Touching All the Bases

Reflections on Pedro Martinez, Baseball Hall of Famer and the Best There Ever Was


Pedro Martinez has been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a manner similar to how he dominated the game: With little suspense, huge numbers, and pure collective exhilaration from those blessed enough to have watched him pitch during his brilliant Boston heyday.

Pedro, who spent the transcendent prime (1998-2004) of his 18-year major league pitching career with the Red Sox, became a first-ballot, inner-circle, elite-among-the-elite
Hall of Famer this afternoon, receiving 91.9 percent of the vote. He will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer along with three contemporaries: fellow aces Randy Johnson and John Smoltz and longtime Houston Astros catcher/outfielder/second baseman Craig Biggio. A hell of a quartet.

Here's helpful TATB Travel Agency advice: I'd suggest Red Sox fans should secure their hotel rooms for the enshrinement and Pedro's sure to be riveting and riotous speech. Given the certainty of his election, maybe you already booked your plans. Wise move.

And if you haven't locked down plans yet but want to be there when Pedro has his Cooperstown moment, well, you'll have to take the same approach so many of us took during impromptu trips to Fenway to watch him take his turn every fifth day.

Remember those nights when Pedro turned an ordinary August ballgame into an electrifying event?

Standing-room-only wasn't so bad then. Won't be this summer, either.

Pedro always was worth it, always will be, and he was always doing something to pull us out of our seats anyway. Make no mistake and do not take this as caught-in-the-moment hyperbole. He is the most charismatic pitcher we have ever seen. He's also the greatest.

No pitcher in the history of baseball has been better at his best -- or had a better best -- than Pedro Jaime Martinez.

Perhaps his dominance wasn't as prolonged as many fellow greats, but his peak, particularly in context of the swollen-slugger era in which he pitched, can hold up to every challenger, even Sandy Koufax, who had all of the competitive advantages Pedro did not.

Pedro's peak began in 1997, when he delivered a 1.91 ERA and 305 strikeouts while winning the National League Cy Young Award as a member of the Montreal Expos. But he reached a pinnacle unsurpassed before or since during his seven riveting seasons with the Red Sox.

In 162 decisions -- a full-season's worth, postseason included -- he went 123 and 39. One-hundred-and-twenty-three. And thirty-nine. He won two Cy Young Awards, finished second in two other seasons, claimed three strikeouts titles and four ERA crowns, and if not for the dubious and contradictory practices of a morally slippery New York writer, would have won the 1999 American League Most Valuable Player Award.

It's easy to lose an hour on his page even on the normal days when his career is cause for wonder and not at the center of the sport's self-celebration. Even as you sort through the statistical Rorschach test black-ink denoting all the times he led the league in various categories, the eye is inevitably drawn to his 1999 season.

It's dominance defined in digits: 23 wins, 4 losses, a 2.07 ERA, 313 strikeouts in 213.3 innings (or 13.2 Ks per nine innings) and a WHIP of 0.923. Such barely fathomable numbers suggest a man-against-boys theme to that season, and in a sense that is how it was. But it actually also undersells his extraordinary performance in that year and that era as a whole, because it neglects to tell the whole story.

This was not man-against-boys. It was man-against-supermen. Pedro did this in the heart of the performance-enhancing drug era, which through the years has added a whole different layer of context to one particular highlight from that season:

As the starting pitcher at the All-Star Game at Fenway Park, he struck out five of the six batters he faced to win MVP honors. The five K victims were a Hall of Famer (Barry Larkin), an unsung candidate on this year's ballot (Larry Walker), a player whose Hall case has been unfairly damaged by suspicion of -- do I have this right? -- how he came upon his huge forearms (Jeff Bagwell), and two sluggers who were beloved then and scorned now (Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire).

Pedro was facing a stacked lineup and a stacked deck that night. And yet the smallest man on the field shrunk them all down to size.

He did the same to the mighty Indians that postseason, holding an all-timer of a lineup led by Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and Roberto Alomar to no runs and not even one solitary hit during six innings of relief in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS. He neutered them with nothing but guts and guile. It was the most fulfilling victory of many Red Sox fans' lives to that moment, and Pedro risked his future to deliver it.

Pedro pitched that night with a strained oblique muscle and sore shoulder, injuries which he acknowledged years later caused him to scream in agony on the flight back to Boston. We always knew he had a huge heart. That was the night we learned it was the most impressive element in his repertoire.

It was man-against-dynasty then, too. It would take Pedro years to contribute to the slaying of the Yankees, and of course there would be some regrettable if entertaining comments and incidents along the way. (One more time for all the old times: Don Zimmer had it coming.) But in September of that season, he took to the Yankee Stadium mound and gave us not just the most dominant pitching performance of his career, but arguably one of the most dominant of any pitcher's career in the history of the game.

Pedro whiffed 17 Yankees and allowed just one hit, a solo home run by designated hitter Chili Davis. The TV replays soon revealed something that needed to be seen multiple times to be believed: Davis's eyes were closed when his bat connected with the ball. There was no better metaphor before or since for what it took to hit Pedro in those days: blind bleeping luck.

Oh, and one more thing about Pedro '99. Pedro '00 was a little better. He won five fewer games, finishing at 18-6. But his league-best 1.74 ERA was nearly two runs lower than that of runner-up Roger Clemens (3.70), and it was 3.23 runs lower than the league average. He allowed just 128 hits in 217 innings, walking 32 and striking out a mere 284. His WHIP: 0.737.

On this day of culmination and approbation, when we happily reflect on the brilliant moments and victories that built to brilliant seasons and then this singular, brilliant career, one silly question has popped into my mind time and again:

When did we know when Pedro was a Hall of Famer, that this day would come? Such a definitive honor is never anticlimactic, but the vote confirmed what we all thought -- he was a shoo-in.

There certainly were harbingers that he would be a Hall of Famer -- I have no doubt that Dan Duquette knew he was acquiring a pitcher of that caliber when he dealt for him in November 1997. Duquette was onto Pedro early, of course, acquiring him years before from the Dodgers, who were managed by notorious Pedro skeptic Tommy Lasorda. I suspect if Pedro acknowledges him in his Hall of Fame speech, it will not sound like a thank you.

But at what point of his career was enshrinement assured? Perhaps it was as early as the '99 All-Star Game, the Pedro-Clemens duel in May 2000, or the conclusion of the phenomenal 2000 season, though he did have just 152 wins at that point. That would have been enough for some old-school voters to refuse him the checkmark; hell, a few morons didn't vote for him now.

Perhaps it was assured during another benchmark later in his career. Me, I happen to believe he was a lock before he ever left Boston, the scene of the greatest performances from the greatest pitcher we will ever see.

And so I think of his final scene with the Red Sox. He had turned 32 years old the day before, and the electric repertoire of his prime had begun to lose some spark. His 3.90 ERA that season was higher than his combined ERAs in 1999-2000. He would depart as a free-agent that offseason for the Mets, and he'd win just 37 games over his final five seasons, and 22 over his last four.

But on that night, his last with the Red Sox, there was one more ballgame to be won. And Pedro delivered, limiting a mighty Cardinals lineup to three hits and no runs over seven innings, a performance that required everything he had in his repertoire, in his mind, and in his heart.

And as he left the mound that night, his smiling eyes looking skyward, a job well done and a championship just one more victory from sweet reality, you looked at him and realized then that he could have kept going in that moment, right through the Red Sox dugout and all the way to Cooperstown.

Pedro Martinez was a Hall of Famer long before victory in Game 3. But how fulfilling it was to see him get the ending he deserved then, and today too. Here's to the epilogue in Cooperstown this summer, when he'll bring us out of our seats -- if we're not already standing -- one more time.

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