Sports

Peter Abraham

What made Pedro Martinez so great?

Three amazing pitches kept Martinez ahead of the game

Ramon Martinez looked the part of a major league pitcher. At 6 feet 4 inches, he stood tall on the mound and used that natural leverage to drive his fastball to the plate.

For the scouts who saw Martinez as a teenager in the Dominican Republic, it was easy to imagine what he could become and the Los Angeles Dodgers were quick to sign him.

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The skinny kid tagging along after Ramon looked more like a second baseman, not a pitcher. He was five inches shorter and barely weighed 150 pounds. Had he not been Ramon’s brother, Pedro Martinez might not have merited a second look from the scouts.

For Martinez, who on Sunday will take his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, his journey to baseball’s pinnacle was fueled in part by those who doubted him.

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Martinez was gifted with a strong right arm and unusually long fingers that allowed him to manipulate a baseball in ways other pitchers could only imagine. But what ultimately made Martinez a Hall of Famer was his determination and how that manifested itself over the course of his career starting at those tryout camps in the Dominican.

“Pedro took a lot of pride in being great,” said Curt Schilling, who played with Martinez just one season in Boston but was captivated by him long before that. “I know that must sound weird, doesn’t every major leaguer want to be great? But it’s not. A lot of guys don’t like having high expectations. But Pedro had the highest of expectations.”

That desire could overflow. Martinez threw at hitters he thought crowded the plate and argued with teammates and coaches. Like any little brother, he was combative.

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“Pedro was fearless,” said Dan Duquette, the general manager who twice traded for Martinez. “He never backed down from anybody, even if it got him in trouble.”

Martinez, now a 43-year-old man at peace with his place in the world, laughs at the memories.

“The umpires used to say, ‘Pedro, why do you have that chip on your shoulder?’ It’s because I was told I wasn’t going to make it. In my mind, everybody was against me. In my mind, I was an animal and when I got on the mound, I was 6-5 and 300 pounds. I wasn’t a tall guy but I acted like one.”

When the Dodgers signed Pedro in 1988, he worked hard to overcome the notion that he was there only as a favor to Ramon. He made it a point to get noticed.

Boston 10/9/99- Fenway Park Game 3 Sox vs. Indians- Starting Sox pitcher Ramon Martinez(l) sits in the Sox dugout ith his younger brother Pedro during the game. Library Tag 10101999 Sports - Playoffs '99

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Ramon Martinez (left) pitched for the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Pirates during his 14-year major league career.

Guy Conti, one of the pitching coaches, was paying attention. He adopted Martinez as his project, teaching him how to throw a changeup to complement what was already an above-average fastball.

When Martinez started playing in the minors, Conti was the pitching coach and their relationship deepened. Janet Conti, the coach’s wife, was a librarian and helped teach Martinez how to speak and read English. That enabled him to communicate better with the coaches and learn even more about pitching.

“Pedro had the desire to learn. I saw that from the beginning,” Conti said. “Some players would just do what you told them to do. He would ask questions.”

The Dodgers were pitching-centric and that fed Martinez’s curiosity. When he first arrived at the team’s spring training base, then in Florida, Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax was an instructor.

“Imagine, a gentleman like Sandy Koufax was willing to talk to me about mechanics,” Martinez said. “I loved it. God blessed me with a good arm and good health but I also had determination and discipline. I studied great pitchers like [Greg] Maddux and how they approached the game. I wanted to perfect what I was doing.”

Martinez made his major league debut in 1992 and was the primary set-up man for the Dodgers a year later, making a remarkably quick journey through the minor leagues.

After being traded to the Expos and becoming a starter, Martinez developed a reliable curveball. His breaking ball had bite, carving through the strike zone instead of being thrown with a loop. Combined with his four-seam fastball and changeup, it was a formidable arsenal.

The mix enabled Martinez to win the Cy Young Award three times and finish his career with a 2.93 earned run average.

David Ortiz on what made Pedro Martinez great

From 1998-2000, the first three years he was with the Red Sox following a financially motivated trade by the Expos, Martinez was 60-17 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. He averaged 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

At a time when offensive numbers mushroomed thanks in part to the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs, Martinez dominated.

“I remember never missing a game on TV when he was on during those years,” Schilling said. “You were in a league with the best players in the world already and he was in a level above that.

“His finish at the end with that curveball was where his greatness came from, I think. Other guys threw 95. Other guys threw great changeups. But he had three wipeout pitches. Any one of those three would have made him a 20-game winner. He had all three at the same time.”

This was where discipline again trumped talent. Martinez was careful to throw his changeup with the same arm speed as his fastball to deceive the hitter. His footwork was impeccable, giving him the needed momentum off the rubber. Like any pitcher, Martinez would make mistakes. But he was able to correct himself within the inning.

“I repeated my mechanics so many times that I had the muscle memory,” he said. “If something was wrong, it would flash in my mind right away and I could click it back.”

Martinez’s understanding of baseball beyond his mechanics was another Hall of Fame trait. He could watch a team for two days leading up to his start and know which of his pitches would work best against every hitter.

Cleveland, OH - 10/11/99 - Pedro Martinez gets hosited by catcher Jason Varitek after recording the final out of the improbable Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Indians that sent the Red Sox to the ALCS vs. the New York Yankees. (FOR POSSIBLE SPECIAL SECTION PREVIEW USE.)

JIM DAVIS/Globe Staff

Pedro Martinez and catcher Jason Varitek celebrated after the final out of the Red Sox’ Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Indians in the 1999 ALDS.

“Pedro picked up on everything,” said Jason Varitek, the catcher who worked with him the most. “We would have a plan coming into his starts but that would change if he saw something. For me, it always was the intelligence that set him apart.”

Red Sox manager John Farrell, a former major league pitcher and pitching coach, uses Martinez as an example when working with younger pitchers.

“Pedro had an extremely advanced feel and the ability to apply his talents based on what he was sensing. I don’t know that he pitched to scouting reports. He pitched to how he felt and what he was reading of swings,” Farrell said. “That’s a pretty unique perspective. It’s rare.”

Martinez also learned himself. His long fingers allowed him to hold onto a breaking ball a split-second longer and add more spin. That little extra extension made a difference.

“I was flexible. I will tell you, it was a little strange,” Martinez said. “I can bend my fingers back a long way. My hands were made to hold a baseball and I loved holding a ball.”

Schilling, who finished with 39 percent of the votes in the Hall of Fame balloting, could one day join Martinez in Cooperstown. For now, he considers himself fortunate to have been a teammate.

“For a lot of reasons, we’re never going to see somebody like Pedro again,” he said. “He had it all.”

Pedro Martinez proud he did it clean

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.
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