Boston Red Sox fans finally have something to cheer about for a few days at least. The Fenway faithful will get to see Pedro Martinez’s number 45 retired on Tuesday night prior to the game against the Chicago White Sox. This ceremony comes just over 48 hours after Martinez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame along with pitchers Randy Johnson and John Smoltz as well as Houston Astros legend Craig Biggio.
This ceremony couldn’t come any sooner. The Red Sox own the worst record in the American League and have lost 10 of their last 12 games. Their pitching has been the main culprit and frankly even almost six years after he last pitched a big league game, Pedro would likely fare better against the White Sox lineup than the likes of Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly or Wade Miley.
Yet when Martinez made his MLB debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers late in the 1992 season, few would have expected a career worthy of Cooperstown much less having his number retired alongside Ted Williams, Carlton Fisk and, of course, Jackie Robinson. Back then the diminutive Dominican was known as Ramon Martinez’s baby brother. The elder Martinez was the ace of the Dodgers’ staff, having won 20 games for the team two years earlier.
Pedro would make a good account of himself in his first full season with the Dodgers in 1993. Pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen, Martinez went 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA and 2 saves over 65 appearances. In 107 innings pitched, Pedro punched out 119 batters. But Martinez viewed himself as a starting pitcher like his big brother. Unfortunately, the Dodgers did not think Martinez had the size or stamina to be a successful big league starter. So prior to the 1994 season, they sent Pedro to the Montreal Expos for second baseman Delino DeShields.
It might seem hard to believe now, but when the trade was made the fans in Montreal were not happy. DeShields was a popular player who had been runner up for NL Rookie of the Year in 1990 (behind David Justice of the Atlanta Braves) and had stolen 40 or more bases in each of his first four seasons batting lead off with the Expos. As Jonah Keri, who later write the definitive book about the Expos titled Up, Up & Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos, wrote back in 2010:
The Delino Deshields-Pedro Martinez deal was one of a handful of deals Dan Duquette made as GM of the Expos that confused my unenlightened teenage brain. I knew nothing of service time clocks or that stolen bases were overrated, only that Deshields was good right now, and who was this skinny guy we were getting from the Dodgers.
But Keri’s misgivings about “this skinny guy” and those of Expos fans would dissipate quickly in 1994. Martinez was part of an Expos team that included Larry Walker, Moises Alou, John Wetteland, Marquis Grissom, and Cliff Floyd. Pedro was part of a starting rotation that included Ken Hill, Jeff Fassero, Kirk Rueter and Butch Henry. Although Hill led the staff with 16 wins, it was Pedro who established himself as the ace with 142 strikeouts in 144 2/3 innings pitched. The Expos’ 74-40 record was the best in MLB. But they would have nothing to show for it as a labor dispute between the players and owners would paralyze the game and force the cancellation of the rest of the season including the World Series. Had the Expos won the 1994 World Series, I believe the Expos would not have moved to D.C. a decade later and Bryce Harper would be learning French.
Still, what an extraordinary team the Expos were and Martinez would set the tone for them early in April when he took a perfect game into the 8th inning against the Cincinnati Reds. I watched that game on TV and was hoping to witness my first ever perfect game. After retiring Kevin Mitchell on a flyout to left, up came Reggie Sanders. The perfect game ended when Pedro plunked him. Although it was an inside pitch, there was no way Pedro was trying to hit him. Perfect games don’t just come along everyday. But Sanders immediately charged the mound. Pedro stood his ground and Sanders was ejected. Pedro then struck out Roberto Kelly and got Willie Greene to fly out to keep the no-hitter intact. Martinez would lose the no-no in the top of the 9th on a single up the middle by journeyman catcher Brian Dorsett. He may have not got the no-hitter, but that night he established himself as a front line starting pitcher who wasn’t afraid to pitch inside and could handle himself when things got rough. Pretty soon Ramon Martinez became known as Pedro’s older brother.
Believe it or not, the following year Pedro would throw a 9-inning perfect game, but it wouldn’t count. Twenty-seven San Diego Padres came up and Pedro would retire them all. The problem was it was still 0-0 after 9 innings. Padres starter Joey Hamilton held his own throwing 9 shutout innings while giving up only three hits and two walks. The Expos would score three runs in the 10th, but Martinez lost the perfect game on a lead off triple by Bip Roberts. Still, Pedro was no Harvey Haddix. The Expos won 4-1. I have seen two no-hitters on TV (one by Clay Buchholz and the other by Homer Bailey). Even those efforts don’t stack up to the 9 perfect innings Pedro threw that night.
Pedro would pitch in Montreal through the 1997 season when he won his first Cy Young Award. Along with 17 wins and 305 strikeouts, Martinez would lead the National League in ERA with a sterling 1.90 mark as well as in complete games with 13. It was a remarkable effort for an Expos team that finished 23 games behind the Atlanta Braves that year. The Expos were running on empty and it was only a matter of time before they would trade Martinez. The last time I saw Pedro in an Expos uniform wasn’t on the mound, but in the stands sitting with some children on the final day of the season.
That November the Expos would trade Martinez to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. Let’s just say that neither Pavano nor Armas, Jr. turned out to be Expos legends. All Pedro would do is win two more Cy Youngs, win four more ERA titles, lead the AL in strikeouts thrice and, oh, help bring the Red Sox their first World Series title in 86 years. Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher to put on a Red Sox uniform since Cy Young himself. Yes, even better than Roger Clemens.
What makes Pedro so remarkable is that he was pitching at his best when pitching was at its worst. When Pedro recorded his career best 1.74 ERA in 2000, the ERA for the entire AL was 5.28. Remember, this was the height of the Steroids Era. Pedro was truly in a league of his own.
That year I would move to Boston and got to see Pedro up close and personal at Fenway Park. What I remember most wasn’t any game he pitched, but in one he didn’t. I had a ticket to a Sunday doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians and Pedro was scheduled to pitch against Chuck Finley. Both games were rained out. But before leaving the ballpark, I got to see Pedro play catch while being closely monitored by then Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. I was standing along the bullpen fence in the bleachers with dozens of others shouting encouragement. Pedro totally blocked us out. He was completely focused and locked in even though there was no game that day.
No doubt this ability to block people out served him well as he was warming up in the bullpen in Cleveland during Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS against the Indians as the fans were shouting racial epithets at him. Pedro responded to both the taunts and his aching back by pitching six innings of no-hit relief against the Tribe, dominating the likes of Roberto Alomar, Jim Thome, and future teammate Manny Ramirez. That performance would send the Red Sox to the ALCS and Indians manager Mike Hargrove to the unemployment line. I think you could make a case that this was the finest pitching performance of Pedro’s career.
On days when Pedro wasn’t pitching, when Pedro wasn’t telling the New York media he would plunk Babe Ruth in the ass and when he didn’t knock a charging Don Zimmer to the ground, his ebullient personality would shine through, as was the case when Nomar Garciaparra tied him to the pole in the Fenway dugout. These qualities have helped Pedro shine is his current capacity as a pre-game and post-game show analyst for both the MLB Network and TBS.
Of course all great careers must come to an end. By 2003, Pedro’s stamina was losing steam and he was having difficulty staying healthy. When Grady Little opted to leave Pedro in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Yankees I remember my exact words, “I hope he knows what’s he doing.” Well, we know what happened that night. It requires no further discussion. Besides there would be a parade down Boylston Street a year later. OK, Pedro did get hit in the noggin by a baseball while in the Charles River. Probably a Yankees fan. Or maybe it was the ghost of Babe Ruth.
Whatever it was, Pedro ended up signing with the Mets in December 2004 and after four years in Queens would finish his career with the Phillies. He would have flashes of his top form, but his best days on the mound were behind him. Still, when it was said and done he had a record of 219-100. His .687 winning percentage is sixth best in MLB history and third best in the modern era behind Whitey Ford and Spud Chandler. He fanned more than 3,000 batters while walking fewer than 1,000. Eight All-Star appearances, three Cy Youngs, and one World Series ring.
With credentials like that, it is little wonder that Pedro received 91% of the vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America in his first year of eligibility for the Baseball Hall of Fame this past January. So what exactly were the other 9% thinking? Honestly it doesn’t matter. Because for a whole generation of baseball fans Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher they’ve ever seen.