With the storied sports history of New England, we have no shortage of transcendent athletic personalities. Some of them, like Mike Eruzione or Doug Flutie, will forever be tied to the region and very strongly represent a specific time and place.
Others like Larry Bird and Ted Williams played their entire careers here and carried their franchises.
Then there are athletes who gave us their best years but didn’t stay. Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr come to mind.
And finally there is Pedro Martinez. While few true baseball fans would argue that Martinez’s best years were in Boston, his career is unique enough that no one — possibly least of all Pedro himself — knows where it’s going. And Red Sox fans still feel like we have a claim to him.
When the Red Sox traded Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. to the Montreal Expos for Martinez in 1997, very few people predicted the greatness that would come in the next few seasons (though his $75 million contract — a record at the time — hinted strongly at the expectations).
Martinez quickly delivered. He dominated in 1998 and went 19-7. His otherworldly effort in 1999 garnered him a 23-4 record with a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts and a Cy Young award. It was arguably the best pitching performance by a pitcher in the modern age, and Martinez became more than just the Red Sox’ ace.
He became “Pedro.” Like so many superstar athletes who become fan favorites, he became familiar to us. Just as we’d refer to “Nomar” and “Tek” and later “Manny,” we had “Pedro.” No last name required. There was only one Pedro.
For someone built like he is — listed at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, but believed to be smaller — Pedro confounded experts and fans alike with his atypical pitching style. Just by looking at him, you couldn’t tell he was a power pitcher. He isn’t built like those big, Texas flamethrowers named Roger Clemens or Josh Beckett. Pedro has never intimidated opponents with his size.
But what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for with his confidence and control, which are legendary. He’s garnered praise from opponents and the media alike. Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated wrote of the 1999 Pedro: “There has never been a pitcher in baseball history — not Walter Johnson, not Lefty Grove, not Sandy Koufax, not Tom Seaver, not Roger Clemens — who was more overwhelming than the young Pedro.” High praise indeed. And he did it for us.
However, as Pedro aged, he became more and more of an enigma. His body, long thought too small for his style of pitching, began to betray him. At times he could still summon the fire he was famous for, but as the years passed, he began to rely more on finesse than speed. In a sense, Pedro morphed from Roger Clemens into Greg Maddux, switching up the effective pitches in his repertoire and keeping hitters guessing.
The 2003 playoffs will forever weigh heavily on Boston fans’ psyches because we really had to wonder if Pedro was done. When manager Grady Little repeatedly refused to pull Pedro as he gave up crucial hit after crucial hit to the Yankees in Game 7, we watched the previously unstoppable Pedro crumble.
Sure, Boston fans were quick to blame Little as managers exist to make decisions regarding a pitcher’s longevity. Sure, Pedro may have said that he was good to go for another batter, but no one wants an ace who quits.
Through it all, Martinez showed fight. Let us not forget that he was the same man who threw then-72-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground during a bench-clearing brawl a few days earlier. And though Martinez has since apologized for his actions, he has never claimed to regret the fight.
The 2004 campaign, which also turned out to be Pedro’s swan song with the Red Sox, was also the greatest season in franchise history. Pedro’s performance in the 2004 playoffs may not have been quite as electric as his earlier years, but the magnitude of the situation made it seem that much more important. Pedro, never one to shy away from the spotlight, proved he could still get it done when it mattered. He was a big-game pitcher.
Of course, the addition of Curt Schilling to the Red Sox’ pitching staff in 2004 — and Schilling’s assertion that he had been brought in specifically to break the curse — rankled Pedro’s proud feathers. Stories about disagreements between the teammates broke in the news, and speculation about whether Pedro would re-sign with the Red Sox — especially after claiming he was “disrespected” with the club’s free-agent offer — abounded. Soon after the Red Sox’ world championship parade, Pedro was gone.
Since signing his free-agent contract with the Mets in 2005, Pedro ceased being ours. Yet we still feel a connection to him. When the Phillies signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal this past season, we wondered how far the mighty had fallen. Pedro Martinez, who once claimed that a $14 million contract offer was a sign of disrespect, agreed to play for the Phillies for a pittance of that. Perhaps his body was finally breaking down for good this time, but it seemed unlikely that Pedro could be the Pedro of old.
Never a man to suffer from a lack of self-importance, Pedro claimed to be “the most influential player that ever stepped in Yankee Stadium” this week. The pitcher is quick to draw on his years with the Red Sox as the reason the media made a sideshow out of his appearances in the Bronx.
“For some reason, with all the hype and different players that have passed by, maybe because I played for the Red Sox, is probably why you guys made it such a big deal every time I came in,” Pedro reasoned.
And now that the Red Sox are out of the playoff picture, we, as Red Sox fans, are counting on one of ours — even a former one — to carry the torch and vanquish the Yankees. Pedro’s performance in Game 2 of the World Series struck a blow for the good guys, even if he didn’t come away the victor.
Pedro Martinez may not be ours anymore, but he gave us his very best when he was here. And he’s still pitching against the Yankees and fighting the good fight, which is good enough for us.