The story of Pedro Martinez’s inspiring ascent to baseball immortality is one worthy of telling and retelling again. Red Sox fans, so blessed to have a front-row seat for seven prime seasons of arguably the all-time greatest and most charismatic pitcher’s career, require no reminder of this.
Of course, such reminders are not only welcomed, but devoured and savored. It’s not just Martinez’s transcendent career that lends itself to literature, but remarkable stages and moments and influences in his life. It’s a story for all time — and all ages as well.
Martinez’s much-anticipated autobiography, written with the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman, will be in bookstores soon. I can’t wait to read it. But there is a new Pedro book already on the shelves that I already know is as superb as the subject himself, because my kids have read it to me.
My friend Matt Tavares, a lifelong Red Sox fan and accomplished children’s book author and illustrator, recently released “Growing Up Pedro,” a look at one particularly compelling aspect of the great pitcher’s life: his relationship with and admiration for his older brother Ramon.
It’s not just a story of baseball and brotherhood, but one of hard work, hometown pride, self-confidence and determination. Given that this book has done what I could not — it helped my kids appreciate Pedro, and on a level beyond his on-field accomplishments — I cannot recommend it enough.
Matt was kind enough to answer a few questions about the project, his process, and the appeal of Pedro.
Matt Tavares: Yeah, it was more just general Pedro awesomeness than any one particular moment or memory. I first got the idea a few years ago, when I was thinking back to what it was like to be at Fenway when Pedro was pitching. The place was just electric when he was on the mound, and I thought it would be fun to try to capture that experience in a book. So I started reading all the interviews and articles I could find, and learned a lot about Pedro’s life that I never knew before. I felt like it was a story worth telling, and one that I thought kids would be interested to read about.
So you had the idea to write and illustrate a children’s book on Pedro, then narrowed it to the brotherhood aspect with Ramon once the idea percolated a little?
Tavares: At first I really just wanted to tell Pedro’s story. But once I got going, I realized that it was impossible to tell his story without telling Ramon’s story too. Ramon played such a huge role in Pedro’s life, from the time he was very young right up through his major league career. He really was more than just a big brother to Pedro. He was Pedro’s idol, and as the oldest child in the family, he was like a father to his younger siblings, especially after their parents got divorced when Pedro was nine years old. Reading through Pedro’s interviews, I found so many quotes where Pedro said that everything he learned, both in baseball and in life, he learned from Ramon. My original outline focused more on Pedro overcoming obstacles, like the poverty of his childhood and the fact that everyone thought he was too small to make it in the major leagues. But eventually the theme of brotherhood emerged, and I think that’s something that really makes this story special.
The details are spectacular. Not just in the illustrations, which beautifully capture Pedro’s traits, but in the storytelling. How long was your research process to discover under-reported tidbits of information, such as how the Dodgers signed him for a mere $6,500?
Tavares: Wish I could tell you I had to do some serious detective work to find this stuff, but it actually wasn’t that hard. Mostly I looked through newspaper and magazine archives (I subscribed to The Boston Globe archive, which was a treasure trove of information). I searched for stories about Pedro with specific terms like “Ramon”, or “Manoguayabo” (Pedro’s hometown) or “Campo Las Palmas” (the Dodgers Dominican Baseball Academy). Then it was just a matter of wading through all the articles to find the most helpful ones, and taking a lot of notes and double-checking all my facts with multiple sources to make sure everything was accurate. This was probably the trickiest part, because from article to article, the facts didn’t always match up.
Was there anything you found fascinating that you wanted to mention in the book that you ultimately left out because it didn’t quite fit the focused narrative?
Tavares: Yeah, this might be the hardest part about making this type of book. I end up gathering so much information and I want to try to squeeze it all in there, but in the end only a small fraction of it can fit in the book. I find that I’m better off when I narrow my focus and just try to tell a great story, instead of trying to tell everything that’s ever happened in the person’s life.
In earlier drafts, I ended the book with the parade celebrating the 2004 World Series championship. As a Red Sox fan, I really wanted to include that. But once brotherhood became the focus of the story, it made more sense to end the book after the 1999 season, when Pedro and Ramon both helped the Red Sox beat the Indians in the first round of the playoffs, then celebrated back in Manoguayabo after the season. The 2004 World Series was obviously a huge moment in Pedro’s career, but it didn’t fit into this particular story.
I also mentioned more specific details about his childhood in earlier drafts, like his parents’ divorce. But I found that it was hard to mention something like that without a fair amount of explanation and follow-up, and before long I was telling a story about dealing with divorce, and I didn’t want that to be the focus of the book. I used the author’s note at the end of the book to tell some parts of the story that just didn’t fit into the main story.
What impresses you most about Pedro? The obvious answer is his talent, but there are rich lessons in the book about family, hard work, and remembering those who helped you along the way.
Tavares: Hey, thanks for answering this one for me! You provided a pretty good list right there of the things that impressed me most about him. I guess the first thing that really impressed me was how much he’s done to help improve the lives of the people in his hometown, Manoguayabo. I know a lot of big league players from the Dominican Republic do a lot of great work to give back to their communities, but what Pedro has done, and continues to do, is so far above and beyond what I would expect of anyone. He’s paid for the construction of dozens of homes for families, and also built churches and schools and started academic programs for the children of Manoguayabo. When he became a millionaire, it would have been easy for him to leave that life behind and maybe visit every now and then for a charity event. But Manoguayabo is still a big part of his life, and he and his wife Carolina dedicate a lot of time and energy to making it a better place.
His work ethic also impressed me. He always had that chip on his shoulder, where he knew that he wasn’t as big as the other guys, so he had to work extra hard to prove that he could still be better than everyone else. He never forgot those people who doubted him (like Tommy Lasorda) and he used that to drive him. He also worked hard studying English, from the time he was a teenager, thanks to Ramon’s advice. People give Pedro a lot of credit for being smart, and he certainly is. But he didn’t master his second language just because he’s smart. He also spent long hours studying his English books, and looking out the window on long bus trips in the minors, reading road signs.
What was the most challenging aspect of working on this book?
Tavares: This was the first biography I’ve written about a player I actually got to watch play. So this one felt much more personal for me, since it was inspired by a lot of my own memories. In some ways that made it easier, since I felt more connected to the subject. But in some ways I think it made it harder, because even though I was drawing scenes which held a lot of meaning for me, it was hard to know how much that meaning would translate to the people reading the book. When I see a scene of the Fenway bleachers in 1998, with the K Men and fans waving K cards and Dominican flags, it stirs some really great memories. But most of my readers are children who weren’t even around back then. So the challenge was to try to capture that experience in the book, and to make it meaningful not just for Red Sox fans like me, but for people who never got to see Pedro pitch.
Tavares: The whole process was pretty rewarding — just reliving those days, and re-watching some of Pedro’s greatest games. And it’s been so rewarding to share the book with students when I do presentations at schools. Most of them have never heard of Pedro Martinez, so it’s a lot of fun to be the one who tells them about him. And it’s rewarding to see that some of that excitement I tried to capture in the book actually does translate to the people who are reading it.
How long is the process from the germination of the idea to the moment you have the book in your hands?
Tavares: For Growing Up Pedro, it was about three years. I first got the idea to do a book about Pedro in early 2012. I pitched the idea to my publisher soon after that, and they liked it. I was still working on another book at the point, so I would work on that book during the day, then read about Pedro at night. Then there was about a solid year when I focused exclusively on the Pedro book. I completed the final artwork in April of 2013, just a little bit past my deadline. Usually my deadline is about a year before the publication date, so we have time to go through a couple rounds of proofs and then start showing advance copies to booksellers and librarians. I got my first copy in January of 2015, then the book came out in February.
Do you have a favorite illustration in Growing Up Pedro?
I think my favorite illustration is the extreme close-up of Pedro’s face when he’s on the mound, about to throw a pitch. Making books, I don’t usually get to paint on a large scale. But this illustration is so zoomed in, it’s basically life-size. I really wanted to capture Pedro’s mannerisms in my illustrations, and there’s nothing like that Pedro stare.
In your readings, what have you found that resonates most with kids?
Tavares: I’ve been sharing the book quite a bit a schools and store events, and kids seem pretty fascinated with Pedro’s childhood. I think the fact that Pedro was so small makes kids automatically relate to him. In the opening scene of Growing Up Pedro, Pedro is upset because he wants to play ball with the older boys, but his big brother, Ramon, tells him it’s too dangerous because they’re using a hard ball. Kids really relate to that. Most children have been in situations where they wish they could play with the older kids, or wish they were bigger or stronger. Pedro is the perfect hero for those kids.
GROWING UP PEDRO. Copyright © 2015 by Matt Tavares. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, Mass.