FORT MYERS, Fla. — Pedro Martinez stands behind a batting cage on Field No. 3 on a warm spring morning, arms up on a crossbar, baseball in hand. He wears his distinctive orange glove, and he looks as if he could run out to the mound at any moment.
Instead he calls out in Spanish to the young pitcher who stands there, a player in whom both the Red Sox and Martinez see vast promise. Rubby De La Rosa was, after all, the centerpiece in the deal that divested the Sox of much of their payroll and a few of their problem players last summer.
De La Rosa — whom he calls “a very special talent, oh my God’’ — is one of Martinez’s wards this spring, as the pitching great comes back to a game he loves with the team that made him iconic.
His role remains undefined. Martinez, who retired after the 2009 season, promised Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington he would do whatever he could to help, though he didn’t want a full-time position that would take him away from his family.
That left him exploring the Sox spring training complex last week, on back fields and at bullpen sessions, the crowds trailing his every move.
On Wednesday morning, he studied De La Rosa’s approach, watching carefully to notice every subtle motion, every twitch and quirk. He stood still, shuffling a ball in his right hand.
“I love watching mechanics,’’ Martinez said. “I like to look at every single detail. I will concentrate sometimes on legs, other times on movement, on the head, arm angles, hands. I can pick out everything.’’
Martinez is from the same school of thought as Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves, he says pointedly. He is not trying to be the pitching coach, not wanting the time commitment.
And yet, that is what he sounds like. It is, in many ways, a role for which he prepared much of his major league career — studying, learning, processing. There was massive talent, sure. But he needed more, contrary to the impression left by the brilliance of his Red Sox days. He couldn’t coast, so he worked and watched and analyzed. He needed those tools. He needed, too, the encouragement of those around him.
Martinez recalled a moment from his days in Montreal, a period in which he struggled so much that he urged manager Felipe Alou to send him home. Tommy Harper, a coach, sidled up to him in the dugout after a game. Harper told him just to keep pitching, to keep pitching and not to go home.
As Martinez said, “If I could just relate that to some of the guys sometimes in times of struggle, that would be a plus.’’
That’s what he wants to do. That’s what he wants to give.
Student of the game
This is, so far, no mere ceremonial job. Unlike some former Red Sox who come back to Fort Myers, Martinez has not spent his days on golf carts, lounging in the sun. The special assistant to the general manager had already done his time in the video room Tuesday morning, an hour and a half or more of studying the Red Sox arms.
It’s a legacy from his playing days, when he spent hours watching the pitchers of his era — Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, Roy Halladay — trying to pick apart what made them great. He learned from the mechanics of Clemens, the head of Maddux, the elbow of Cliff Lee. He didn’t talk about it, didn’t alert the media. He just studied, copied, appropriating what he could.
So, once again, he spends his free moments watching video, computers lined up next to each other to analyze the motions of his new charges.
“I was a student,’’ Martinez said. “I wasn’t just gifted. I had to study a lot.’’
Martinez did that again on a back bullpen that morning, as minor league catcher Matt Spring worked with Triple A pitcher Pedro Beato, Martinez taking time with players even most diehard Red Sox fans couldn’t identify.
“When Pedro Martinez talks, you listen,’’ Spring said. “He was telling me on different pitches to give him a target that’s going to be more successful for him. [Beato] has more of a straight fastball, so he’s having me slide off the plate, not to allot for much movement, but just to give him a target for where it should be going.’’
Beato was backing off his split-fingered fastball in the session, not throwing it the way he could. Martinez yelled at him to really throw it, to put his all in. Between that change and the altered stance by Spring, the catcher said, the side session improved vastly.
Able to teach
It’s the general wisdom that great players struggle to teach. They never went through the difficulties of mere mortals. Perhaps Martinez is different. He was great, of course. But he worked for it. Signed for a couple of thousand dollars, he was considered too small and too slight. He was traded. He was doubted.
Such players tend to talk about what worked for them, reflecting on their own experience. They can’t make the jump to what will work for others, pitchers being unique in their needs, abilities, and motions.
“A lot of times, guys who have that success and who are that good can’t communicate how they did it,’’ said Jon Lester. “And I think he does a good job of that. I’ve talked to guys in the past, they’re like, ‘This is how I did it.’ I’m like, ‘That’s great, but that doesn’t apply to me.’ I think Pedro gets that.’’
In a well-documented moment last Monday, Martinez approached Daniel Bard, who struggled mightily in 2012. The pair talked about Bard’s arm slot, about what Martinez had done, about where Bard looks the best.
“He’s good at putting what he’s thinking into words,’’ Bard said. “He was really good at performing and doing it. Some guys aren’t able to explain what they’re doing as well. He’s definitely able to put into words, to express.
“He’s got good eyes for watching a pitcher and seeing different things in their mechanics. I think he has a talent for it.’’
Still, there are things he can’t teach. There’s a desire, a need to be great, that he has little influence on. He pitched to eat, as his agent, Fernando Cuza, interjects.
When running laps as a young pitcher at the Dodgers academy in the Dominican Republic (he never minded running), Martinez would add an extra lap, an extra three, an extra five. To get him through those final yards, he would think of his mother.
“I said, ‘If I don’t finish this lap, my mom doesn’t eat,’ ’’ Martinez said. “I imagined my mom sitting on a chair, tied up with rope, and not eating until I finished my lap. You know what that did to my mental approach?’’
That isn’t something that he can impress upon his pupils. It’s something unique to him. But he can offer an ear. He can make a suggestion, offered generally through Nieves. He can be a resource far more current than Luis Tiant, who — for all his success — doesn’t register with players in their early 20s the way Martinez does.
“It’s just another brain to pick, another person that’s got good information that you can pull from,’’ Lester said. “Nothing against Luis Tiant or Jim Rice, but [a voice] that’s relative to our generation.’’
‘So much to give’
Martinez is only three years removed from his pitching days. His face looks a bit thicker, but the uniform still fits. And the urge comes sometimes, though he is clear about having no desire to return to play.
There was no one to play long toss with De La Rosa on Wednesday, so Martinez stepped in. He threw the ball back and forth, as De La Rosa put more distance between them. It was a spring day like so many in Martinez’s 18-year career. He felt the itch.
“I picked up the ball and I threw it and I’m like, ‘I want to keep going, I want to keep going,’ ’’ Martinez said. “It’s very tempting. I know I don’t want to play, but to go and play and catch and be a part of it.
“When I see them doing fundamentals and stuff, I have to get back and just watch from far away. Before you know it, I’ll be running and covering bases. I’m not supposed to do that.’’
He’s not. He’s teaching now, taking his observations and using them for others, being exposed to another side of the game to find out where he fits. He could be seen talking to Cherington and a rotating cast — Jason Varitek, farm director Ben Crockett, Nieves — on the fields last week, his hand gestures animating the talks and fascinating the fans.
“He’s very interested in the way the arm works, how to train the body and position the body to do the things you want to do with the baseball,’’ Cherington said. “We want to try to take advantage of the wisdom and intelligence and passion and channel it in a way that helps our guys and makes sense.’’
It has been different than Martinez expected, more fun. He said he thought he was going to be “a little bit bored.’’ That hasn’t been the case. He has enjoyed it, being taken in like another teammate, especially embraced by the young Latin pitchers, who he hopes will be able to open up to him.
“I don’t want the money,’’ Martinez said. “I don’t want anything. I don’t want credit. I just want to help them get better.
“I’m learning. I’m getting my feet wet about this. To me it’s a new experience, but at the same time if you ask me about baseball, I still have so much to give, mentally, and my experience is so valuable to some of those young pitchers. I would love to give it away.’’