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A Good Time in the Big City
August 01, 2005
The new face of the franchise, Pedro Martinez, is making the Mets matter again in New York, and he's having fun doing it
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August 01, 2005

A Good Time In The Big City

The new face of the franchise, Pedro Martinez, is making the Mets matter again in New York, and he's having fun doing it

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High up barely passable roads in the mountains of the Dominican Republic is the only mine in the world that produces larimar, a turquoiselike gem regarded as a healing stone that is said to relieve tension. A more accessible version of the Dominican gem, at least when New York City's Grand Central Parkway is not choked with increasingly heavy game-day traffic, can be found at Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets showcase the gel-curled talisman that is Pedro Martinez. � You want relief from tension? Already this year Martinez has strutted around the clubhouse in a garish orange two-piece suit before every game of a three-game winning streak, run childlike through the spray of infield sprinklers that interrupted one of his starts, worn a trash can atop his head to salute a game-winning hit by large-noggined backup catcher Ramon Castro, made his signature double point-and-thrust gesture the new lambada, and helped fill cavernous, charmless Shea with satisfied customers (attendance is up 23%), some of whom pay homage to the great gelled one by wearing long, curly, shiny black wigs. � The stress level around Queens has also been reduced by the artful pitching of Martinez, who at week's end was 12-3, had a league-leading 147 strikeouts and was the most important reason why the Mets were exciting and relevant for the first time in five years. They ended last week with a 6-1 run that brought them within 3 1/2 games of the National League East lead. The Mets were scoring 4.9 runs per game when Martinez pitched, 4.4 when he didn't; they'd allowed only one unearned run in his 142 innings and one every 27 innings behind everyone else; they were 13-7 when he started, 38-40 when he didn't; and they were 6-1 when he started after a loss, 18-22 when someone else did. � Last Saturday, for instance, the day after New York had lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-5, the Mets rallied for a 7-5 win immediately after Martinez was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh. � " Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd, Jose Reyes ... they all play better when I pitch," Martinez crowed after the game. "Maybe it's my tempo out there. Maybe they just like me and like playing behind me. But our team seems to be doing better when I pitch." � New York is a different ball club--more so, a different franchise--since it signed Martinez last December to a four-year, $53 million free-agent contract. The Metaphysicals believe in the power of Pedro. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson alternately compares him to Bruce Springsteen ("the gift to touch hearts and souls") and Muhammad Ali ("he can beat you with the rope-a-dope, the jab, or if he has to, he can slug it out"). General manager Omar Minaya simply regards him as incomparable. "He transcends wins and losses," Minaya said last Friday. "Attendance, the visibility of the franchise, everything. The best way I can describe it is that he affects your brand--Pedro makes the brand. I don't think there is any other guy in baseball who can do that. There is not another guy with that kind of brand value. Roger Clemens has brand value in Texas, but not all over, including Latin America, like Pedro."

While Minaya spoke, Jesus Fernando Martinez, a 16-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic, took batting practice with the Mets, smashing one pitch over the wall in dead centerfield. The free-agent outfielder had signed a $1.4 million contract with New York 11 days earlier. "I know there were other teams that offered more money," Minaya said. "We got him because of how much he admired Pedro."

Says Mets special assistant Sandy Johnson, who helped sign Jesus Martinez, "You can't overestimate what Pedro means in Latin America. When he pitches, everywhere you go people are watching the game."

The Mets' enthrallment with Martinez is matched only by his glee over being a Met. "It's the happiest I've been," he says, "since the day I signed my first professional contract. I got $6,500."

Last year Martinez helped pitch the Boston Red Sox to their first world championship in 86 years. But in doing so the righthander worked a career-high 244 innings (postseason included) while wondering if the club wanted to retain him after he fulfilled his seven-year, $90 million contract in October. "When I was on the field, no season was more fun than that," he says of 2004. "As far as not knowing where I was going to be, it did have an effect on me. Now I have peace of mind. Now I know where the end of my career is going to be. The next four years are going to be fun."

Asked if he will retire at the end of this contract, Martinez, 33, says, "Most likely. But it's not up to me if the time comes, say, two years down the road. I'll let God make the decision. I have the peace of mind in knowing that I already won the World Series, and these four years I can devote to trying to make it to the World Series again and add to the legacy I created in baseball."

No pitcher in major league history with at least 200 decisions has a better winning percentage than Martinez (.711, 194-79), who is as tough to beat as ever, even without the wicked high-90s fastball he wielded in the late 1990s. Consider his last three starts through Sunday, all wins: He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-1 on July 10, primarily with low-90s fastballs; beat the Atlanta Braves 8-1 on July 17 with only 61 pitches in six innings, none of them harder than 86 mph; and subdued the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday with a phenomenal display of changing speeds. With his 109 pitches, Martinez hit all 21 numbers on the radar gun from 70 to 90 mph. For instance, he threw his increasingly important cut fastball at 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85 and 86 mph to both sides of the plate. Not even John Nash could add and subtract like that.

"You can tell a Picasso by looking at it, same with a Rembrandt," Peterson says. "There is a definitive style. With Pedro, though, he can be whatever he needs to be. Nobody else does that."

His superior pitching intellect and intuition serve Martinez well in his self-described end phase. For instance, though he hadn't pitched in the National League for seven years before this season, Martinez often does not bother reviewing scouting reports or videotape on hitters. "On the bench between starts, he misses nothing," manager Willie Randolph says. "He's a master at reading hitters' body language."

Says catcher Mike Piazza, "It's amazing what he picks up just from watching hitters--the way they react to pitches, the adjustments they might make with their feet, everything. It's not like we go out there with a script. A lot of it is him improvising."

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