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ON BASEBALL

No second-guessing here

He was so ill, he curled up on the floor of the manager's office, obviously in no condition to play.

Then, as game time approached, he ripped the intravenous tubes from his arms, downed a Snickers bar, and led his team to victory in dramatic fashion.

That was ex-Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti, not Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez. Larry Lucchino was CEO of the Padres in 1996, when Caminiti, suffering from food poisoning and heat exhaustion in Monterrey, Mexico, forced his way into the lineup that day and hit two home runs against the Mets. Bruce Bochy, his manager, called him the toughest player he'd ever been around.

Martinez, meanwhile, was home in bed last night instead of making his scheduled start against the Oakland A's, the team that this week moved ahead of the Sox in the wild-card race and won't play Boston again this season, unless they meet in the playoffs.

"No doubt about it, it blows you away," Kevin Millar said upon learning Martinez had been scratched. "He's got to be sick. He's not ducking a start in Fenway Park. Still, it's a bummer."

But to suggest that Martinez should have pulled a Caminiti is shortsighted and ill-informed.

"Very different," Lucchino said. "I'm not a doctor, but I don't think it's fair to compare.

"The trainers and the team doctor were not of a different opinion. There was a unanimous concurrence."

Sox officials said Martinez was suffering from severe pharyngitis -- an inflammation of the throat -- with an "abnormally high fever," abdominal discomfort, and an elevated white blood cell count. He'd gotten little sleep the night before, had spent most of the morning at the hospital undergoing a battery of tests, including a CAT-scan and ultrasound related to his abdominal condition, and was due to be examined again today. Lucchino said he didn't know for certain, but it was his understanding that Martinez had bouts of vomiting the previous night.

To which a segment of The Nation shrugged and said, So? Given what was at stake, in their view, the Great Martinez should not allow a sore throat to keep him from performing. On a day Martinez was already taking some hits for missing the team photo Wednesday, as news circulated that he was a no-go yesterday, the Sox ace made for an easy target on the airwaves and around the office water coolers.

"He shouldn't be," Lucchino said. "People who know him know what a competitor he is. It would be such a miscarriage of justice to do that to him. I'm sure he wanted to pitch tonight as much as anybody."

Dr. Gerald Berke is a professor and chief of otolaryngology at the UCLA School of Medicine. His speciality is the head and neck. When Martinez's symptoms were described to him by a reporter, he wasn't surprised that Martinez did not go last night.

"If he has an acute inflammation, he probably is so lethargic he wouldn't be able to pitch if he wanted to," Berke said. "You sometimes hear of the mega-athlete who has acute pharyngitis and such and still can play, but they're few and far between. There are no miracle drugs that can turn somebody like him around. If he's already got a rip-roaring case that advanced, with a fever and an elevated white blood cell count, there's really nothing he can do."

The notion of Martinez using illness to duck a start is preposterous. Lost in the blind craving for a win last night was any semblance of memory. When he was in Montreal, Martinez pitched with a thumb that had swelled to twice its normal size, gutting it out for four innings in Houston before Felipe Alou took him out. His first season in Boston, he pitched through a month of severe stomach pains that caused him to lose a dozen pounds -- and was booed for his efforts. And, of course, there was Cleveland, and a sore-shouldered Martinez throwing six innings of no-hit ball against the Indians to put the Sox in the AL Championship Series.

Anywhere else, that would make Martinez a profile in courage. Here, in some quarters, it doesn't buy him an ounce of sympathy.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's sick," said Sox interim pitching coach Dave Wallace, who has known Martinez since he broke into pro ball 15 years ago. "If he could be here, he would be here. Sin duda."

Sin duda. Without a doubt.

Those who call themselves Sox fans and yet are so willing to question Martinez's mettle would make better use of their time hoping that Martinez's condition is not more serious than the initial prognosis. Maybe it will be nothing more serious than strep throat, if that. But Lucchino has his concerns.

"There's a possibility it's more than that," Lucchino said. "The fever, and other things, like the lack of sleep and the general sickly feeling. I hope it will be only a few days.

"I don't know enough [about his condition], I'm always concerned that the initial optimism is more than the facts warrant after the first day or two, so I'm going to be patient. We should all be."

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