BOSTON (CBS) — You work in this business, you get the same question all the time: Who was your favorite player to cover?
For me, the answer is easy. Pedro Martinez.
And it’s a runaway.
There were easier players to cover, of course. And there were ones with whom I had closer relationships, connected with better, would probably rather have a beer with. I could easily list them all for you here, from Mike Stanley and Scott Hatteberg to Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, Darren Lewis and Mo Vaughn – even Curt Schilling. Heck, Pedro’s older brother, Ramon, was as gentlemanly as any player who has ever worn the Boston uniform. In the 15 years I spent covering the Red Sox closely, the team went to the playoffs nine times, reached four American League Championship Series and won two world titles. And the truth is that there were very few players whom I would classify as difficult, mean or nasty, which is a testament to all of them.
But when you add it all up, there was nobody quite like Pedro.
The baseball? That was easy. We all saw it. Maybe there are pitchers in baseball history who have pitched as well as Martinez did in 1999 and 2000 – Bob Gibson in 1968, Sandy Koufax from 1963-66 – but there has never been anybody who pitched better. During those two seasons, in the height of the steroids era, Martinez went a combined 41-10 with a 1.90 ERA, 597 strikeouts and 69 walks in 430.1 innings pitched. And unless you were around to see it, let me assure you that the numbers don’t do it anything close to justice.
The 17-strikeout game in New York? It remains the greatest game I have seen pitched. In 2000, much to the chagrin of those who foolishly believe Martinez’s 1999 season was his best in Boston, five of Pedro’s six losses came by the scores of 1-0, 3-2, 3-0, 2-1 and 2-1. In his six losses that season, Martinez had a 2.44 ERA, a number that still would have led either league and would have led the American League by a whopping 0.96. (Roger Clemens was second overall in the AL that year with a 3.70 ERA, nearly two full runs behind Martinez’s 1.74.) In Martinez’s 18 wins in 2000, his ERA was 0.85.
Let’s repeat that.
In Martinez’s 18 wins during the 2000 season, his ERA was 0.85.
If you allowed a run against him, you lost.
But here’s the thing: as dynamic as Martinez was on the mound, he was as dynamic off it. He was bright, temperamental, playful, combative. Once, in Atlanta and following a series against the Yankees in New York, he chastised me for a line of questioning about Gary Sheffield (whom Pedro loved to bully) and told me, in no uncertain terms, “Massarotti, don’t go stirring up all that bull—-.” Later that series, after explaining to me that then-Atlanta Braves reliever Antonio Alfonseca had six fingers, he called Alfonseca over, made small talk with him, then sent his fellow Dominican on his way.
“Did you see it?! Did you see it?!” he asked mischievously.
He blew us all off more than once. He made us laugh a million times. He could awe you with his talent and brilliance, anger you (and teammates) with his petulance and childishness. When Pedro whizzed a pitch behind the head of Karim Garcia during the 2003 American League Championship Series, here’s what everyone forgets: Pedro was getting his ass kicked that day. That he had nothing. That his only way of competing was to be a punkish little bully. What people also forget is that the tactic worked, Martinez retiring all 11 men he faced (including a double play) in four scoreless innings after the Yankees had hammered their way to a 4-2 lead.
Trust me, the Red Sox weren’t proud of him that day. When I asked Jason Varitek what positive thing he could say after Pedro lost his composure on the mound, his response told me volumes.
“He kept us in the game,” Varitek said rather tersely.
He gave you the what. What he didn’t give you was the how.
In the end, what all of this did was make Pedro irrefutably human, full of the same flaws that smear every one of us. He just didn’t seem to care as much. To say that Martinez lived with a chip on his shoulder, on the field or off, doesn’t begin to tell the story. He often took defiance to new levels. He still does. It would be nice if the Red Sox’ current pitching staff had just a modicum of his attitude, because it would do wonders in terms of making them all better competitors.
By the end of his time in Boston, lest there be any doubt, it was time to go. Pedro wanted to get out of town and many wanted him gone, too. It’s probably just as well. His final win with the team came in Game 3 of the World Series, seven scoreless innings in the Sox’ eventual sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was still close enough to the top of his game to be a front-end starter, still strong and healthy enough to command the mound with presence.
He wasn’t at his best, but he was plenty good enough.
The Hall of Fame, of course, was an inevitability, a slam dunk if ever there was one. So Pedro didn’t have the career wins that someone like Greg Maddux did. So what? Martinez had better stuff, a bigger personality, a badder attitude. And in an age where players have less personality and become more like corporately managed robots, Martinez remains as real as anyone who has ever set foot in your living room or kitchen.
Sometimes you loved him. Sometimes you hated him. Sometimes he was a diva. Sometimes he was a colossal pain in the ass.
But boy, was he a blast.