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The Pedro I Know

29 October 2009

When Pedro Martinez takes the mound to start tonight’s Game 2 of the World Series for the Phillies, Joe Buck, Tim McCarver and many other observers will probably take the narrow view. They’ll focus on Pedro’s history of baiting Yankee fans, of Yankee fans’ own chants of “Who’s Your Daddy,” and of Pedro’s mixed track record at Yankee Stadium. If we’re lucky, they might briefly mention his resurrection as a pitcher this season, from out of baseball to starting on the world’s biggest stage in a span of just a few months.

This is not the Pedro I Know.

PedroNearPerfecto

The Pedro I Know made his first impression in 1993. The smaller, skinnier brother of already rail-thin older brother Ramon, 1993 Pedro did a pretty good impression of 1996 Mariano Rivera: 107 IP (almost entirely in relief), 119 K, just 76 H and 5 HR allowed. Still, there were whispers. Tommy Lasorda wasn’t sure if Pedro’s supposedly frail body could withstand the rigors of 200-inning seasons as a starter. That seed of doubt spread, to the point where people lost sight of just how dominant Pedro had been as a 21-year-old rookie.

The Pedro I Know soon became a Montreal Expo. Expos GM Dan Duquette loved the skinny Dominican kid, and was willing to trade bright young second baseman Delino Deshields, an on-base hound and swiper of 187 bases in his first four seasons who was so good so fast that he had cheeky high school kids carrying signs that read “Delino Deshields Derookie of Deyear” to the ballpark. Expos fans’ reaction to the Pedro deal was the same one we had when Duquette traded fun but erratic first baseman Andres Galarraga to St. Louis for a right-hander named Ken Hill. Ken Hill? We were all just stunned that the Expos hadn’t sold the farm to the Cardinals for ability-impaired French Canadian lefty Rheal Cormier. Likewise, we’d heard only a little about this Pedro kid, but didn’t know what to make of the trade. Here was a proven yet still young commodity going west in exchange for this talented but still unknown quantity. Would this work? Could this work?

The Pedro I Know, along with Hill, John Wetteland, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and others, blossomed the next season, forming the core of one of the best teams of a generation. Blessed with knockout stuff, this was the year that Pedro started to rein in his talents and electrify the league. Given a spot in the starting rotation, but with some pressure off as he pitched behind veterans Hill and Jeff Fassero (Jeff Fassero used to be really good, seriously), Pedro slashed his walk rate, and more broadly, ramped up his command. Suddenly batters weren’t just contending with Pedro’s mid-to-high 90s heat. They were flinching at his breaking stuff, and downright terrified of his change-up, which along with Randy Johnson’s slider and Rivera’s cutter, is the best pitch I’ve ever seen.

The Pedro I Know was ready to make history with that change-up in 1995. My friend Mark Armour, co-author of one of the best and most underrated baseball books of the decade, “Paths To Glory”, recently sent me a DVD of a long-forgotten game, dateline June 3, 1995. I wasn’t at that game. But my wife, the esteemed Dr. Fauchier, was. With her mom. They sat in the bleachers. And she kept score. On lined paper. AND PEDRO THREW A PERFECT GAME. Or at least he did for nine innings, setting down the first 27 Padres he faced, before the pesky Bip Roberts broke up the perfect game, and the no-no, with a double to start the 10th. If you ever come over to my house, there’s a 100% chance I will make you watch this game. Watch Pedro spin his killer change-up against Tony Gwynn, turning one of the greatest hitters in baseball history into a chronic producer of lazy flyballs and weak groundouts. Watch Pedro blow high heat by Ken Caminiti, striking out one of the best power hitters of the mid-90s three times with untouchable stuff. See Pedro so thoroughly confound the Padres and dazzle the crowd that the fans at Jack Murphy Stadium start cheering lustily for him…even in a scoreless tie. This didn’t go in the record books as an official perfect game, or even a no-hitter. But the game wasn’t entirely forgotten either. When Dr. Fauchier and I went to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown the next summer, we found a little display, tucked into the corner of the museum, showing every no-hitter in MLB history, with a little summary and picture of that day’s pitcher next to each game. The two pitchers memorialized in 1995? Pedro Martinez, and his big brother Ramon.

The Pedro I Know only got better as memories of that great 1994 team faded and its star players spread to the four corners of MLB, jettisoned for pennies on the dollar after the catastrophic labor stoppage of ’94 wiped out the franchise’s best chance at a World Series. In 1996, Pedro made his first All-Star Game, going on to strike out 222 batters that year and nearly leading the undermanned Expos to one of the most unlikely playoff berths in recent history. The next year, Pedro was even better. 1997 was the year I finished college and started my glamorous career as a community news reporter, covering city planning meetings in Reston, Virginia for the cool sum of $18K a year. I spent every minute of free time before leaving town that summer at the Big O, watching Pedro work his magic. By this point the Expos were severely depleted, with Vladimir Guerrero just getting his sea legs and most of the ’94 team long gone (though they still had the great Darrin Fletcher!). But there was Pedro, demolishing the league and claiming his rightful place alongside Greg Maddux as the class of the National League. The numbers were astonishing: 17-8, 1.90 ERA, 305 strikeouts, 13 complete games. But as was always the case with Pedro, you didn’t need numbers to tell you how great he was. Pedro was a force of nature, a cross between Tyson and Ali in their primes, knocking you out with devastating blows, then tantalizing you with amazing finesse.

The Pedro I Know wasn’t a headhunter. But he was treated like one. The wussification of baseball was in full effect by the time Pedro threw his first big league pitch, the memories of Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and other inside-fastball pitchers washed away by league overreaction and the encroaching limits slapped on pitchers, all because fans supposedly dug the longball. Pedro spat on baseball’s unwritten rules. He owned the inside corner, and a bunch of inches further inside to boot. He wanted to reclaim that part of the plate and prevent batters from diving out and launching opposite-field home runs, as was becoming all too common by then. He wanted to send a message when one was needed. He even wanted, on occasion, to intimidate. But Pedro wasn’t out to hurt anyone. This was the skinny kid reminding the bigger kids that he would not be pushed around, that he was in control.

Hitters hated him for it too. On April 13, 1994, when Pedro was just starting to establish himself as one of the top young pitchers in the league, he set down the first 22 Cincinnati Reds he faced. As was usually the case in those days, I was at the game, watching in awe as this little guy mowed down batter after batter with little effort. Then, with five outs to go for a perfect game, Pedro came inside on Reggie Sanders — and plunked him. We all groaned, knowing how close he’d come to baseball immortality. Reggie Sanders didn’t. Sanders sprinted toward the mound, intent on beating up the impudent little guy who had the nerve to hit him. He failed to land any blows, and order was soon restored. This was typical stuff at the time, the league fighting against Pedro, trying to kill the beast before he reached the height of his powers. Reggie Sanders, even then, was afraid. He, along with many of his cohorts, no doubt went to bed the night before a Pedro start secretly hoping to catch a case of the sniffles. Or leprosy. Anything to avoid playing the next day. Pedro made you look bad, and he scared you. And he delighted in doing it.

We’re now 12 years removed from that final Expos season. We’re 12 years removed from Duquette again stealing Pedro away, this time for Tony Armas Jr. and Carl Freaking Pavano (for whatever other moves he made, Dan Duquette will always be a wildly underrated GM, just for his ability to twice trade for a first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher, the same guy both times). We’re years removed from Bill Simmons and the rest of Red Sox Nation falling in love with Pedro, revering him in a way that modern-day Boston fans only had with one other athlete, Larry Bird (maybe Bobby Orr, if you want to go back a little further). When Simmons (still the Boston Sports Guy at this point) started writing love notes to Pedro during his unimaginable 1999-2000 peak, I nodded right along. The rest of the world was discovering what we’d known for years: That Pedro was a mad little SOB, that he’d rip a hitter’s heart out and eat it for breakfast, and that he took immense joy in doing it.

Pedro’s reputation has been walloped again and again since then. It started with little injuries here and there. Then he lost a tick off his fastball. Started grousing about having to share the spotlight with talented teammates like Curt Schilling. Eventually the injuries piled up, Pedro’s ability slipped, and the world was ready to bury him. Hitters were all too happy to whack the guy while he was down. That’s baseball. You take opportunities wherever you can find them, and you take extra pleasure in beating up on the schoolyard bully, even when the bully weighs a buck-sixty, soaking wet. The media joined in. They called Pedro sullen and mouthy, saw him as an entitled grump who made big money and never seemed satisfied.

But Pedro’s critics forgot that this was a man who’d never really changed. In his prime, he wanted to knock Babe Ruth on his ass, the same way he wanted to knock National League hitters on their ass when he was 21, the same way he wants to do the same against today’s opponents, even in the twilight of his career. Pedro has always, even if it’s in the back of his mind, seen himself as the skinny kid from the Dominican, the little brother of a 20-game winner, the guy who couldn’t do enough to impress Tommy Lasorda, who needed to go to Major League Baseball’s Outpost Of The Damned to make his bones, who needed to fight for years to exorcise another franchise’s ghosts, who needed to prove himself against talented rivals, even talented teammates.

When word started filtering out of the Dominican this spring that Pedro was working out, I didn’t think much of it. How much could he have left, after so many arm injuries, so much disappointment with the Mets, so much time away from elite competition? Scouts came down to watch. The Rays, a team as resourceful and daring and shrewd as any in baseball for their ability to spot undervalued talent, saw Pedro pitch. They didn’t want him. No one wanted him. He was struggling to hit the mid-80s with his fastball. When word came that the Phillies had signed him, the move reeked of Willie Mays with the Mets, of OJ Simpson with the 49ers, of all the once-proud athletes reduced to stumbling on the field before getting punted for good.

And then something amazing happened. Pedro started dropping little hints that he wasn’t done. He couldn’t dial his fastball up to 97 anymore. But he could still blow one by an unsuspecting hitter. He could still paint the corners. And yes, he still had that change-up. In Game 2 of the NLCS, Pedro jumped into his DeLorean and took us back a decade, embarrassing Dodgers hitters with an array of perplexing stuff, strutting around the mound like the BMOC of the league, looking like the Chicken Hawk of Bugs Bunny cartoons, smaller than everyone else, kicking ass and taking names.

The baseball world is talking today about Pedro’s Yankee Stadium ghosts, about Joe Girardi, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, Nick Swisher and Jerry Hairston, Jorge Posada and Jose Molina. It’ll all make for compelling theater.

But I’ll be watching for something else. I’ll pull the Reggie Sanders voodoo doll out of my closet, crank up the volume, and root for Pedro. The Pedro I Know.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. felix514 permalink
    30 October 2009 1:08 am

    Another fantastic piece, thank you for the memories Jonah. It’s tough reading about the team we loved so much when most (even in Montreal) are so apathetic. God, does being an Expos fan ever bring up plain sad, nostalgic memories. I’m sure Marcel Proust would’ve been an Expos fan.

  2. Jonah permalink*
    30 October 2009 12:05 pm

    Thanks Felix. Can’t wait to write about “The Nelson Santovenia I Know” and “The Andy McGaffigan I Know”.

  3. 1 November 2009 2:47 pm

    Top shelf Jonah. A quick note from a die-hard Sox fan living in Boston during the Pedro years. My family has been doing “Tues night dinners” for the past 12 years. 7-10 of us would show up at an aunt’s house to eat pasta, drink wine, and catch up weekly, while usually having a sporting event on as background noise. During the Pedro years, from April through Oct, “Tues night dinners” would be changed to “Pedro night dinners,” matching our weekly meetup with Pedro’s weekly dominance. The meeting spot would move from the dining room table to the living room floor, watching in anticipation because you just never knew what kind of treat you were in for. 27K’s? Possible. Perfect game? Possible. Three straight inn’s of changeups? Possible. There was simply nothing like a Pedro start.

    • Jonah permalink*
      1 November 2009 3:14 pm

      Pedro Night Dinners! I love everything about this idea. Great stuff Christian, thanks for sharing that.

  4. mikel123 permalink
    2 November 2009 1:43 pm

    Jonah, great piece (found it linked from The Book Blog). Any idea if there’s someplace one can purchase that perfect game on DVD? I’m a Boston guy as well; never even knew of Pedro before 1998, but I have heard of the perfect game (even though MLB doesn’t really recognize it as such) and would love to see it.

    • Jonah permalink*
      2 November 2009 2:49 pm

      Thanks Mike!

      Google’s guess is as good as mine on finding that DVD, I’m afraid. I was just lucky to have a buddy who had it and knew I was an Expos nut (well I guess everyone knows I’m an Expos nut, but you know what I mean).

  5. Ken Arneson permalink
    4 November 2009 6:51 pm

    For game 1 of the 2003 ALDS, I went on Craigslist and found a seat right behind home plate in the upper deck of the Oakland Coliseum. And when I say right behind, I mean *straight, directly* behind the plate.

    From that angle, high above the plate, I had a perfect view of where the ball crossed the plate. I could see why (a) Pedro was great, and (b) why he would get a headhunter reputation.

    Darn near every pitch he threw crossed the plate right on the black of the plate. And more often than not, not just on the black, but *partially* on the black. 1/3 of the ball would cross the edge of the plate, and 2/3s of it was off the plate.

    His control was phenomenal. No other pitcher I saw that day, except perhaps Keith Foulke, came anywhere near hitting the edges of the plate with any kind of consistency at all.

    So when a pitcher with that kind of control suddenly drills you, you have to think it was on purpose.

    • Jonah permalink*
      4 November 2009 10:32 pm

      Good stuff, Ken, excellent point. Of course purposely throwing inside is different than gunning a fastball right at a guy’s head. Pedro has often done the former. I can’t remember him ever doing the latter.

Trackbacks

  1. Grand Pedro à Montréal | stream4.me
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