Tuesday, December 14, 2004


Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

--Sunset Boulevard

I need to get this off my chest first. Pedro Martinez may have just turned himself into Norma Desmond. Who would have thought, even two years ago, that his departure would produce such decidedly mixed feelings? I'm a little sorry to see him go. I'm a little relieved that the Sox didn't try to match the offer the Mets gave him. I hope he continues to do well at Shea. At the same time, with apologies to my co-blogger, I'm a little smug about the fact that nothing he does in his new uniform could possibly matter as much as what he did in the uniform he's handing in. "I am big. It's the games that got small."

Soon enough, we'll be slathered in recriminations and ill will, some of it more than justified, some of it decidedly overstated. Before this viscous revision completely obscures the delight Red Sox fans used to take in so rare and inspiring a talent, I'd like to recapitulate, in as much detail as I can muster, what it meant to have Pedro Martinez in my team's corner in his prime. It's a question of gratitude.


At one point, in the dark off-season between 1998 and 1999, I actually uttered the following absurdity: "I'm going to one game at Fenway this year, and then I'm through."

My friend Ed, less inclined to overstatement than I am, quickly pointed out the obvious: "I think that's a lie."

As it turned out, it was. If Mets fans can believe it, my disgust with my team erupted from its failure to resign Mo Vaughn. Mo had been the face of the team ever since I'd been in town, and his departure was the most significant of my rooting life. I'd never seen the team willingly give up a player who had been as sucessful the previous year as Mo had been in 1998. I was angry because I suspected that the decision had less to do with talent evaluation than with organizational arrogance.

Multiple factors conspired to extract me from my bitter and admittedly immature boycotting scheme. I couldn't have known, for example, that a buddy from work would have access to season tickets. Free seats behind home plate can salve a lot of hurt feelings. In addition, the Red Sox were unexpectedly and inexplicably good. They lost one of their best hitters, replaced him with Jose "OBP" Offerman, and improved from 92 wins to 94, securing a second consecutive playoff berth. Most importantly, though, there was Pedro, who transformed before our very eyes from excellent to historic.

The only game I wanted to see in 1999 was Mo's return to Fenway Park in another uniform. This happened to fall early in the year, May 7 to be exact. It also just so happened that Pedro was pitching that night: 8 innings, 6 hits, no runs, no walks, and (ahem) 15 strikeouts.

Interesting. I might make it back more than once this season, I thought to myself.

Understand that I wasn't the only one upset by Mo's departure and, consequently, less than enthused about the '99 Sox. (Mets fans are reading this with blank incomprehension. I'm telling you, though, it's true.) As a result, you didn't have to buy Red Sox tickets six months in advance. After seeing Pedro pitch on Friday I was able to scoop up tickets for his next start Wednesday against the Mariners. Keep in mind that this is 1999, and the Mariners still have Alex Rodriguez (before the conspicuous display of avarice) Ken Griffey Jr. (before the endless string of injuries) and Edgar Martinez (before the gradual fossilization had set in). Daunting. Pedro's line that night: 8 innings, 4 hits, 2 runs, 1 walk, and (ahem) 15 strikeouts.

Back-to-back starts with fifteen strikeouts. You might think that one of those starts would have qualified as my most memorable night at Fenway Park. That honor actually goes to his next start, which I also attended courtesy of my friend Joe, who had access to the aforementioned season tickets from his day job.

A little context is in order. First, that night's opponent was the Yankees, and it was Joe Torre's first night back after his fight with cancer. He brought out the line-up card before the game and received a standing ovation. Let it never be said that Red Sox fans are utterly lacking in class, even when it comes to the Evil Empire. Secondly, I was at the game in spite of having run a 101-degree fever thirty-six hours earlier. I knew braving a mid-May evening in Boston was a little stupid of me, but I couldn't help it. It was the Yankees, the tickets were free, and Pedro was on the hill. Finally, my friend Joe might, without injustice, be described as a gadfly. As a lifelong Dodgers fan, he had no rooting interest in the game, but he enjoyed twisting the needle. This will be important in about five paragraphs.

The game begins, and Pedro doesn't have his best stuff. The velocity's there, but he can't locate. He's working deep counts and even walking a guy here and there. After four and a half, he trails David Cone 2-0. Joe, being Joe, is rubbing it in a little.

Mike Stanley leads off the bottom of the inning with a homer. Nothing else comes of it, but the lead is halved. Then, in the bottom of the sixth, the Sox solve Cone and take a 3-2 lead.

Pedro comes out for the seventh. He's thrown a ton of pitches already, but this is pre-injury and pre-Gradygate. Petey gives up a leadoff single. Joe sees an opportunity to salt a wound and takes it. Pedro retires the next guy, but then gives up a hit-and-run single. Runners at the corners, one out. Pedro gets the next guy, but then walks Jorge Posada (I think, might have been Brosius). Joe's yapping the whole time, reminding me that Pedro's not that sharp. What Joe hasn't noticed is that, while the bases are loaded, the Yankees' hitter at this key moment is Chad Curtis.

For those of you keeping score: it's the '99 Yankees, they have the bases loaded, are only down a run, and Pedro, lacking his best stuff, has thrown a ton of pitches.

As I said, Joe enjoys twisting the needle. Nevertheless, he looks out at the mound, he looks in the batter's box, and says, "This guy doesn't have a chance."

He was right. Strikeout, inning over, and the Sox add welcome insurance over the next two innings to pull away. Pedro's line on his "off night": 7 innings, 10 hits, 2 runs, 4(!) walks, and 11 (ho-hum) strikeouts.

I saw Pedro in person at Fenway a total of four times in 1999, the final being a complete-game, three-hit shutout against the Blue Jays in September shortly after his favorite aunt died. His composite line from "My Evenings with Pedro": 32 innings, 23 hits, 4 runs, and 53 strikeouts. Four wins, no losses, with a 1.13 ERA. Gibsonian.

This is just 1999, and only the games I attended in person, that I'm talking about. This doesn't include that July night in 1998 when I was at Fenway to see Pedro outduel Bartolo Colon 1-0, back when the Indians could score five runs a night swinging blindfolded. This doesn't include the chilly April afternoon in 2001 when I was at Fenway to see him strikeout 16 Devil Rays over eight innings. It doesn't include the one-hitter in Yankee Stadium. Nor does it include six no-hit innings in a decisive playoff game against the only team in the last fifty years to score more than a thousand runs. That last one in spite of the fact that Pedro was hurting and had no fastball.

The numbers are impressive, but even they might not be enough to capture the feel of having Pedro in the house. Put it like this: when he was pitching, he completely reversed the usual sense of offense and defense. When he was dealing--sometimes even when he wasn't, by his stratospheric standards-- it felt like the Red Sox were on the attack, even though the other guys had the bats. Normally, people go to the concession stand when their team is in the field and try to make it back to see their boys hit. Not at Fenway, not when Pedro was pitching.

The Red Sox team I'll remember is, naturally, this year's edition. The Red Sox player that I'll remember, though, is Pedro Martinez. I'm choosing to remember him at his best becaue I might live to be a hundred and never see another player like him in his prime. Thanks, Petey.

Note: The raw numbers in this post were reconstructed with the help of Glenn Stout's game-by-game log of Pedro's 1999 season in Red Sox Century.


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