COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Pedro Martinez’s loyalties – and his congregations of loyalists – can be found at many addresses.
His long-ago departure ranks among the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise’s biggest regrets, for their early-’90s brain-trust – pause here to snicker – believed he was too small to succeed as a starter and made the history-altering mistake of informing him so, a sleight that fueled him to successes far beyond those his slight stature was supposed to make possible. There must be some old timers with the Dodgers who still claim Pedro as their own, their personal player-development success, even if then-manager Tommy Lasorda didn’t know what he had when he had it. The great Sandy Koufax adores Pedro now. Maybe he did then, too, as Pedro’s career was just beginning. Transcendence recognizes transcendence, you know.
The Dodgers traded Pedro to the Expos in November 1993 for a decent second baseman named Delino DeShields, and that decent second baseman soon became the bad half of one of the most lopsided trades in history. In that city, Pedro’s visage lingers as Montreal’s beloved ghost of a franchise past. The love and appreciation from the city that gave him his first genuine chance but later lost its team remains reciprocated. More than once during this Hall of Fame weekend, Pedro lobbied for Major League Baseball to return to Montreal.
Oh, and Pedro belongs to Boston. He belongs to Boston as much as any athlete I have ever seen, save for maybe Larry Bird. I’m sure you require no refresher on all that Pedro accomplished and meant. But on the occassion of his enshrinement among the sport’s all-time greats, well, why wouldn’t we happily accept one? Boston is where he annually swept all the class superlatives: most talented, most charismatic, most likely to succeed, best smile, best hair, best quote, best fastball, best changeup, best curve. It’s where he helped end a fictional if crushingly heavy curse, where he went 117-37 in seven seasons – 80 games over .500! – with a 2.52 ERA in the heart of the steroid era.
(Or, as he shiny new Hall of Fame plaque puts it with some euphemistic creativity, “Featuring an electric arsenal of pitches that vanquished batters during an era of high octane offense …’’ Yeah, it was high-octane something.)
Pedro has been gone from the Red Sox for 11 years now, or four more years than he was here. But he never really slips into our past tense. Highlights from his 1998-2004 tenure, which included a 1999-2000 peak higher than any pitcher has ever achieved, remain fresh and vivid and in absolutely no need of exaggeration. It was all real, and it was almost always spectacular.
His best – the six no-hit innings of relief with an injured shoulder in the 1999 American League Divisional Series against the, ahem, high-octane Cleveland Indians, or the 17-strikeout, 1-hitter against the high-octane Yankees that September, or his electrifying performance against the high-octane National League lineup in the ’99 All-Star Game at Fenway – occupies the same hallowed place in our minds (and on the walls of our sports bars) as the best of Orr, Bird and Brady. Yeah, he’s ours, as much any Boston sports legend born before him has ever been.
But we were reminded during Sunday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in the festive field outside of Clark Sports Center, there is one home above all the others that forever occupies the most real estate in Pedro’s heart. No matter which team’s jersey he wore during the course of this 476 career appearances – we should acknowledge he was a Met and Phillie in his twilight, I suppose – he was always pitching foremost for the Dominican Republic.
“I would like all of you to not look at me as numbers, as baseball, as achievements,’’ he said toward the end of the English portion of his joyous 20-plus minute speech. “I would like you to actually see me as a sign of hope for a third-world country, for Latin America, someone that you can really look up to, and feel comfortable enough to say, I’m proud of you. Today I don’t want to roll into numbers and games that I pitched. I just want to make sure that my people get a little message across from me and see me as a sign of hope for a future generation.’’
Then he switched to Spanish for a few moments, explaining, “I would like these people to really feel what I feel.’’ These people were his hundreds countrymen who made the journey to Cooperstown and turned the scene of the induction – which also included faithful but overwhelmed pockets of support for fellow Class of 2015 members Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson and John Smoltz – into a festive tribute of pride and joy. They waved flags and thumped makeshift drums and chanted “PEY-dro, PEY-dro’’ whenever the mood struck. The mood struck often.
The most charismatic frontman we’ve ever seen on a baseball stage once again had his rowdy and raucous band backing him up. The vibe Sunday was the closest thing we will ever see and feel to Pedro pitching at Fenway Park again, an event and experience that is still longed for even as it has become our most cherished nostalgia.
Sunday’s scene felt so familiar, so much like a Pedro start from, say, May 1998 or July 1999, when his turn in the rotation was not just anticipated, but an event you built your day around. He changed the Red Sox, and his presence – and his flag-waving countrymen – supercharged the old ballpark’s atmosphere from stoic to celebratory.
Pedro was the fourth and final Hall of Famer to speak, perfectly cast as the closer just this once. The anticipation for his speech brought with it something of an existential question: Can someone steal the show if everyone knew it belonged to them in the first place? If it’s possible, then he pulled it off.
Pedro was in too good of a mood to wield grudges, thought there must have been a twinge of temptation with Lasorda sitting among the other Hall of Famers on the dais behind him. He thanked his Red Sox teammates, acknowledging catching collaborator Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar (an MLB Network colleague who was in attendance) by name. He said he always respected his opponents, though “even though sometimes by the pitches you wouldn’t [be able to] tell that.’’ He did reveal indirectly that he’s still agitated about losing the 2002 AL Cy Young Award to Barry Zito, summoning the name of the late Red Sox and Cardinals pitcher Josh Hancock to explain why he gave up a start that season that he believes cost him votes.
“Let me say something to everybody now that I can,’’ said Martinez. “In 2002, I wasn’t given a Cy Young supposedly because I missed the start. Well, that Cy Young I didn’t win because I chose to give an opportunity to a kid named Josh Hancock. And why do I bring it up? Because out of four brothers that we are, Ramon, Nelson, me and eventually Jesus, three of us made it to the big leagues. But Jesus is not in the record books because the organization he was playing for did not find the chance to give him one pitch in the big leagues so that he could be in the records.
“So, Jesus, don’t feel bad. We pitch enough for you. We’re here. So love you. Baseball is yours, too. What we get is ours.’’
Perhaps best of all, he turned around the lousy juxtaposition of his Hall of Fame moment coming days after now-former ESPN talker Colin Cowherd suggested baseball can’t be a complex sport since so many Dominicans play it well and, as he put it, “[the Dominican Republic] has not been known, in my lifetime, as having, you know, world-class academic abilities.’’
In the first few moments of his speech, as the chants and the drums filled the warm air, Pedro reminded that his wit is as sharp as his vintage curveball, that he’s more articulate in his second language than certain radio hosts will ever be in their first.
“I apologize, I’m speaking here in my second language.’’
Then, that familiar smile lit up his face even as the delivery was perfectly deadpan:
“I am Dominican.’’
The man always did know how to give the crowd what it wanted, and then just a little bit more. Sunday, one more time for all the old times, we got to see Pedro pull off that magical old trick of his again. He was sensational and entertaining as we expected. And somehow, even better than we imagined.
It was all such a sweet and sentimental reminder us of those days at Fenway when he was ours and the ballpark’s domain was ceded to the Dominican Republic. If we haven’t thanked his homeland for sharing him with us for seven transcendent years and beyond, well, now is as good a time as any.
Scenes from the 2015 Hall of Fame ceremony: