On the field and off, Pedro Martinez truly one of a kind
The Hall of Fame pitcher captivated the region across cultures in a way that no athlete in Boston has done before or since.
He was a baseball assassin who loved tulips. They called him a head hunter and he built churches. He hurled an old man to the ground and lifted up the needy. Proudly private, he was also at times a clown — a nudist clown.
He pranked. He pouted. And he pitched.
Oh, did he pitch. In 115 years of Boston baseball, Pedro Martinez reigns as the grand master, a wisp of a man who overmatched the mighty, broke down social barriers from Fenway Park to Fort Independence, and made stardust memories as he helped the Red Sox conquer their 86-year championship famine en route to his induction Sunday into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
He was more than the Ted Williams of his time. More than the Carl Yastrzemski of his generation. As mesmerizing on the field as he was charismatic off it, Martinez not only reached the zenith of his sport but captivated the region across cultures in a way that no athlete in the city has done before or since.
“I grew up in Boston, and I will never forget this image,’’ said Alberto Vasallo 3d, president of the Spanish-language El Mundo Boston. “The first time I saw a blond-haired, blue-eyed kid in South Boston wearing a Red Sox jersey with the name Martinez and a big number 45 on the back, I knew right then that Pedro through sports had blown away the city’s ethnic barriers.’’
Long after Martinez last pitched in Boston, kids still want to be like him. Civic titans treasure the small graces they shared with him. Generations of New Englanders hold him in their hearts, perhaps none more tightly than the Dominican diaspora.
Busloads of Dominican-Americans — the bachata-grooving, drum-bopping, flag-shaking merry makers who transformed tradition-steeped Fenway Park into a festival of sport on the days Martinez pitched — are scheduled to depart Jamaica Plain Sunday morning for Cooperstown.
They remember the days before Martinez arrived, when many Latinos felt disenfranchised in Boston, unwelcome not only as fans and employees at Fenway Park but in the city at large.
“People are going crazy waiting for the [induction] day,’’ said Junior Pepen, a Dominican-American who 15 years ago launched a Spanish-language sports talk radio show, Conversando Deportes, on WRCA (1330). “Everyone wants to be part of history and say, ‘Thank you, Pedro, for everything you did for us.’ ’’
Martinez remains so close to Boston’s Dominican community that he invariably visits Jamaica Plain on his trips to Boston, as he did last month for his regular haircut at the Dominican-owned Fernandez Beauty and Barber Shop. He will become the second Dominican Hall of Famer, joining Juan Marichal, who was inducted in 1983.
“You know what has me really excited?’’ Martinez said last month over breakfast in the Back Bay. “What the Hall of Fame is going to do with this pile of people from the Dominican they have never seen before. We have waited 32 years for this. I can’t imagine what’s going to happen.’’
He is certain about one thing: were Tom Menino alive, the former Boston mayor would be there with him. Menino and banking executive Chad Gifford embraced Martinez soon after he arrived in 1998, helping him win over the city.
When Martinez and the mayor appeared together in the summer of ’98 at the annual Dominican festival in Franklin Park, they signaled a new era of inclusion in Boston baseball. The Hispanic community responded so eagerly that businesses soon were scrambling to catch up.
The Boston Globe began publishing Martinez game stories in Spanish. McDonald’s launched a Spanish-language advertising campaign, with Martinez pitching 99-cent double cheeseburgers. There would be a brand of Pedro Salsa, and at Bella Luna in Jamaica Plain, which Martinez frequented on Latin nights at the downstairs Milky Way Lounge & Lanes, they introduced the Pedro pizza, with grilled steak and onions.
The Sox rarely sold out Fenway Park before he arrived. But Martinez’s performances became civic celebrations, routinely drawing thousands more than usual. There might be lightning on Moosehead Lake and fireflies in the Berkshires, but there was nothing more electric than Martinez on the Fenway mound on a summer night.
A torrent of new multiethnic fans spurred Ace Ticket to air its first commercials in Spanish on Boston’s television affiliate of Univision.
“In my 30 years in the business, Pedro is one player who people actually were more interested in buying tickets to see than the Red Sox themselves,’’ Ace Ticket owner Jim Holzman said. “If for some reason he didn’t pitch that day, people got mad and wanted to switch their tickets. I would have to say, ‘I didn’t sell you Pedro tickets. I sold you Red Sox tickets.’ ’’
Martinez rarely disappointed. When the Sox acquired him from the Montreal Expos for two minor leaguers after the 1997 season, he was the best pitcher in the National League, the reigning Cy Young Award winner. The minor leaguers — Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. — were promising young pitchers who went on to productive, if unexceptional, careers.
Martinez was exceptional by every measure. And the deal would go down on many lists as one of the best in Sox history.
“That’s the kind of trade you dream about, really,’’ Dan Duquette, Boston’s general manager at the time, said in an interview.
As Montreal’s GM four years earlier, Duquette had acquired the largely unproven Martinez from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Duquette and Montreal manager Felipe Alou saw something in Martinez the Dodgers missed.
Soon, the secret was out.
“Pedro had the heart of a lion,’’ Jimy Williams, his first Sox manager, recently recalled by phone.
Pedro Jaime Martinez rose from poverty in Manoguayabo in the Dominican outcountry, one of six children in a small house with a tin roof and dirt floors. Born in 1971 into a family rich in baseball talent — both his father and brother were pitchers — he learned his craft under the family’s now-famous mango tree, sometimes, he would later recount, throwing his sister’s doll’s head or oranges when he didn’t have a ball. Signed as a professional at 16, he spent six years as a ranking prospect but also a relative nobody in the Dodgers system.
At 5 feet 11 inches and only 170 pounds, he threw hard but was too small, too fragile to become more than just another arm in a big league bullpen, the Dodgers concluded. And because he looked no more imposing than a peanut slinger in the Fenway bleachers, others concurred.
Former Sox outfielder Tommy Harper, who would become Martinez’s close friend as a coach in Montreal and Boston, recalled Alou watching Martinez pitch for the Dodgers and saying, “If we get him, I’m going to make him a starter.’’
Harper remembered thinking, “Pedro didn’t weigh as much as I did. How could he be a starting pitcher? He would never last.’’
The proof was in his pitching. In Martinez’s seven seasons with the Sox, from 1998 to 2004, he posted an astonishing record of 117 wins and only 37 losses. Legends Roger Clemens and Cy Young stayed longer in Boston and won more games, but no pitcher in Sox history has matched Martinez’s career winning percentage (.760), the batting average of opponents (.206), or strikeouts per 9 innings (11). His career earned run average (2.52) is the lowest for a Sox starter since Babe Ruth compiled a 2.19 ERA before he departed the Fens in 1919.
Martinez will also be the shortest pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame since Whitey Ford in 1974.
“Let’s face it, a lot of us were wrong,’’ Harper said.
Martinez held grudges against many of his doubters, but not Harper. He credited Harper with supporting him during his stormiest times in Montreal and Boston, and he paid him an unusual tribute for most of his playing career by checking into hotels under the alias “P. Harper.’’
Martinez tried other ways to dodge attention. In Boston, he loved taking long training runs along the Charles, but so many autograph seekers broke his stride that he abandoned the practice. Other times, he tried circulating incognito, once donning a wig of Rastafarian-style dreadlocks, to no avail.
“I didn’t fool anybody,’’ he said.
A private man in a public arena, Martinez never embarrassed himself or the Sox with his behavior off the field. But he became baseball royalty, and he expected to be treated as such, whether his contract status was in question or his daily routine clashed with the team’s. He was at times a baseball diva.
The Sox had their schedule, Martinez his. When he once held up the team bus in 2003, veterans John Burkett and Darren Oliver immediately convened a kangaroo court and sentenced Martinez to buying the team dinner on their next road trip.
The tab, at Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill: nearly $18,000.
“He could have said, ‘Screw you, I’m a superstar,’ ’’ said Burkett, who pitched 15 years in the big leagues and played with five Hall of Famers as well as Barry Bonds. “That wasn’t Pedro. I had a lot of great teammates and Pedro ranked at the top in terms of how happy he was and how he handled his fame.’’
No one cured Martinez’s tardiness, however. After the Sox swept the Anaheim Angels in the 2004 American League Division Series, they scheduled a workout at Fenway Park. Martinez arrived at 5:30 p.m. and found the clubhouse empty.
“What’s up?’’ he asked a staffer.
“The workout was at 1 o’clock,’’ Martinez was told.
“Oh,’’ he said, “I thought it was at 4 [o’clock].’’
Which would have made him only 90 minutes late rather than 270.
No harm was done. But five years earlier, after Martinez repeatedly showed up late for games, Williams denied him his regular start in the rotation. In turn, Martinez lashed out, all but threatening to walk away from the organization.
“If I’m a bad influence on the team, then they better get me out of here,’’ he fumed.
More than 15 years later, Williams treasures most of his memories of Martinez: the Bronx evening when he pitched a one-hitter and struck out 17 Yankees; the ’99 All-Star Game in Boston when he struck out five of the first six National League batters; the night in Cleveland when he made a rare relief appearance and no-hit the Indians for six innings to help clinch the 1999 AL Division Series; the years of dominance at the height of the steroid era, when almost every opposing lineup was stocked with muscled-up mashers and Martinez manipulated them like marionettes.
For Williams and many others, Martinez’s greatness eclipsed his foibles.
“One thing a lot of people don’t understand is that when you are someone like Pedro and you go home to your country, you are king,’’ Williams said. “Nobody tells you what to do. Consequently, when you come back to the United States and run into somebody like me, who thinks everyone should be team-oriented, you’re going to bang heads a little bit. But that doesn’t take away the respect I have for him.’’
Williams saw Martinez capture two AL Cy Young awards, in 1999 and 2000, before his supremacy began to wane in 2001. Having thrown nearly 30,000 major league pitches, Martinez suffered his first serious arm injury midway through the season and never fully recovered the velocity of his once-fearsome, 97-mile-per-hour fastball.
Tumult followed. By late summer, the Sox had a new manager, Joe Kerrigan, who had clashed with Martinez as his pitching coach in Montreal. The tipping point came when Kerrigan waged an ill-conceived attempt with the Expos to teach Martinez how to intimidate opposing batters without hitting them.
Harper witnessed the misadventure. It was a notorious period for Martinez, his ferocious pitching style having become widely perceived as reckless and dangerous. He attacked hitters as if they were villains, routinely firing fastballs that ran near their chins.
He later would say that he mastered a method of demonizing his opponents early in his professional career.
“I would conjure up a scene straight out of the most gruesome Hollywood blood-and-gore slasher flick: my mother, strapped tightly by ropes to a chair, her mouth gagged, her eyes clenched shut, too terrified to look down at the tip of a knife held to her throat by the leader of a gang of kidnappers,’’ Martinez wrote with Michael Silverman in his recent memoir, “Pedro.’’
The fictitious gang leader then would answer to Martinez and his little friend: his menacing fastball.
Over time, rivals began calling him “Senor Plunk,’’ and the Expos feared the consequences of his perceived headhunting. Angry opponents charged him, touching off brawls, endangering everyone involved.
Kerrigan’s plan required Martinez to pitch a simulated game against a mannequin, while Kerrigan barked instructions from behind home plate. Martinez wanted no part of it. He fired his second pitch into the mannequin’s skull, scattering splintered plastic and stuffing all around Kerrigan.
“Everybody started laughing,’’ Harper remembered.
Everybody, that is, but Kerrigan.
“Joe never worked with me again,’’ Martinez said.
Their animosity re-surfaced when Kerrigan, as Sox manager, ordered the injured Martinez to make himself useful during a practice after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by coaching the team’s pitchers. Martinez said the Sox did not pay him to coach. A shouting match ensued, with Martinez ripping off his jersey and flinging it at the manager.
Within minutes, Kerrigan and Martinez each delivered an ultimatum to Duquette: one of us must go, him or me.
It would not be Martinez, whom Duquette, to this day, describes as “my favorite player.’’ Kerrigan lasted 20 more games before he was fired by the team’s new owners. Efforts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.
Martinez felt liberated. He clicked with his new manager, Grady Little, and John W. Henry’s new ownership group. Despite several flare-ups over his contract status, Martinez’s final years with the Sox proved to be consistently productive and brought him ever closer to helping the club vanquish the so-called Curse of the Bambino, or, as he preferred to describe it, “more than 80 years of heartbreak.’’
He attacked the challenge as if his mother depended on it.
“Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him,’’ Martinez once declared. “Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass, pardon me the word.’’
His title quest faltered in 2003, first because of the greatest regret of his career, throwing 72-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground when the Yankees coach charged him during a brawl in Game 3 of an epic, seven-game AL championship series, then because the Sox lost the decisive Game 7 after Little left Martinez on the mound too long, enabling the Yankees to overcome a 5-2 deficit in the eighth inning en route to a 6-5 victory in 11 innings.
But the course of history changed in ’04. The Sox acquired a second ace, Curt Schilling, and assembled a talented roster of carousing self-styled “idiots’’ who defied history at every turn, never more so than when they stormed back from a three-game deficit in the league championship series against the Yankees to win the AL pennant.
While Schilling seized the spotlight with his “bloody sock’’ bravery, Martinez delivered as well, the Sox winning three of his four postseason starts. He made his final appearance in a Boston uniform in Game 3 of the World Series, against the Cardinals in St. Louis, the day after his 33d birthday.
As Martinez stood alone in the clubhouse shortly before the game, Sox general manager Theo Epstein passed through and jauntily shouted, “Happy birthday, Petey.’’ Martinez stood stone silent, giving no indication he noticed Epstein.
The Sox led the series, two games to none, and Martinez had nothing on his mind but the batters he was about to face — the villains.
“I was so focused,’’ he recalled. “I knew that if I lost that game, St. Louis would get momentum. And if I won that game, the series would be all over.’’
Over, it was. Martinez held the Cardinals scoreless for seven innings in a 4-1 victory, setting the stage for the Sox to complete a four-game sweep and return home to a cathartic party for the ages.
“It’s been a great ride,” he said after the game, all but certain the Sox would jettison him into free agency rather than sign him to another long-term contract. “I hope everybody enjoyed it as much as I did.’’
Once a shoeless child in the Dominican, Martinez became an American classic, a superstar featured on the cover of Wheaties, the breakfast of champions.
He would play five more years for two more organizations, the New York Mets and Philadephia Phillies, before he ended his career at 37 by pitching for the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. But to this day, he said, his heart remains in Boston, in no small part because of Menino.
They met the first time Martinez pitched at Fenway, a brisk afternoon on April 11, 1998. He took a cue from Duquette and paid his respects to the mayor, who appeared chilly. Martinez gave him his game jacket.
Menino, who died last year, reciprocated by taking Martinez house-hunting. They zigzagged through the city in the mayoral SUV until they reached Allandale Road section of Jamaica Plain, a bucolic stretch where the city blends into Chestnut Hill, which would become Martinez’s home.
“I came here as a young man, and I learned to love and respect him,’’ Martinez said of Menino. “He became like a father to me.’’
Martinez often found peace by perching on a giant rock and fishing for tiny bass in a pond in the Allandale Woods behind the home Menino helped him find.
“That house, with the pond, the trees, and the flowers I clipped to relax, brings back every single memory I had here in Boston,’’ he said. “Not just the baseball, but my personal life: my son being born here, my daughter at the playground, everything goes back to that area. I thank Mayor Menino for that.’’
To Chad Gifford, Martinez owes the seeds of his philanthropy. Gifford, then the influential president of BankBoston, was so tantalized by Martinez when he joined the Sox that he invited him to represent the bank in community outreach programs.
In turn, Gifford’s bank granted Martinez $200,000 to launch a charitable foundation with his brothers, Ramon and Jesus. Martinez has devoted the foundation to attacking poverty near his childhood home, building two churches, a school complex, and dozens of homes, with plans underway for more, including a health center.
In kick-starting Martinez’s charity, Gifford gained a friend and realized a dream. Nearly 50 years after the protagonist of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,’’ longed “to take the great DiMaggio fishing,’’ Gifford managed to take the great Martinez to sea.
They spent an afternoon chasing bluefish off Nantucket, casting through the summer fog. Later, they walked the beach, waged a stone-skipping contest on the surf, and when they reached Gifford’s summer home, Martinez napped — but only after he wrote a note on a napkin to Gifford’s 85-year-old father.
The elder Gifford kept the napkin until his dying day.
“Pedro is a very magical fellow,’’ Chad Gifford said. “I was very lucky to be a very tiny part of his life.’’
So were many others. Adam Hyzdu recorded his first professional hit when he faced Martinez in their inaugural minor league seasons in 1990. While Martinez went on to greatness, Hyzdu toiled in the minor leagues for most of his 17-year career. They reunited in 2004, when Hyzdu, at 32, received a cameo role with the Sox and won a World Series ring.
Martinez and Hyzdu have since visited hospitals and youth centers with other members of the ‘04 Sox.
“Every stop we make, Pedro tells people how I persevered all those years and finally got a ring,’’ said Hyzdu, who is now selling recreational vehicles in Arizona. “He has made me feel appreciated.’’
Their first stop is typically the Dana-Farber children’s cancer center, where Martinez ranks among the all-time favorites.
“There was no one ever quite like Pedro who could capture an entire clinic the way he does,’’ said Lisa Scherber, the center’s director of patient and family programs. “He could get anyone to smile.’’
Scherber gets no argument from Martinez’s former teammates.
“I will never forget his laugh,’’ said Curtis Leskanic, the goofy Sox reliever who won Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
Leskanic never failed to get a chuckle out of Martinez when Leskanic performed his self-described naked monkey walk in the Sox clubhouse. But Martinez himself was peerless in playfully indulging his nudity.
A prankster on his days off from pitching, Martinez more than once staged his personal theatre of the absurd by running naked “rally laps’’ in the Sox clubhouse. During one session, his pitching mate, Derek Lowe, interrupted a conversation with reporters.
“I have a hard time talking with this guy running around butt naked,’’ Lowe said.
Martinez also proved adept at “coaching” in the nude, as he did one night in Denver in 2004 after teammate Kevin Millar cartoonishly tripped and fell rounding third base during an 11-0 rout of the Rockies.
“Hey, Millar, let me show you how to run the bases!’’ Martinez shouted as he emerged from his postgame shower.
Manny Ramirez tossed a copy of Sports Illustrated on the clubhouse carpet to serve as third base. Martinez, still naked, then demonstrated the art of rounding a base without losing one’s balance, cracking up the clubhouse.
“Pedro was a great teammate, not just because he was funny but because he was always helpful when you needed it and always appreciative when you helped him,’’ said Mike Timlin, a key member of the Sox bullpen in 2004.
Timlin admired Martinez’s leadership, especially with young Latin players.
“If they got too high on themselves, he would quietly say, ‘You might want to step back a little bit. Don’t think you’re a superstar just because you’re having a couple of great weeks,’ ’’ Timlin recalled.
Lou Merloni never needed to worry about an overblown ego. A utility player who spent parts of six seasons with the Sox, he typically was more concerned with staying in the big leagues. He came to revere Martinez, even after he suffered a concussion trying to protect Martinez when he opened a game at Tampa Bay in 2000 by plunking Gerald Williams, the first batter he faced.
Williams charged the mound and knocked down Martinez before Merloni and catcher Jason Varitek tackled him.
Martinez finished the game, carrying a no-hitter into the ninth inning before John Flaherty of the Rays singled, while the injured Merloni watched on television from his hospital bed.
The next day, Martinez thanked Merloni for his sacrifice. Later, he treated him to numerous dinners, and they remained friends, even after Merloni joined the Cleveland Indians in 2004.
When the Sox arrived in Cleveland for a four-game series, Indians manager Eric Wedge gave Merloni a choice. He could start any one game against the pitcher of his choice, and Merloni chose Martinez.
Wedge “looked at me like I had three heads,’’ Merloni recalled. “He said, ‘Why would you want to face Pedro?’ I said, ‘He’s the best pitcher I’ve ever seen. I don’t care what happens. I just want to face the best.’ ’’
Merloni went hitless in three at-bats, the ball never leaving the infield. As the utility player jogged to the dugout after grounding out, the future Hall of Famer smiled, shouted, “Louie,’’ and tapped him with his glove in a gesture of goodwill.
“That’s how I remember Petey,’’ Merloni said. “Putting a smile on your face.’’
Eleven years have passed since Martinez left Boston. He is 43 now and sprouting his first gray hair. His daughter is headed to college. His two teenage sons are trying to play high school baseball. He runs his charitable foundation with his wife, Carolina, and works as an analyst for the MLB Network. Otherwise, he spends most of his time at his homes in Florida and the Dominican Republic.
But as he heads to Cooperstown, Martinez still holds Boston close, like an old friend.