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MICHAEL HOLLEY

For Petey's sake, it's only spring

Of all days, the first of April is not a smart time to be delivering any Pedro Martinez eulogies. Those who have studied his words and his work should know that by now. Sometimes I wonder if Pedro creates this spring hysteria on purpose. Maybe it provides him with late-night laughs when his favorite comedy isn't there to entertain him.

This time could be different, but I'd be willing to bet that the Red Sox ace is doing more giggling than crying at this hour.

Really, how many times have you seen this act? How many times has some variation of "Pedro Struggles" or "Ace Unsure" or "Martinez Bored" or "Petey Not Talking" appeared in your paper? And that's just this year.

Some of the Pedro rhetoric is a necessary soundtrack for his spring routine. It's similar to watching an old prankster lure someone new into his Fool's Paradise. You sit there shaking your head as you listen to sad tales of doubt and angst. Then your seat suddenly goes out from under you, and you quickly realize that you were in a dunking booth the whole time.

A lot of us are in that booth right now, and Pedro is firing the fastballs. So what if lots of them aren't traveling more than 90 miles per hour? That's part of the plan, too. Once again, the joke is on those who are taking this seriously.

In his last start of the spring, Pedro gave up six runs in the first inning. He looked awful, throwing 84 pitches in three innings. He wasn't around to elaborate later because -- and this isn't new, either -- he was angry at some reporters' line of questioning.

Following Pedro is like following a musical group that has put out seven or eight CDs. After a while, you start to pick up patterns, hear subtle instruments, and notice lyrics with double meanings. Pedro followers know, for example, that he usually doesn't pitch if he's hurt. He is proud; he is not stupid.

He remembers the scariest moment of his career, September 2001. That was when he felt that the Sox were asking him to pitch even though he was hurt. We all know that he never forgets anything, and that every morsel of information goes into a documentary that is constantly being updated in his mind.

How many times, since 2001, have you heard that Pedro is not the same pitcher? He's not. But from 1997-2000, he was a full-page Hall of Fame advertisement. Those who attended Sox games in 2000 (1.74 ERA) can back me up on this: In the rare times when Martinez would allow a walk or two hits in an inning or three runs in a game, there would be murmurs of confusion in the crowd.

No pitcher, in this hitters' era of PowerBall, can be expected to be that good.

It's going to be a while before we see someone put four consecutive seasons like that together. It's going to be a while before a pitcher puts together two Cy Young-winning, sub-2 ERA seasons over four years in both leagues. Martinez did that with Montreal in '97 and Boston in 2000.

Since that Pedro is gone, a lot of us have turned into amateur Dave Wallaces, Joe Kerrigans, and Mel Stottlemyres. We are armchair pitching coaches wondering if there is anything different in his release point or arm slot. We want to know whatever happened to the slight tear in his right rotator cuff in 2001; we know he never had surgery on it.

Have hitters figured him out? Is he no longer able to trust his right arm to intimidate and get him out of any developing trouble?

Some of the same questions were being asked two years ago. Once again, Pedro was able to bait thousands with his ace-in-distress smoke signals. He said he wasn't sure what he would be able to give. Several months later, he had 20 wins, his ERA was 2.26, and he lost the Cy to Oakland's Barry Zito.

There were questions about him last year as well. He won 14 games and had an ERA of 2.22. Imagine what he would have done with a consistent and reliable bullpen behind him. There could have been four more wins, or maybe as many as six.

I don't know what's going on in his head right now, but I'm sure he does. Pedro shows many faces in the spring.

One year, after his final start in Fort Myers, Fla., he said he was bored with the conversation and spring training in general (no one said he is above recycling his own quotes). Another time he said he gave up a home run because he was experimenting with a pitch and the experiment failed.

He has had many February through April issues with the media. He probably had his most media fun a few years ago, when he privately delighted that he had a deeper understanding of the word "duplicate" than a lot of English-as-first-language reporters. Someone had asked if he could "duplicate" one of his great seasons. That didn't make sense to him, because to his ear that word meant "double."

He remembered the exchange the next day in his locker. "See?" he said. "You guys underestimate me. I'm always careful with my English." A smile and a wink followed.

Somewhere he is winking and smiling now. He knows he'll tangle with reporters again. He'll miss a few starts. He'll say something mildly controversial about his contract. He'll win 17-21 games with an ERA under 3.

Keep working on those eulogies. It might be a few years before anyone can read them with authority.

Michael Holley's e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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