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As Good As It Gets

The Intimidator
By Bob Carter
Special to

"He had a reputation of being a headhunter. So now, he's an intimidator and that's part of his game. And that makes him great," says former Red Sox teammate Alan Embree on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury.

What major league pitchers crave, what most search for endlessly, came early to Pedro Martinez. By his mid-20s, the Dominican marvel had gathered up the big C's - control, command and confidence - in a way that set him apart from almost everyone of his era.

"I'm not afraid of hitting anyone," he said in 2000, "because I can put the ball where I want to."

This, ironically, from a man who sometimes hit batters with a disturbing frequency, whose sudden lack of control touched off fights and cost him respect.

In short time, Martinez flaunted the C's, giant-sized them even. Matched with a smallish body, they nimbly built a pitching style that inspired incredulity. How did someone 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds generate such power and precision? And how long before this undersized tornado flamed out? His command of three pitches left most batters guessing and gasping.

"You just don't know what he's going to throw," Rafael Palmeiro said. "The count doesn't matter. There is no pattern. He can throw you a changeup at 2-0. He can throw you a curveball 3-2. Whatever, he throws them all for strikes."

Martinez's strikeout-walk ratios staggered the stat geeks. In 1999, his sixth season as a starter, the righthander struck out 8.46 batters for every walk (313 to 37), a number that dwarfed all the strikeout pitchers before him. He went to 8.88 the next year. By comparison, Sandy Koufax's ratio was 5.38:1 in 1965, when he went 26-8 with a 2.04 ERA, and Bob Gibson, in his 1.12 ERA season of 1962, had a 4.32 ratio.

Little wonder that Martinez won three Cy Young Awards over his first eight full seasons, that he had an 182-76 record and 2.71 career ERA through 2004, that he'd command a $91-million, seven-year contract and fling cockiness as easy as a 97-mph fastball.

"I have no doubts I can beat anybody," he said. "I always like to face the best: Maddux, Glavine, the big guys."

Pedro Jaime Martinez was born on Oct. 25, 1971 in Manoguayabo, a small, impoverished town outside of the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo. His father, Paulino, an amateur baseball player, and his mother, Leopoldina, divorced before he was 10.

He learned baseball from his father and older brother Ramon, who pitched in the majors for 14 seasons. At age 16, Pedro followed Ramon to the Dodgers' organization, signing with Los Angeles in 1988 for a $6,500 bonus that he gave to his brother. He threw 82 mph and weighed about 140 pounds.

In two years, though, his fastball was up to 91, and in four, Martinez was up for two September games for Los Angeles. The Dodgers used him as a middle reliever in 1993, and he went 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA. Uncertain if he had the strength and durability to be a starter, they traded him to Montreal in November for second baseman Delino DeShields.

Martinez earned a starting spot with the Expos, winning 38 games over his first three Montreal seasons, then dropped that deal on the Dodgers' heads. After repeatedly plunking batters, receiving warnings and igniting brawls during his early years, Martinez stabilized in 1997. Up to 170 pounds, he went 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA, pitched 13 complete games, struck out 305 batters in 241 1/3 innings and won his first Cy Young Award. He dedicated the honor to countryman Juan Marichal.

The cash-poor Expos, though, couldn't afford Martinez and put him on the market after the season. "I'm more sad than mad at them," he said. "That's their politics, and that's the way they do things."

In November, the Expos dealt him to Boston for pitchers Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. in another one-sided deal. Martinez proved that 1997 was no fluke, going 19-7 with a 2.89 ERA in his first season and giving Red Sox fans renewed hope of a long-awaited World Series title.

The strikeouts kept coming at a phenomenal pace, more than one per inning year after year, reaching a high of 313 in 1999. Strikeout pitchers under six feet had long been a rarity in the sport. Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who worked with Martinez in Montreal and Boston and helped him gain better control of his fastball, said much of Pedro's power came from his strong, muscular legs.

Martinez cited a high degree of coordination and what he considered better balance in a smaller-sized body. "By not being so big," he said, "you can be more compact and more consistent."

From 1997, his last Montreal season, through 2003, no pitcher was as effective as Martinez. Seven consecutive years of sub-2.90 ERAs and a 118-36 record with 1,761 strikeouts in 1,408 innings.

"If you give him a big lead," former Boston teammate Mo Vaughn said, "you can cancel Christmas."

Martinez retired batters and he challenged them, grabbing the inside part of the plate and pushing them off it. Many thought he was a headhunter in Montreal.

"He pitched inside aggressively and hit people for the effect," Todd Zeile said, although the Expos pointed to a fastball that simply moved too much.

In Boston, his control became sharper, but Martinez still irritated batters with close pitches.

He earned consecutive unanimous Cy Young Awards in 1999 and 2000, gaining 41 victories over the two years. He fanned five of six batters in winning the All-Star Game MVP award in 1999, and later that year turned in an awesome performance in the divisional playoffs against Cleveland.

Limited by a strained back muscle, Martinez didn't start Game 5. But after Boston allowed eight runs in three innings, he relieved and threw six hitless innings, throwing 97 pitches, many of them no faster than 85 mph. Martinez was the winner in the 12-8 victory as Boston advanced to the AL Championship Series.

"I put my career in jeopardy that game. I knew that," he said. "Why? We had to win the game."

After soreness in his right shoulder limited him to 18 games (7-3, 2.39 ERA) in 2001, the Red Sox started guarding his pitch count, trying to keep him near 100, and spotting him an occasional extra day of rest between starts. He averaged 114 pitches per start in 1998, 112 the next year and 109 in 2000. From 1996-2000, he worked more than 210 innings each season.

"When you're in a lot of low-run games," said Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, "you have a tendency to go all-out to every hitter. That takes its toll."

After the 2001 season, Martinez started lifting weights for the first time, began a more serious training regimen and added almost 15 pounds. He rebounded with a 20-4 record and 2.26 ERA. Then he went 14-4, 2.22 in 2003, a season in which Boston almost made the World Series.

He stirred trouble in Game 3 of the ALCS when he hit the Yankees' Karim Garcia with a pitch, leading to a scuffle later in the contest with New York's 72-year-old coach Don Zimmer, who charged him and was tossed to the ground by Martinez.

In Game 7, he took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth but couldn't hold on as manager Grady Little went with his ace rather than his bullpen. The Yankees scored three runs off a tiring Martinez, then they won the pennant on Aaron Boone's 11th-inning homer off Tim Wakefield.

In 2004, he went 16-9, but his ERA ballooned to 3.90. His defining performance came in Game 3 of the World Series, where he pitched seven shutout innings, helping the Red Sox sweep the Cardinals for their first world championship in 86 years.

But two months later, Martinez decided money was more important than remaining with a world champion. Rejecting Boston's offer of $40.5 million over three years, he signed a $53-million, four-year contract with the New York Mets.

Martinez long has expressed a love for his role as a starter, the control he exerts over a game and pride in his durability. Yet when asked about possibly ending his career as closer, he seemed open to the idea. "I wouldn't mind, as long as I'm in baseball," he said in 2002. "I'd be like Mariano [Rivera] - not as good probably, but who knows?"

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