Maybe it’s easy to forget now, three World Series championships later, how it was then. Or maybe a part of you will always remember.
But I know this, and I know I will never forget Oct. 11, 1999, no matter how many more championships are won and memories created in the Red Sox seasons ahead:
On that date, Pedro Martinez delivered what was to that point the most fulfilling experience I’d had in a lifetime as a Red Sox fan. I couldn’t even tell you what would have ranked second. This was it, the best thing that had happened to a Boston loyalist of a certain age to that point.
In Game 5 of the 1999 American League Division Series against a ferocious Cleveland Indians lineup anchored by Jim Thome and future Boston teammate Manny Ramirez, Martinez took the mound in the fourth inning of an 8-8 ballgame, arriving amid chaos and great suspense, his back and shoulder aching from an injury that knocked him out of the opening game of the series.
Red Sox fans were left lamenting, yet again, that the breaks did not go their way.
Pedro is hurt? Dammit, it’s not fair.
For once, the angst was all so premature.
With the best-of-five ALDS even two games apiece and the decisive game deadlocked, Martinez took the mound at Jacobs Field. Over the next six innings, he did not allow one hit, not even a single single. He authored this unusual masterpiece, one fraught with great risk given the uncertainty of his health, despite lacking the usual velocity on his fastball. But his remaining pitches were sharp, especially his curveball. So too, as always, was his mind. He struck out eight of the 21 batters he faced, induced six groundouts, walked three, and snapped a memorable curveball over Ramirez’s head. With the assistance of a two-homer, seven-RBI performance from Troy O’Leary, Martinez silenced every one of the temporarily boisterous 45,114 fans in attendance that night, save for perhaps a visiting straggler or two from the northeast.
That game still ranks as a personal and permanent favorite with Red Sox fans, because it was thoroughly improbable and yet somehow perhaps inevitable all at once. The 1999 season may not have been Pedro at his absolute peak, but it was damn close. Martinez went 23-4 in ‘99 with a 2.07 ERA, and 313 strikeouts in 213.1 innings. He might have been slightly better the next year, posting a 1.74 ERA. But no matter the precise point in time when Peak Pedro occurred, this much is certain: Few, if any, have ever joined him at such heights.
What made ’99 special, though, is that it was the season of the three most legendary performances of his Red Sox career. We could have an argument about which one was best, and no one would lose the debate.
Is it his instant classic at the Fenway-hosted All-Star Game, when he struck out four of the era’s most dangerous hitters – Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire – in succession to start the game?
Is it his 17-strikeout one-hitter at Yankee Stadium that September?
Or was it this October night in Cleveland?
“Those three games, without any doubt, are ones fans remember the most,’’ Martinez, now an analyst for the MLB Network, said during a recent and lengthy conversation to discuss his memories from Game 5.
(For anyone wanting to watch it all again, the entire game broadcast by the Cleveland announcing team can be found on YouTube).
“They enjoyed those three games,’’ he said. “So did I. But a favorite? I’ll keep them all. I think of those moments very often.’’
When that soon-to-be-unforgettable game began, it was uncertain whether Martinez could contribute to any moment at all. The condition of his back and shoulder – and the hovering risk of injuring himself further – meant that manager Jimy Williams turned to veteran Bret Saberhagen as his starter.
The 35-year-old Saberhagen had a fine season (10-6, 2.95 ERA), but his pitches did not fool the Indians on this night. He was gone before the end of the second inning, leaving a 5-2 deficit behind after surrendering home runs to Jim Thome and Travis Fryman.
The Red Sox fought back to take a 7-5 lead in the top of the third inning on O’Leary’s grand slam. But reliever Derek Lowe didn’t fare much better than Saberhagen. In the bottom of the inning, Roberto Alomar doubled, and Ramirez, who had driven in 165 runs that season but had been 0 for 16 in the series to that point, doubled to right-center, cutting the Red Sox lead to 7-6.
That brought up Thome, who had hit a home run measured at 477 feet in the first inning. Four Lowe pitches, including one juicy hanging curveball, later, Thome had approximately 950 feet of home runs, and the Indians had an 8-7 lead.
That’s when we saw Pedro, stirring.
He strode up the bullpen mound nearest to the field, kicked his right cleat at it to do some temporary landscaping, then gripped the baseball in his right hand and looked toward the bullpen catcher. He began to throw just as Thome took a curtain call, the score shifting back into Cleveland’s favor. Little did the delirious crowd realize that it had just witnessed the Indians’ last hit of the season.
“Well, Pedro is getting loose out in right field,’’ said Indians television play-by-play voice Tom Hamilton as Harold Baines grounded to second. “It’s going to be interesting to see if he comes in and what he’s got when he does.’’
Joining Martinez in the bullpen was Rod Beck, the Red Sox’ closer at the end of the season.
“In other words,’’ said Hamilton, noting that Martinez had company, “Boston’s not certain Martinez can get loose and feel comfortable.’’
Martinez:“Rod was the closer for the team, and he was warming up too at the same time. That was not a normal situation for him and I didn’t want him to have to warm up and then sit down and then warm up again. He allowed me to actually go in before him if I felt OK. Thank God we were good teammates, we got along well, and he said, ‘Pal, if you think you can do your thing and help the team, of course go on. Do it.’
“But I have to tell you, at that point, I did not know if I could do it, or what I could do. Before I came in, there was not a moment I could relax. I remember talking to my brother Ramon after the third inning and he asked me how I felt and I said, ‘I feel stiff, a little stiff in my shoulder.’ And he said, ‘Maybe I should go tell Jimy you can’t go out,’ and I said, ‘No, just allow me to go out, let me get one out.’ It was so cold in Cleveland. Maybe after I get one out I would warm up and get loose. I told him, let me see how I feel after I get out there. I promise you, Ramon, if I feel anything, I will take myself out. But I had to find out.’’
The Red Sox tied the score at 8-8 in the top of the fourth. Darren Lewis led off with a double, chasing Indians starter Charles Nagy. He scored on John Valentin’s one-out sacrifice fly off reliever Sean DePaula. When Brian Daubach popped harmlessly to Wil Cordero in left for the third out, the confirmation arrived: Martinez was going to pitch. His right forearm wrapped in a towel, he removed his jacket and headed out of the bullpen. No one, not even Martinez himself, knew what to expect or how much of his usual repertoire he would take to the mound with him.
Martinez:“I hear some of the stuff and people booing. I took my jacket off and I was ready to go into the game. I looked into our dugout. Joe Kerrigan’s eyes could not get any bigger. Jimy didn’t know whether to stand or sit down, moving all over the place. Ramon is looking from the bench like, ‘I hope everything is OK.’ And Cleveland’s dugout, I look and I see their faces and it’s like, ‘Is this for real? Is he coming in to pitch?’
“And I couldn’t help but look up, above the backstop and everything, and crazy guys were yelling, and one said like, ‘[Expletive] you Pedro. Don’t go in. You’re going to get shot if you go out there.’ He just took off running. After I made my first pitch and didn’t get blown away, I knew he was afraid of me coming in. It was all just mind games they were playing with me. After that, I just let it go and do what I was supposed to.’’
Much to the nervous crowd’s rising delight, Martinez fell behind 2-0 to the first hitter he faced, Sandy Alomar. But he recovered to get him to ground a sharp 2-2 changeup to shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. That brought Kenny Lofton to the plate.
Lofton was the successor to Rickey Henderson as the American League’s most dynamic leadoff hitter, and ’99 was a typical if somewhat injury-plagued season for him, with a .301 batting average, .838 OPS, 110 runs scored, and 79 walks in 120 games. Thome, Ramirez and No. 3 hitter Roberto Alomar carried Cleveland’s most powerful bats — the trio combined for 101 homers and 393 RBIs — but it was Lofton and fellow tablesetter Omar Vizquel (.333) who often made their hits so damaging by being on base. Lofton had Martinez’s respect.
Martinez:“Thome, Manny and [Roberto] Alomar were the three guys that I had to really focus on. And when I faced them, I wanted to make sure there were no chances for them to drive in runs, so I had to make sure I kept Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel off the bases. They were the fuel for that team. Once they got on base, Jim Thome became a lot better hitter. Manny, I didn’t fear him quite as much because he was a right-handed hitter. Thome and Alomar were lefties who at that time were great hitters and had great years. They were not susceptible to much of anything from any pitcher. But my real concern was keeping the little men off the bases.’’
Lofton did arrive at first base in the fourth inning, just not in the way he intended. Accelerating down the line after first baseman Mike Stanley had to dive to snare his hard one-hopper, Lofton reached the bag just as Martinez did. But only one did so upright. Lofton, in a misguided decision given his speed and the risk of such a play, lunged shoulder-first into the bag, a split-second after Martinez had recorded the out.
Martinez looked down at Lofton and pumped his fist. Lofton did not seem to notice the gesture, remaining torso-down on the bag. He’d dislocated his left shoulder and would have to leave the game. The Indians had lost their instigator.
After a brief delay, Martinez retired Cleveland’s other little man, Vizquel, to end the fourth. The Red Sox went quietly in the top of the fifth, and so, with the score still tied, Martinez had to deal with the fearsome heart of the Cleveland lineup in the bottom half.
What followed was a masterful inning, one that provided further reassurance that Martinez had the will, intelligence and repertoire to thwart the Indians even without perfect health and his usual upper-90s velocity.
Roberto Alomar led off with a routine chopper to Garciaparra for the first out. Ramirez dug in next, and Martinez greeted him with a curveball that, if it didn’t quite buckle Manny’s knees, certainly made him flinch. Martinez’s next two pitches were balls away. Then, another curveball, this one high and inside, sailing over Ramirez’s head before showing much of a break. The Indians announcers saw no harm in Martinez’s intent.
“What Pedro wanted to do,’’ said Mike Hegan on the Cleveland broadcast. “Is throw a breaking ball another breaking ball that starts out at Manny and breaks away. That just basically slipped out of his hand.’’
That true, Pedro? Did it just basically slip out of your hand.
Martinez: “Oh, yes, yes it got away.’’
He says this with a slight laugh and that familiar playful lilt in his voice.
Martinez:“Yes. Curveball inside. It got away.
“Got Manny thinking, too.’’
It sure did. Ramirez, appearing flummoxed, laid off the next pitch, a 91 MPH fastball that split the strike zone. Ramirez managed a walk two pitches later. But the mental battle was a Martinez TKO.
Next up? Just Thome, who already had a pair of home runs, giving him four in the series. He was locked in, and when Martinez fell behind 3-0, there’s little doubt he had the green light. What he didn’t have was a pitch he could hit. Martinez froze him with strike one, a fastball on the outside corner. He followed with a biting curveball away for strike two.
“Boy, another good pitch from Pedro Martinez,’’ said Hegan.
“A 3-0 fastball, followed by a 3-1 curveball,’’ agreed fellow analyst Dave Nelson. “He might come with a 3-2 changeup right here. You never know with this guy.’’
Instead, what he came with was a fastball on the inner half. Thome offered at the pitch, and the ball then eluded catcher Jason Varitek. While Thome stood inertly in the batter’s box, presuming it was a foul ball, Varitek hustled after the ball and scrambled back to tag Thome to record the strikeout. Thome trudged back to the dugout after a brief dispute. Harold Baines whiffed to end the frame. The Indians were officially befuddled.
The score remained tied. But the mental game was becoming a rout.
Martinez:“I knew by the point that I would have to rely a little bit more on breaking balls and changeups and cutters and using location rather than trying to overpower people like I would normally do. I did not want to fight power with power. I was there to get outs any way I could, and Cleveland did not know what to make of me. They had never seen Pedro Martinez that way. They were waiting for me to throw fastballs because they were used to me trying to fight with them. I realized I couldn’t do it, so I made the adjustment in my mind to do what I could do. I did not throw that hard. But I threw well. And just when they forgot about the fastball. That’s when I’d give them one.
“The game is all about adjustments. If you’re able to make adjustments, you can succeed. Even at my best, I was always innovating and experimenting. I loved looking for ways or adjustments to make something better or to give hitters something that wasn’t already in their mind. I think I put a lot on the Indians’ mind in that game.’’
With the score still tied 8-8 in the bottom of the sixth, the Indians began attempting to rattle Martinez with their own hapless mindgames. Leading off the inning, Wil Cordero called time to step out of the box, then stepped out again once Martinez was in his windup. Cordero had not been granted time, but the antic threw Martinez off, and the pitch was called a ball. Martinez, annoyed but not distracted, rallied to strike out Cordero, his third straight whiff.
“His velocity is down a little bit,’’ said Nelson, giving voice to the burgeoning resignation in Cleveland. “But you can’t tell me this guy is hurting.’’
A batter later, Sandy Alomar worked a walk, then attempted some gamesmanship of his own. First, he called time to tie his right cleat. Next, he did the same with his left. Can’t run without tied laces, right? Right.
Except neither cleat was untied in the first place. It was obviously an attempt to get Martinez out of rhythm. Martinez knew it, too, and he couldn’t resist smiling and sending a shake of his head in Alomar’s direction. Alomar smiled back. He knew no shoelace antics were about to alter his fate. He was stranded at first base, laces tightly tied.
Martinez:“I remember Alomar calling time to try to throw off my timing, or to see if I had an injury that would get worse the more I pitched. He was trying to get into my head. I knew what he was trying to do, and I let him know nicely it was not going to work. I was going to continue on no matter what they tried to do. I figured it out right away and said, ‘You know what, get to your bag, because this isn’t going to do you any good.’’’
As exceptional as Martinez had been through his first three innings, it’s not as if Red Sox fans could exhale. After tying the game in the top of the fourth inning, they had failed to score since Martinez had come into the game. But that was about to change in the seventh, with Indians manager Mike Hargrove repeating a tactic that would have been sound strategy on most days. It proved doubly deadly on this night.
With Valentin on second and one out in the top of the seventh, Hargrove decided to have reliever Paul Shuey, who had entered for the remarkably effective rookie Sean DePaula at the start the inning, walk Garciaparra.
Again, sound strategy … on most nights. Garciaparra hit .357 that season, winning his first of back-to-back batting titles. It had been one of the special seasons when it seemed like he’d hit a line drive every time up. Those Red Sox often felt like Pedro, Nomar and 23 role players, and you know what? That tandem was so sensational that it usually worked out.
Garciaparra had missed Game 3 of the series with a wrist injury, but entered Game 5 with a 1.232 OPS in the games he had played, and he’d already homered in the first inning.
You didn’t mess with Nomahhh! then. Unfortunately for the Indians, they shouldn’t have messed with O’Leary – who hit 28 homers during the regular season but was not known as a dependable postseason performer — either.
He’d already made the Indians pay once for walking Garciaparra, crushing that grand slam off Nagy in the third inning.
“The Indians are hoping that history does not duplicate itself here in the seventh inning,’’ said Hamilton as Garciaparra took his base.
On the very next pitch, history duplicated itself. O’Leary smashed Shuey’s first offering over the right-field wall, putting the Red Sox ahead, 11-8.
As Red Sox players poured out of the dugout to celebrate O’Leary’s feat, the suddenly hushed Cleveland crowd was learning what inevitable doom feels like:
Martinez had a three-run lead. The Indians had nine outs left.
Martinez: “You think about being a hero in baseball, the Kirk Gibson winning homer against [Dennis] Eckersley [in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series]. Fans think of that, but players do too. For me in my life I have never known when those things are going to happen, when that moment, that opportunity, is going to come. But in my heart, I wanted them to so much, to happen to me, but to my teammates too. Troy had it happen that night – two home runs! — and I wanted to make sure after that [second] one that the moment did not get away.’’
Whether he was reenergized by O’Leary’s heroics or just feeling like himself in the bottom of the seventh, the Indians had no chance. Omar Vizquel tried to bunt his way on to no avail. Then Martinez struck out Roberto Alomar swinging and Ramirez looking on a 3-2 fastball on the outside corner. After setting down those three, Martinez sprinted to the dugout, greeted by a sea of high fives, appearing to say something with considerable animation.
Martinez:“Six more outs, I said. Six more outs. Yes, I might have used a few more colorful words than that, though. I don’t think you are allowed to say those words on TV.’’
The eighth inning was uneventful. The Red Sox went down in order in the top half, and Martinez, who entered the frame having thrown 70 pitches, allowed a one-out walk to Baines but retired the next two hitters. A sign of his command of the stage and his repertoire? The Red Sox never had anyone warming in the bullpen.
“Reality is starting to set in,’’ lamented Hamilton after Thome was caught looking for strike three.
The Red Sox tacked on a run in the top of the ninth for a 12-8 lead, with Brian Daubach and Garciaparra hitting back-to-back doubles.
The latter came with cruel twist of irony: With first base open, Hargrove chose to pitch to Garciaparra rather than face O’Leary. It was a lesson learned too late.
As Martinez took the mound in the ninth, he unknowingly faced a harbinger of a Red Sox season and victory that would trump even this one. When Lofton departed with his shoulder injury in the fourth inning, he was replaced by Dave Roberts, then a little-known Indians reserve. His own iconic moment would come five years later when he would author perhaps the most famous stolen base in Red Sox history. But this was not his night. Martinez retired him on a soft liner to short for the second-to-last out of the ballgame.
“This may not be the impossible dream,’’ said Hamilton. “But it’s the unlikely scenario.’’
The scenario was complete four pitches later. Vizquel struck out swinging to end it, one more hopeless flail from arguably the most potent offensive lineup of the era. The Indians, who scored 1,009 runs during the season, 32 in the series, and eight through the first three innings, did not muster a solitary hit against an ailing Pedro Martinez.
Power had lost to transcendence.
The last out recorded and the comeback complete, Martinez could finally exhale. He raised both arms skyward, then patted his heart. Jason Varitek swallowed him in an embrace, then Valentin arrived, then the rest of the roster swarmed and leaped in occasional unison. In our living rooms and barrooms, we were jumping too.
The Red Sox would not win the World Series that season. They would not even solve the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. That would come five years later, with Martinez again playing a leading role. But on this night, he gave the Red Sox their first playoff series victory in 13 years, more than enough to celebrate.
Martinez: “I was in agony on the flight home afterward. But even feeling the pain, that could not take away the good feeling. I just felt something needed to be done that night. Even if it meant getting three outs, or four, knowing how much that game meant to the Red Sox and their fans, if the chance had been there to pitch and I didn’t do it because I was worried, that would have been hard to live with for the rest of my career. Every time I had that chance, I didn’t want to let it go, of actually raising that trophy that Boston had been dreaming about for so long. That’s what it is all about. Maybe that shortened by career by a little bit, but do you think I have regrets? How could I regret any of this? The pain goes away but the memory of what we did that night does not. I know I did it right, I did it all, and I did it as well as I could.
Martinez:“We did not win the World Series that year. But that night in Cleveland was part of our story. Boston was thirsty for a championship the same way I was thirsty about winning one for Boston. That was something I wanted to do myself. When I came over to Boston from Montreal [in 1997], winning the championship that they had all been waiting for was the dream. I said it from my first day in my first press conference. That winning in Boston would be unique. It was. Every dream I ever had at about baseball, that dream came true in Boston.’’