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With overpowering performances in his first three starts, Pedro Martinez has ignited the kind of ardor that Red Sox fans once reserved for Roger Clemens
by Gerry Callahan
Posted: Wed April 15, 1998
Pedro Martinez had seen crowds this size before, but in Montreal they usually were in the stands during Expos games. In Boston the fans were at the airport when he arrived in town, a couple hundred of them cheering wildly and chanting his name as if he were some kind of rebel leader in charge of a surprise Red Sox resurgence. This was on Dec. 11, 2 1/2 months after the Red Sox had finished 20 games out of first place and a long, cold winter away from reporting day for pitchers and catchers. This was all Martinez had to see.
"They were yelling and waving flags, and someone had a sign that said WE LOVE YOU, PEDRO," says Martinez, who had been traded to the Red Sox on Nov. 18. "That night I said to someone, 'I think I love Boston already.'" He loved it a lot more a day later when he signed a six-year, $75 million contract with the Red Sox, and now, three starts into his American League career, Boston's love has only intensified. The city and its 26-year-old superstar already have taken to each other like Rick Majerus and Mrs. Fields.
As he stepped outside of Fenway Park and into the players' parking lot after the Red Sox home opener last Friday night, Martinez laughed aloud at all the outstretched arms poking from under the bottom of the security fence as if they were reaching from the grave. These resourceful fans wanted an opportunity to shake the new star's hand, even if they couldn't see his face. Baseballs and trading cards came sliding out as well, and Martinez signed each one and slid it back. "It's part of my life," he says. He vows to never refuse an autograph or an interview request and promises to embrace the stifling pressure that waits around every turn for the ace of the Boston staff, especially an ace making more money than any player in baseball history. "He loves everything about it," says Franklin Jaime, Martinez's cousin who lives in Providence. "This is the way he wants it. To him, this is what baseball should be like."
As soon as they got a glimpse of him heading to his car, a raucous mob of Red Sox fans broke into the chant "Pe-dro! Pe-dro!" despite the fact that the game had ended nearly two hours earlier and the temperature was 37°. That brought a smile to Martinez's face. "There was always something missing in Montreal, something that just didn't feel right," Martinez said. "To be here and play for people who eat, drink and sleep baseball, that makes me feel good. I think this is a special place."
It is now. Every fifth day.
MARTINEZ'S FIRST two Red Sox starts were on the West Coast, but still they were events back in Boston. He struck out 11 in seven shutout innings on Opening Day as the Sox beat the Oakland A's 2-0. The next day Boston sold 15,122 tickets to future home games. He followed that up with a one-run, seven-inning, no-decision effort against the Anaheim Angels before making his Fenway debut last Saturday against the Seattle Mariners in an April game that came equipped with an October buzz.
Martinez didn't just beat the vaunted Mariners hitters, he dominated them. With a dazzling combination of velocity and location, and a dizzying array of fastballs, sliders and perhaps the best changeup in the league, Martinez allowed just two singles and struck out 12 en route to a 5-0 shutout victory. In his three starts with the Red Sox through Sunday, he had an ERA of 0.39 and a league-high 32 strikeouts. His $75 million price tag suddenly seems almost reasonable.
"His fastball is probably in the top five in baseball, his breaking ball is probably in the top 10, and his changeup is probably the best," says Red Sox reliever Jim Corsi. "You combine that with a great command of his pitches and just enough cockiness, and you get a guy who can throw any pitch, anytime, anywhere."
Against the quiet backdrop of the usually empty stands in Montreal last year, Martinez preyed on National League hitters like no pitcher in a generation, winning the Cy Young Award with a 17-8 record, 1.90 ERA and 305 strikeouts. He became the first pitcher since the Philadelphia Phillies' Steve Carlton in 1972 to finish a season with 300 or more strikeouts and an ERA of less than 2.00, and he was the first righthander to do it since the Washington Senators' Walter Johnson in 1912. In some ways he was even more dominant than American League Cy Young winner Roger Clemens, who departed Boston for Toronto as a free agent after the '96 season, leaving the Red Sox without anyone close to a No. 1 starter. And Martinez is nine years younger than the 35-year-old Rocket.
"He's such an intelligent pitcher," says Marichal, "and he's afraid of nothing." Someone mentions that Martinez isn't unlike a young Marichal. "I don't think I ever threw that hard," says the Hall of Famer. Nor did Marichal ever win a Cy Young, an injustice, says Martinez, that prompted him to give his award to a stunned Marichal at a Boston banquet in January. "I gave it back to him on the flight back to the Dominican," says Marichal.
By conventional standards, Martinez is a freak. He's listed at 5'11" and 170 pounds, but appears even smaller in person. He has scant muscle definition, and his long, soft face makes him look about as intimidating as a mall cop. While his stuff says Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens, his body says Rafael Belliard. When his unimposing appearance is mentioned, Martinez smiles and says, "Why don't you grab a bat? Then we'll see. I can look as mean as a man 6'10" when I'm on the mound."
Indeed, Martinez may have soft, friendly features, but that description doesn't apply to his eyes. The eyes belong to a killer, a man with a mean streak as deep and wide as the Charles River. An old reputation for deliberately throwing at hitters is easing slowly, but Martinez says he still won't hesitate to throw inside to anyone at any time. "Those are just stupid thoughts," he says of the headhunting rap, "but if hitters want to think that, let them. That just gives me the edge."
Martinez says that if he hadn't been born with the ability to throw a baseball, he would probably be studying medicine today. Through endless interviews, he remains fresh and thoughtful, a rare feat for an athlete who is communicating in his second language. Already there are stories of the unmarried Martinez taking young teammates on clothes-shopping sprees and spreading his wealth among his many family members. "Pedro takes care of everybody," says Jaime.
When asked what he bought in the off-season to celebrate his groundbreaking contract, Martinez says, "A church." He's not kidding. The Immaculate Conception in his hometown of Manoguayabo, built with Martinez's money, opened its doors on Feb. 15, just hours before Martinez left for spring training. "That was better than the Cy Young, better than the new contract," says Martinez. "The people mobbed me and hugged me. The priest blessed me. Everyone had tears in their eyes. It was unbelievable."
That doesn't sound much different from the day he decided to stay in Boston for the next six years.
ON THE NOVEMBER day when the news broke that Boston general manager Dan Duquette had traded for a No. 1 starter named Martinez, some cynical Red Sox fans had one question: Dennis or Tippy? In recent years Boston had positioned itself as a middle-market franchise, limited by a small and antiquated ballpark and stuck in a division with those big-budget heavyweights, the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees. The Red Sox weren't considered a contenderfor the division title or for Martinez's services.
But Duquette knew Martinez and he knew Montreal, having been the general manager there from 1991 to '94. He knew that the Expos wouldn't be able to afford to keep Martinez when his contract ran out after the '98 season, and he also knew that he had what Montreal needed. He gave up top pitching prospect Carl Pavano and another minor league hurler, Tony Armas Jr., son of the former Sox centerfielder. It was a risky deal, but not, says Duquette, as risky as the one that brought him Martinez the first time, a trade that is the highlight of his career as a baseball exec. In '93 he sent Delino DeShields to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Martinez, a move that didn't sit well with Montreal fans. "They had a real connection with Delino, and couldn't believe I gave him up for a rookie pitcher," says Duquette.
This time he was widely applauded for the trade, but acquiring Martinez was only part of the job. Then he had to find a way to keep him. Martinez initially expressed reservations about signing a long-term deal with the Red Sox. He said he didn't like the way his friend and former teammate, Wil Cordero, was run out of town by the fans and media after Cordero was charged with (and later pleaded guilty to) beating his wife. Martinez also wasn't sure the Red Sox were committed to winning. "To be honest, I was disappointed when [the Expos] first told me I was going to Boston," he says.
The generous contract offer changed his mind, and the Red Sox ushered in a new era, investing nearly $100 million in player contracts on top of the Martinez deal. That raised eyebrows in Boston and around the league. "Just like that, we weren't a small-market team anymore," says Vaughn, who seemed ready to sign a three-year, $30 million extension before the Martinez blockbuster upped the ante. While shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, outfielder Troy O'Leary and third baseman John Valentin have worked out long-term contracts with Duquette, Vaughn remains unsigned after this season, and his contract negotiation has evolved into a daily stare down between the headstrong slugger and the stubborn general manager. "Now there's just one thing left to do," says Martinez. "Sign Mo."
As Martinez drove out of the team parking lot last Friday night, a large group of fans echoed his sentiments, breaking into a loud chorus of "Sign Mo! Sign Mo!" He stopped his car, rolled down the window, pumped his fist into the cold air and joined in the chant "Sign Mo! Sign Mo!" In the car behind Martinez, stuck amid the mob, Duquette just shook his head and smiled. Just what he needed. Another crazed Boston baseball fan trying to tell him what to do.
Issue date: April 20, 1998
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