You really had to be there.
Years from now, it’ll be great to stroll through the corridors of the Baseball Hall of Fame and come across Pedro Martinez’s plaque. You’ll be able to study the stats and perhaps try to explain what it was like to see Pedro pitch for the Boston Red Sox in 1999.
Pedro’s career was a lot more than his ’99 season, of course. The man worked for four teams other than the Red Sox. He was the child prodigy in Los Angeles — the wispy younger brother of the Great Ramon Martinez. In 1993, the Dodgers decided Pedro was too small and dealt him to the Montreal Expos for the immortal Delino DeShields. After 55 wins and one Cy Young Award, Pedro was traded to the Red Sox for a couple of prospects in November 1997. Pedro established himself as a Hall of Famer in his seven seasons in Boston, then signed a four-year contract with the Mets after the Red Sox’ curse-breaking championship season in 2004. Pedro won 32 games for the Mets, then finished with the Phillies in 2009. The final game of his big league career was a failed start against the Yankees in the sixth and final game of the 2009 World Series.
His résumé is spectacular. He won 219 games and lost only 100. He was a latter-day, righthanded Sandy Koufax, putting up amazing numbers in a steroid-fueled era of pinball offense.
All of Pedro’s numbers are eye-popping, but none of the metrics explain what it was like to watch him pitch for the Red Sox in 1999.
Where do we start?
In 1999, Pedro went 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts, and only 37 walks. It was otherworldly. He should have been American League MVP. He finished second to Texas catcher Pudge Rodriguez. Pedro finished second because a couple of sportswriters said they did not consider a starting pitcher an MVP candidate and didn’t include him on their ballots.
This led me to a phone call that I will never forget. I called Ted Williams. I knew Ted had gotten snubbed in a few MVP elections. Ted did not win the MVP in either of the years in which he won the triple crown, nor did he win in 1941 when he hit .406.
Ted sympathized with Pedro. He uttered words that probably will never be spoken by another human being.
“Yeah, I know what that’s like for Pedro,’’ said the greatest hitter who ever lived. “I hit .400 one year and didn’t get it. I thought that was pretty good.’’
Pedro’s 1999 season was like Ted’s 1941 season. It was more than “pretty good.’’ It was historic. It was Cooperstown-worthy. All by itself.
It was Pedro’s second year with the Red Sox. By the summer of 1999, Pedro’s Fenway starts had become regional celebrations of greater Boston’s Dominican culture. Pedro had a huge following of countrymen in nearby Jamaica Plain and Lawrence. The never-inclusive Red Sox suddenly had a Hispanic hero and Pedro was embraced by a new population at Fenway. Fans loved him and he loved them back. And his performance was off the charts.
In July, the All-Star Game came to Fenway for the first time since 1961. Pedro, naturally, was the AL’s starting pitcher. The pregame ceremony featured the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled on any field as members of MLB’s “All-Century Team” gathered around Ted Williams along with the 1999 AL and NL All-Star teams. After the emotional first-ball toss by Teddy Ballgame, Pedro took the mound and made some history. He struck out the side in the first inning. He struck out two more in a 1-2-3 second. Pedro was named All-Star MVP in the AL’s 4-1 win.
Two months later he pitched arguably the greatest game in the history of the old, fabled Yankee Stadium (sure, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in a World Series there, but bear with us). Facing one of the great Yankee lineups of all time — a team that won the 1998, 1999, and 2000 World Series — Pedro hurled a one-hitter, struck out 17 batters, and fanned eight of the final nine Yankee hitters.
There was more. In October, after hurting his shoulder in the playoffs against the Indians, Pedro came out of the bullpen at Jacobs Field and pitched six hitless innings in the deciding game of the Division Series.
Not bad for a guy who stands 5 feet 11 inches and pitched at 170 pounds.
Pedro went 117-37 in his seven Red Sox seasons. He famously missed a start when Jimy Williams bumped him because he was late getting to the ballpark. He said, “Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.’’ He said, “Just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddies.’’ He shucked Don Zimmer to the ground when he was charged by the Gerbil in a playoff brawl in 2003. He was the man Grady Little would not take out in the hideous Game 7 playoff loss to the Yankees in ’03. Pedro’s last game in a Red Sox uniform was a seven-inning shutout performance in the third game of the 2004 World Series. He carried the trophy back to Boston after the Sox swept the Cardinals.
I was there for all of it. I covered all of it. But it was never possible to perfectly portray the experience. Those of us who were privileged to watch Pedro Martinez are forever thankful and indebted.
He was proud. He was a diva. He never forgot a slight. And he was the greatest pitcher of his generation.
Pedro Martinez. Boston Red Sox. A baseball immortal. A true Hall of Famer.