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ON BASEBALL

Martinez is starting already

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Spring training hasn't even officially started yet for the New York Mets, and already a clubhouse kid in the practice facility here is walking around with a T-shirt that reads, "Vote for Pedro."

Has Pedro Martinez, who ranks no worse than the third-best pitcher in Red Sox history, already made that big an impact on his new team? Vote for what? MVP? President? King of the world?

"Everybody thinks it's about that Pedro," the kid said, "but it's actually from a movie, `Napoleon Dynamite.' Pedro is the Mexican kid who runs for president of his class."

Still, the enthusiasm Mets folks have for their new arrival couldn't be more obvious, especially after Martinez stopped the tabloids in their tracks last week by showing up early for camp, after seven years of playing fast and loose with reporting dates with the Red Sox.

"I called him in the Dominican," said Guy Conti, the Mets' new bullpen coach. "I'd heard he was coming in early. I said, `When are you reporting?' I thought he was coming this week. He said, `I want to get in there tomorrow and get a feel.'

"He came in unannounced last week and worked his butt off."

Second day here, Martinez threw off a mound. "He threw 27 pitches at about 65 percent," Conti said, "and put 26 of them exactly where he wanted to throw them. Unbelievable."

Martinez has a locker between Wayne Lydon, a Triple A outfielder, and Heath Bell, who is trying to win a spot in the bullpen. Above the locker is a Red Sox equipment bag.

"I've got a new Mets one," he said. "I just haven't had a chance to use it yet."

Don't read too much, he insisted, into his presence here, ahead of all but a handful of teammates, none of whom come close to his star billing. It was an accident of geography as much as anything else.

"I wanted to spend time in my house in Miami," said Martinez, who shares a compound there with his older brother, Ramon, and a couple of other relatives and associates, "and I thought if I am going to spend time in Miami, I might as well do my work up here."

After working out last week, Martinez spent the weekend in Boston visiting his children, then returned here yesterday. He's still sensitive about being cast as perennially tardy with the Sox, especially last spring.

"Last year my kid was sick and I went to Boston," he said, his eyes deadening. "Everybody was speculating I was having fun, having a party, whatever."

For now, at least, he is in a place where there is a determination to make this Pedro's world and welcome to it, with little room for the kind of negative intrusions he found so irritating in his last years in Boston. Conti has been with Martinez since Martinez first came to play pro ball in the US in 1990 with the Dodgers and was assigned to Great Falls (Montana), the rookie league team managed by Conti.

Over the years, Martinez has frequently referred to Conti as his "white father."

"My wife Jan and I helped him to learn English," Conti said. "She was the one who said, `Let's give him a word a day.' He'd want a word in the morning. Four o'clock, he'd spell the word, define the word, interpret the word, then wanted another one.

"I remember once we were going from Great Falls to Salt Lake City, a 10- to 12-hour bus ride, and I heard the kid: `Exit. Turn right. Butte, Montana.'

"He's reading all the signs. I said, `What are you doing? Get some sleep.'

"He was just like a computer. He wanted to learn and he wanted to learn fast. And he did, because he's so damn smart."

Conti's best friend in baseball is Dave Wallace, the Red Sox pitching coach. The two roomed together when Wallace was the Dodgers' pitching coordinator. It was another old Dodger, pitcher Johnny Podres, whose circle changeup Conti taught to Martinez, with devastating results.

"Pedro used to throw Ramon's changeup, but I thought he threw it too hard," Conti said. "I said, `Let's experiment with this.' All of a sudden, he's got his wrist inside the ball, and the ball started going like this [Conti dropped his hand sharply]. We changed his grip, we changed the principles, and over the years, he just perfected it. His changeup drops 8 to 10 inches."

Rick Peterson, the Mets' pitching coach, also has a Sox connection. He was in instructional league as a Double A coach with the Sox in 1995, and while there, he roomed with Chris Correnti, now the Sox physical therapist. Peterson, one of the most progressive pitching coaches in the business with a keen interest in the biomechanics of pitching, said he and Correnti are of one mind on many of the components Correnti incorporated into Martinez's training regimen with the Sox. For that reason, Peterson said, the adjustment here should be an easy one for Martinez.

"One of the first things I told Pedro was, `I'm not your boss,' " Peterson said. " `It's the opposite. You're my boss. You're my teacher. Tell me what you need.' "

When Peterson was Oakland's pitching coach, he was searching for a model for his gifted young staff, and he seized upon Martinez, in part because he thought Martinez and the A's ace, Tim Hudson, had much in common. Both were smaller-framed power pitchers. Because of that, he studied an endless amount of video of Martinez, especially when Hudson was preparing to pitch against the Yankees.

While readily agreeing that Martinez is not the same pitcher he was at the turn of the century, Peterson said you won't find a pitcher who hasn't evolved over time. Even someone as durable as Roger Clemens, he said, has gone from a conventional fastball/ overhand curve/changeup pitcher to one who now relies on his splitter.

Returning to the National League, Peterson said, will prove a great advantage to Martinez.

"The Red Sox probably had 10 sacrifice bunts all season, if I'm not mistaken [the actual number was 17]," Peterson said. "In the National League, teams sacrifice 10 times a week. That's giving Pedro a whole inning to work with; the pitcher sacrifices twice and usually someone else in the lineup bunts. You're going to give Pedro a free inning? With no DH, there's usually an inning or two you can pitch around. That's going to be huge."

Martinez, who did long tossing in the morning yesterday, spent almost three more hours lifting and visiting in the weight room before coming out to his locker. An anxious Jay Horwitz, the Mets' longtime PR man, hovered nearby. He'd already told a Boston reporter that Martinez would not be able to see him, and was discomfited that about seven New York reporters were also waiting for him.

"It feels like baseball," Martinez said when asked if it felt strange to be in a new camp with a new team instead of in the place where he helped deliver a World Series title. "Baseball feels like baseball. I'm healthy, and I feel great, thanks to God."

He'd still be with the Red Sox, he said, if the team had not waited until just before the winter meetings to offer him a guaranteed third year to his contract. He would have taken that offer, he said, even though the Mets offered him an extra year, had the Sox acted sooner. Martinez signed a four-year deal for $53 million.

"Theo [Epstein] waited until three minutes before the winter meetings," Martinez said. "I would have taken it if it had come a month before, a week before. But three minutes before?

"I told [Sox CEO Larry] Lucchino face to face when we met on the tarmac in the Dominican that I got an offer for four years. He said, `Four years?' I took off my glasses and told him, `Yes, it's true.' I told John Henry, too, at the airport, `I got four years. You want to do it now, get it done.' They said, `Well, we're going to work on it, and we're going to give you an answer.'

"The next few hours go by. The next few days go by, a week goes by, nothing happens. I don't know what happened. All of a sudden, three minutes before the winter meetings, Theo comes up to my agent? Too late. I'd given my word. Omar [Minaya, the Mets' GM] saw me on Thanksgiving and told he wanted to sign me right then.

"I can't wait to see Lucchino, look him in the eye, and say, `Did I tell you that I had four years, yes or no?' "

To the question of whether the Sox will one day be sorry that they let him go, Martinez said, "I don't know. They know how they feel.

"It's not easy," he would say a few minutes later to the cluster of New York writers, "to be an icon."

An icon in a new place, a new team, a new uniform. He pondered for a moment the other Sox players who have left since October's champagne. Derek Lowe. Orlando Cabrera. Doug Mientkiewicz. Dave Roberts. Gabe Kapler.

"We're all gone," he said. "New life."

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