Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Vote for Pedro

Boo Pedro? No. Won't happen. Can't happen. The ignorant jackals with motivations as questionable as their credentials will not win this round. They will not brainwash the pink-hat brigade and all the Burger-King-Johnny-come-latelys who trendily fill the seats at Fenway but lack the lifer's perspective to quite comprehend what they're seeing. The real fans will be heard. And they will not jeer the greatest modern pitcher, the greatest showman, and perhaps the greatest competitor, ever to call the Fenway mound his workplace.

No, they will stand and they will cheer, so loud and long that a Landsdowne Street passerby might think Papi has just walloped another walkoff. Mark these words: Tomorrow night, Pedro Martinez will be appropriately applauded from his pregame journey from the bullpen, to Carl Beane's introduction, to the first pitch he throws. He'll tip his hat and tap his heart. Maybe he'll even fire the six-guns at Papi and Manny, and surely suppress a laugh behind his glove the first time he has to face his old compadres. This is not Johnny Damon coming back in the enemy's clothing. This is Pedro Martinez, coming home.

Boo him? Not at Fenway Park. Not now.

And not ever.

We'll start with the statistics, because no reminiscence of Pedro's reign in Boston is complete without them. In seven seasons, he had 117 wins against 37 losses, a 2.52 ERA. He won two Cy Young Awards, and if not for the duplicitousness of a New York writer, would have won an MVP. He claimed four straight ERA titles, including one season when his 1.74 ERA was 3.23 runs lower than the league average. He won three strikeout titles, and earned six postseason victories. His stats in '99 alone look like something out of PlayStation: 23 wins, 4 losses, a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts in 213.3 innings, and a WHIP of 0.923. (The next season, 2000, his WHIP was 0.737. Just plain sick.)

Add up all the numbers, and the conclusion the calculator spits out is this: If you didn't see Sandy Koufax in his heyday, then Pedro Martinez from 1998-2000 is the best pitcher your eyes have seen. If you did happen to see Koufax, well, you've been twice blessed, haven't you?

With all that's happened in recent years, it's easy to forget just how much Pedro's arrival in Boston meant at the time. The Sox lacked a true ace after Roger Clemens's departure the previous offseason - shockingly, Steve Avery and Aaron Sele didn't quite fit the bill. Worse, the Sox in 1997 were stale, mediocre, misguided - almost irrelevant. "Boston was a sad town . . . pessimistic," Pedro recalled during his gracious, candid press conference this afternoon. But his arrival in December of that year changed all that. These are the good old days in Boston baseball, right here, right now. Pedro planted the seeds for this nine years ago.

Christ, he made it fun. You remember, don't you? Every Pedro start was an event, with a capital E. The Dominican flags and the heady, something-great-is-happening-here-tonight buzz gave Fenway the feel of a World Cup match. Yeah . . . I remember it so well now. The anticipation of 7:05 p.m.'s arrival was off the charts, my day planned around his start. When Pedro was on the mound and dealing, it's the only time - other than a few select Clemens starts, I suppose - that I can recall wishing the Sox would hurry up and get their at-bats over with so we can watch the pitcher again. And I know I'm not the only one who, when real life kept me from watching the game, would turn on Joe and Trupe a few innings into a ballgame, and being shocked when he had given up a single run. He wasn't invincible. But he damn sure seemed that way.

The dusty old highlight reel in my mind began rolling again recently as I dug through some old boxes in the garage, looking for forgotten old sports stuff to haul up to my new home office. What I discovered in one box was like a Pedro time capsule. A stack of old K cards from one of his late-'90s starts. (I used to tape them to a Yankee fan co-worker's desk back when Pedro actually owned the Yankees. Long time ago.) Ticket stubs from an '03 victory over the Devil Rays, the first time my dad had seen him pitch in person. A stack of yellowed Globe sports sections, and some scattered baseball cards, including one where he has a Jheri curl that would make even Michael Jackson ashamed. And the April 20, 1998 Sports Illustrated pictured here, featuring a fantastic article by Gerry Callahan (yep, him) that included this quote from Pedro about his arrival at Logan Airport on Dec. 11, roughly a month after he was looted from the Expos:

{There were fans at the airport} yelling and waving flags, and someone had a sign that said WE LOVE YOU, PEDRO. That night I said to someone, 'I think I love Boston already."

My most cherished baseball memories will turn two years old this October, of course. But pre-2004, so many of my favorite postcards and snapshots I've collected in my 27 years as a Sox fan feature Pedro prominently.

I remember him pitching as courageously as any hurler I've ever seen, taking the Jacobs Field mound in relief in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS with an aching oblique muscle, a sore shoulder, and no fastball to speak of and limiting those fearsome Indians to exactly zero hits over the final six innings. I'll never forget Peter Gammons's comment afterward: "So now we know. Pedro will be a great pitcher at 35," his point being that he's savvy enough to dominate without his best stuff. I've never seen two players do so much to carry one team as Pedro and Nomar did that season. They were Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, and though the Evil Empire prevailed in the ALCS, to that point that season - and that comeback against the Indians - was the pinnacle of my existence as a Sox fan.

I remember him pitching the best game I've ever seen, the 17-strikeout one-hitter at Yankee Stadium in '99. You'll recall that the one hit was a solo homer by New York DH Chili Davis. The TV replays soon revealed something truly amazing: Davis had his eyes closed when his bat connected with the ball. That's what it took to hit Pedro in those days: blind friggin' luck.

I remember him pitching the most bizarre game I've ever seen, the brawl game in Sept. '00 in Tampa in which he hit the leadoff batter, Gerald "Ice" Williams, damn near got cold-cocked in the face, then did not allow a hit until a Baseball Immortal named John Flaherty singled in the ninth. Sox fans knew Flaherty would get a hit when Pedro's gold cross fell off his neck just before he went into his windup. There always were strange omens and harbingers with Pedro.

And call me crass if you must, Tim McCarver, but I still savor the day in October, 2003, when he heaved that bullrushing gerbil Don Zimmer to the Fenway turf. Hell, one thing Yankees fans (who got the true essence of Zim's incompetence when he did his damndest to run the Bombers into the ground during Joe Torre's illness a few years back) and Sox fans ('78, duh) can agree on is that Pedro should have finished the job while he had the chance.

By people more reasonable than me, the Zimmer incident is regarded as a black mark on Pedro's reputation - and of course it is not his only one. We all know he could be . . . difficult. Physically, he was as delicate as an infant, and sometimes behaved like one. He was charismatic and childish, engaging and defiant, complex and paradoxical. He was generous to his teammates, yet always played the diva, demanding special privileges he believed worthy of his status. He could bitch with the best of 'em.

Pedro owns one of the most expressive faces I've ever seen. In his happiest moments, he'd light up Fenway with that easy, megawatt smile, the one on display in today's must-see press conference, the one that always became appropriately mischievous during his taped-to-the-dugout-pole, Yoda-mask-wearing antics. You just know, on the four days he wasn't pitching, he drove stiff ol' Jimy Williams and his flat-brimmed hat nuts.

In darker times, Pedro's face would sink, his eyes would turn to serial-killer slits, and wouldn't you know it, the next pitch would mysteriously find it's way into the small of Karim Garcia's back. The worst was when Pedro never seemed to smile in that miserable summer of 2001, when he nearly was forced to sacrifice his shoulder to Joe Kerrigan's managerial incompetence.

The writer in me appreciated how easy he made it, what with all the talk-radio-ready soundbites and catch phrases about "mango trees" and "calling the Yankees my daddy" and "drilling the Bambino in the ass." The fan in me just wanted him to shut up and pitch and quit causing himself so many problems. But he was incapable of silence regarding slights real or imagined. Over time, I learned to chalk up his - what, pettiness? rabbit ears? thin skin? - up to his immense pride, the pride absolutely necessary to silence the doubters (namely his first manager, Tommy Lasorda, who labeled him too small to hold up as a starter) and succeed in the major leagues as a 5-foot-10, 175-pound power pitcher. Ultimately, the fierce drive and oversized ego was all part of the package that made him the most compelling athlete to grace this city since Larry Bird.

We'll probably never get the full story of how Pedro became an ex-Red Sox - too many of those in the know have ulterior motives, reputations to protect. But the hunch here is that the Sox braintrust wanted to retain him, and were smugly certain that they would retain him at their price. I suspect Pedro, his pride an impediment once more, wanted to stay desperately - hell, he admitted as much today - but couldn't reconcile his love for Boston with his desire for affirmation (and of course, cash). The Mets played the game brilliantly, topping the Sox's offer at the final crucial turn and making Pedro feel wanted. Two years into a four-year deal, Omar Minaya looks smarter than his Boston counterparts, who accepted the timid Matt Clement and plump, ancient David Wells as "good value" consolation prizes.

Maybe I'm getting caught up in the sentiment, awash in all these the memories, or maybe it's just the thought of another year of suffering Clement, but lately I find myself wishing more and more that Pedro were still here. In the spirit of full disclosure, I didn't feel that way two years ago. I believed the whispers that the innards of his shoulder looked like Spaghetti-O's, that re-signing him to anything more than three years was a risk not worth taking. I fretted that watching him stumble to the finish line of his career here, a shell of his former self, would taint his Boston legacy. But today, it sure looks like Gammons was prophetic all those years ago: So now we know. He'll be a great pitcher at 35.

As he charmed the media today, Pedro recalled his two favorite memories: The '99 All-Star Game at Fenway, when he struck out Larkin, Walker, Sosa, McGwire and Bagwell, five of the first six hitters, the little man stealing the thunder from what might now be suspected as Steroid Row. The other savored recollection he shared today also is one of mine, and it is captured in the photo atop this page: Poking his head out his truck upon arriving at Fenway the morning the Sox returned home as champions, and being saluted by thousands of joyous fans. Look at that smile - that's the one we're talking about. It reminds me of his quote near the end of "Faith Rewarded," one he repeated today: "I'd trade three rings anywhere else for just one with the Red Sox." You know what? I still believe him. No one savored the championship more. No one deserved it more.

Pedro was relatively far down the list of heroes in that magical postseason, though his dusting of Hideki Matsui in Game 5 of the ALCS lingers as a subtle turning point. But seemingly every one of the 25 contributed something important, and Pedro was no exception. In Game 3 of the World Series - the victory that convinced us this championship was indeed inevitable - he was his vintage self, pinpointing sizzling fastballs, snapping off mind-bending curves, and pulling the string on that so-nasty-it-should-be-illegal changeup. The final pitching line of his Red Sox career: Seven innings, three hits, no runs, and a 4-1 victory. No, Pedro did not clinch that elusive championship. But he put the champagne on ice and the ghosts on notice.

As he walked off the mound that warm St. Louis night, he pointed skyward like always, flashed that smile, and somehow looked both overjoyed and relieved, as if an 86-year-old burden was about to be lifted off his delicate right shoulder. We scarcely suspected it then, but it was Pedro Martinez's last on-field act as a member of the Boston Red Sox.

He was leaving for good. But not before giving us with one last cherished memory.

Do the right thing, Sox fans. Give him one more of his own tomorrow.