Boston's beloved king of the mound is now a Hall of Famer
Boston’s beloved king of the mound is now a Hall of Famer.
The crowded bars on Boylston Street and the smell of sausages cooking on sidewalk carts are what Pedro Martinez still remembers. Wearing sunglasses, he would sit behind the wheel of his car and take in the sights and sounds of Boston as he drove to Fenway Park.
Those days he pitched for the Red Sox were sacred for Martinez. But what he came to learn was how important they were to everybody else, too.
“The electricity in the area was amazing,” Martinez said. “It was beautiful to see the people.
“The atmosphere completely told me that something special was going to happen.”
The gates roll open 81 times a season at Fenway, and you’re forgiven if every game doesn’t leave an impression. But when Martinez pitched for the Red Sox from 1998 to 2004, those days and nights he stood on the mound were required viewing.
Dominican flags waved in the bleachers and fans changed their habits, leaving their seats for the concession stands when the Sox were at the plate so as not to miss a single pitch Martinez threw. Baseball was never slow and boring when Pedro had the ball in his right hand.
“I went to one of his games in ’99, in the first half of the season,” said Brian Phair, a 30-year-old Connecticut native who now lives in Waltham. “When Pedro walked out of the dugout to warm up, everybody went crazy. It was like somebody turned on a switch in the park.”
When the news broke Tuesday that Martinez had been elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, Red Sox fans shared in the celebration because they felt a part of it.
“My father used to tell me stories about Sandy Koufax,” said Jon Strauss, a 39-year-old Sox fan from North Andover. “Pedro was my generation’s version of Koufax. You mention his name and it gives a lot of people happy memories. There was a connection to Pedro we had.”
Pedro and Boston: A mutual love affair
In a series of conversations in his native Dominican Republic last month, Martinez shared his memories and told stories. But he spoke little about winning 219 games over 18 seasons in the majors or striking out 3,154 batters. He preferred to talk about his relationship with Boston and the fans.
“I remember pitching against Seattle my first game in Fenway Park and they right away embraced me,” Martinez said. “They started banging on the side of the walls. The walls were so low that people could reach over and hit the backstop behind the plate.
“All those white shirts and red shirts, it was just beautiful.”
Martinez was 60-17 with a 2.25 earned run average in his first three seasons with the Red Sox. He finished second in the Cy Young voting in 1998, then won the award two seasons in a row. It was a run of almost incomparable excellence.
Facing the dynasty Yankees of manager Joe Torre, the Red Sox finished second three years in a row. In Martinez, the Red Sox had the best pitcher in the game. But their roster was never quite deep enough behind him.
“For me, he is my favorite pitcher of all time,” said Dan Duquette, who traded for Martinez in 1993 as general manager of the Montreal Expos and again in ’97 after he became GM of the Red Sox. “Live fastball, good curveball, great changeup. By the time we got him to Boston, he was coming into his own.
“I always thought he loved the stage there. The bigger the spotlight, the better Pedro was. He was extraordinary at Fenway and people appreciated how truly gifted this player was and how unique the opportunity was to see him perform. At his peak, it was like watching a great artist.”
The 1999 All-Star Game, held at Fenway Park, was a coronation for Martinez. After Ted Williams and the other members of the All-Century Team were introduced, Martinez pitched two innings and struck out five of the six batters he faced.
Facing the best the National League had to offer, Martinez delivered one of the most memorable performances in All-Star history and walked off the mound to thunderous cheering.
“Pedro took the mound and oh my goodness,” said Barry Larkin, the great Cincinnati shortstop who is now a Hall of Famer. “My son, it was the first time he came to the All-Star Game with me, and he said, ‘Dad, don’t strike out and embarrass me.’ But none of us were hitting Pedro that night.”
Pedro Martinez calls 1999 All-Star Game his ‘gift to Boston’
Larkin struck out, as did Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell. They were all on the Hall of Fame ballot this year, too. It was, Martinez said with a little smile, just how he planned it.
“That was a little gift that I had for Boston,” he said. “Believe it or not, I was committed to doing something good for Boston. It was our town.
“It was the most amazing All-Star Game that will ever be put in place. I saw the history of the game on the field with me. I had to do something for those people.
“I saw the cream of baseball on that field. I saw the best hitter who ever lived being honored in that game. To me, that was the biggest gift I could give to the fans and those legends who were there.”
That night stood out. But every time Martinez pitched at Fenway was an event, if not a civic holiday.
“We would go to games six or seven times a year and always tried to plan it around seeing Pedro,” said 30-year-old Erik Proctor of Reading. “It always felt like a playoff game and you didn’t want to miss anything. If you weren’t there, it was must-see appointment television. I was young and he shaped what kind of fan I became.”
Hover over a name to see where different pitchers rank compared to Pedro. 2015 statistics not included.
- ERA- Earned Run Average compared to league average.
- FIP- Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of things a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks and home runs) compared to leave average.
- WHIP Ratio of walks and hits to innings pitched.
- K/BB Ratio of strikeouts to walks.
- K/9 Strikeouts per 9 innings.
- fWAR Fangraphs' version of Wins above replacement for pitchers, with defensive factors removed. fWAR is context, league, and park neutral. This means you can use it to compare players between years, leagues, and teams.
By 2004, new ownership and management built a team that finally beat the dreaded Yankees and then won the World Series. Martinez won 16 games that season despite an uncharacteristic 3.90 ERA.
The Sox won four of the five games he started in the playoffs, including Game 3 of the World Series. Martinez recaptured his Cy Young form that night with seven shutout innings.
David Ortiz, one of the 2004 heroes, came to the Red Sox in 2003 at Martinez’s insistence.
“He was the guy who called us first about David,” Sox president Larry Lucchino said. “I couldn’t recall a player calling on behalf of another like that. He said, ‘Larry, please get him to spring training.’
“But that was Pedro. Bright, warm, sensitive, and charismatic. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer for us from the start.”
Ortiz said Martinez was a “messenger” for young players, particularly those from Latin America.
“I learned so much from Pedro,” he said. “People might be like, ‘You are a position player and Pedro is a pitcher.’ But Pedro is so smart that he can help you at any level, any way, no matter what position you play when it comes down to baseball.
“And as a human being, one of the best human beings I have ever [known]. He has the patience and the sense to tell you how to do things.”
Martinez left the Red Sox after the 2004 season, lured to the Mets by a four-year, $53 million contract. He made the All-Star team twice more in New York before pitching only five games in 2007 because of a shoulder injury.
Martinez contemplated retiring in 2009 but joined the Philadelphia Phillies in July. He started nine games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs, the final two in the World Series against the Yankees.
Martinez took the loss in Game 6, lasting only four innings as the Yankees clinched. His final inning, though, was perfect.
“For me, it was an honor to face him in that game,” said Robinson Cano, New York’s second baseman at the time. “I never had a hit off Pedro in my career. But a lot of people can say that.”
That Martinez commanded the game at only 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds made him only more compelling.
“You’d watch him and wonder how he did it,” Duquette said. “But his mechanics were perfect and he had such an intelligence about pitching.”
Martinez hit 141 batters in his career, and nearly all were for a purpose. A jester off the field, Martinez was combative when he took the mound. Intimidation was as much a weapon as any of his pitches.
DATA RESEARCH: Paul Swydan
Chiqui Esteban / Globe Staff
“As a pitcher, he was an uncomfortable at-bat,” said Joe Girardi, who faced Martinez as a player and as manager of the Marlins and Yankees. “He knew where he wanted to throw the ball and he would move you.
“He had three swing-and-miss pitches. A fierce competitor, not afraid of anyone. He never let his size be a deterrent from trying to intimidate people.”
Said Torre: “He could kill you with his finesse. It was like watching John McEnroe play tennis. He could go hardball or softball with you.”
Jason Varitek, who caught Martinez regularly starting in 1999, marveled at his teammate’s intellect and courage.
“When you compete, you don’t care how big or small somebody is,” Varitek said. “He competes like he’s 10 feet tall.”
Martinez also pitched during an era of rampant drug use in baseball. Fueled by steroids, hitters set record after record. In 1999, Martinez’s best season, teams averaged 5.14 runs per game and 27 players hit at least 35 home runs. In 2014, with drug testing in full effect, teams averaged 4.01 runs and only seven players hit 35 or more home runs.
Pedro Martinez on pitching in the steroid era
Martinez, who was never tied to drug use, looks back on what he accomplished with even more satisfaction now.
“I feel even better,” he said. “To be honest, I can let it out of my chest. I can say that if I was proud, I’m prouder now about how I did it.
“Why didn’t I run to different sources? It’s amazing. I’m blessed. I’m extremely happy to have taken the high road as far as that.”
That degree of honesty was paired with a penchant for mirth. Martinez had occasional feuds with managers and pitching coaches, especially Joe Kerrigan. But he was invariably smiling, and that also helped cement a bond with fans.
“I broke my elbow roller skating in 1998 and we went to the park and got behind the dugout to get autographs,” said Steve Robertson of Framingham, who is now 24. “My father told Pedro what happened to me and he said, ‘That deserves an autograph.’ Then my dad asked for another one for my brother and he signed that, too.
“He was such a great pitcher, but for a lot of us, he was a nice guy, too.”
Martinez rejoined the Red Sox in 2013 as a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington. He mostly works as an instructor in spring training and mentors young pitchers. When Martinez makes an appearance at Fenway Park and is introduced to the crowd, the old feelings come back to him.
“To be honest, I never felt like I left even though I was somewhere else,” he said. “My heart, my feelings, they were all in Boston.
“My heart was always with Boston even when you step out for a little while. Every time I came back to Boston, people reminded me that I belonged to them. Everybody made me feel at home, and it’s the same feeling still. I’m in Boston and I’m there to stay.”
Created by Peter Abraham, Matt Pepin, Russell Goldenberg, Alan Miller, Dan Shaughnessy, Chiqui Esteban, and Paul Swydan.
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