Today, the Red Sox are a brand, possibly the most popular franchise in all of sports. In the mid-90’s, though, they were merely a storied franchise; rabid fans, to be sure, but an afterthought among the biggest draws in the majors. Pedro put butts in seats, both in opposing dugouts and in the cramped confines of historic Fenway Park. His starts were events, and the outcome was rarely anything but expected. The joy was in watching him get there, in watching him decide how to dispose of 27 hitters. He always showed you something new.
For the next 5 seasons, Pedro Martinez continued to captivate Red Sox Nation with every start. In 2000, for an encore to the greatest season anyone had ever pitched, he did the only thing he knew how: he bettered it. Until nearly July, he flirted with Bob Gibson’s 1.12 1968 ERA. His season ERA in 2000 never – not once – rose above 2. His WHIP, when the season ended, stood at .737 – the greatest in the recorded history of the game. His 285 ERA+ was the greatest since baseball began to resemble the game it is today. For two seasons in 1999 and 2000, no one had ever seen what we were privileged to see. Ever.
The same stunning quality of this tiny wisp of a man unleashing fury on the greatest hitters ever, the same rise above frailty, caught up with Pedro as he approached 30. A shoulder injury limited him to just 117 innings in 2001, and fewer than 200 innings for the two seasons after it. His strikeout rate began to drop – from 13.2 in 1999 to 12.57, 10.79, 9.93, and 9.41 between 2001 and 2004. His velocity dropped, and specialists, fans, and commentators formed a cottage industry to talk about his health. Even in the very beginning of his inevitable slow decline, his power was intense enough to draw interest in the most miniscule of failures. The press, watching the legend slowly fade to the past, became critical – critical about his attitude or his drive, his sometimes surly nature. The personality that was for years the most gregarious and entertaining on the team became more guarded. There were moments where the fun-loving Pedro re-emerged – I remember one incredible story where, after a game at Yankee Stadium, Pedro’s only response to the inevitable question ‘how do you feel?’ was the classic line “A pretty girl gave me flowers!” followed by the Greatest Pitcher Alive skipping away from the press pool in glee. But those moments, once commonplace, became less and less frequent.
The coda of his Red Sox career saw devastating defeats and embarrassments; in 2002, he succumbed to yet another injury after famously threatening to bean the long dead Babe Ruth. In 2003, he saw what would have been the defining moment of his career crumble in the wake of an epic managerial blunder and a cavalcade of Yankee hits. And in 2004, just before the resurrection, Yankee fans claimed paternity in one of the most enduring taunts in the history of baseball. But the legend of Pedro endured.
In the last game he ever pitched in a Red Sox uniform, Pedro Martinez spun a flashback, going 7 innings while allowing just 3 hits and striking out 6 Cardinal batters from a lineup that had scored 855 runs that year. It was Game 3 of the World Series, in Busch Stadium, far from home. Pedro won that game, the Red Sox won that historic series and that amazing, improbable, impossible playoff run? and Pedro Martinez officially became a part of the past. Numbers and years and dollar signs signaled his departure, pulled to new challenges by the lure of a larger paycheck. We can moralize on his decision, or on ours, but it?s a challenge to the very nature of the modern game, and as useless a complaint as there can be. Pedro?s legacy is intact and vibrant, and the fact that he and the Red Sox now exist as two instead of one is simply a change. We must learn to live with that change, as we simultaneously honor the past and the present. Pedro plays elsewhere, and he?ll always play here.
Tonight, as the number 45 ? now etched in orange rather than red ? walks to that mound from an unfamiliar angle, remember him in his totality. Remember him as the kid who wanted to be his big brother, the kid who mastered English (better than many of its native speakers) and the one who learned French just because he liked Montreal. Remember him as the spark that lit this franchise, the man that drove us to 4 postseason berths over the 7 years of his tenure. Remember him as the cheerleader, the one who never stopped talking and moving when he wasn?t pitching. Remember him, sure, as the unpredictable, sometimes surly pitcher who left town in exchange for riches. But remember him, most of all, as the pitcher who could once have been called the Best Pitcher on Earth. Remember these things, and honor him tonight. Once that first pitch is thrown, he?s the enemy. Before that first pitch is your last chance to celebrate his immense contributions to this franchise, to tell him and the world what he meant to us, warts and all. Before that first pitch, cheer for him as you?d expect people to cheer for the greatest pitcher anyone ever saw.
And then, just try to beat him.
By Andrew Lipsett