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The ultimate gamer

Page 2 columnist


When it was time to arrange our schedule for Nantucket this summer -- a watering hole that I have gone to for 32 straight years since I bought a house there as a young man -- I was aware that we would have a shorter season than most because of various impending deadlines. But, year-round resident of Manhattan that I am, I was buoyed nonetheless by the fact that in addition to my other pleasures, if I skillfully bent my schedule to his, I would get to watch Pedro pitch three or four times, not in person, of course, but on television.

Pedro Martinez
Any tour of Boston is incomplete without viewing the artistry of Pedro Martinez.
Pedro, naturally, is Pedro Martinez, and he is, to my mind, not merely the best pitcher in baseball today, but something rarer still -- a genuine artist.

I say artist, because of the level of craftsmanship involved, the assortment of pitches, the variety of speeds, the perfection of location. Pedro Martinez is not only ahead of the hitters, he is ahead of the fans, the announcers, and most likely his own catcher.

Roger Clemens is having a great year, and his work ethic is admirable; he is still something of a power pitcher at 39 because of his remarkable offseason workout schedule. But though he has evolved from a power pitcher to a more complete pitcher, he is not an artist -- what carries him is talent and willpower, and a true predator's desire to triumph. Pedro is an artisan; for the true fan, watching him pitch is like getting a lesson in the infinite possibilities of the game.

(If I refer to him as Pedro in this piece instead of Martinez, it is not that we are intimate pals; it is because that is the way the Boston fans -- who feel they are intimate with him -- refer to him.)

Therefore the chance to watch him work -- or operate -- was something I greatly looked forward to. Alas for me, and for millions of others, and especially for Boston fans and his teammates, Pedro has been suffering from an inflammation of his pitching shoulder since late June. So I am undergoing, like so many others, Pedro depravation. His absence has surely cost the Red Sox five or six wins, but for me it was more personal; I now had something of a hole in my vacation schedule, and would have to be able to find other less leisurely sources of entertainment. Might I in order to fill the void, have to learn to be a bird watcher, or take up tennis again or go on long bike rides or learn to play golf?

Still, the Sox have stayed so close to the Yankees without Pedro and Nomar Garciaparra means that we will surely have something of a pennant race, even if the drama doesn't heat up until after my vacation. That the Red Sox have two great players like Martinez and Garciaparra strikes me as showing the hands of the gods at work, not unlike coming across for a long overdue bill -- say, in return for Bill Buckner's misplay and Bucky Dent's home run. (I think the gods also had a hand in deciding that Nomar would play in Boston where his name could always be "Nomah.")

And Martinez and Garciaparra are not just two of the very best in the game, but also two of the most likeable -- players who self-evidently love the game and whose every move reflects it.

Pedro Martinez
Red Sox manager Jimy Williams, left, and thousands of people are suffering from Pedro depravation.
I have watched the Red Sox closely since the pennant-winning team of 1946, when I saw my first game at Fenway. That was the season that Dave Ferriss of Shaw, Miss., won 25 and lost six. Years later he told me that the crowds were so large and noisy that he would on occasion step off the mound and look around him, in order to take note that it was real, and that there were so many people out there cheering for him and who cared that much about what he was doing. I do not know if I have ever seen a more popular player there than Garciaparra (he seems to have played with Ty Cobb, his manager Jimy Williams once noted, describing his love of the game).

I do not want to get into some kind of competition here about which team in sport has the best or the most long-suffering fans, but from my own distinctly nonscientific survey, it strikes me that there is a commitment and a passion -- and, finally, a loyalty -- in New England for the Red Sox that is different and greater than that of all other sports fans. And so, I believe, New England fans deserve them both.

I have always suspected Red Sox fanaticism is the product of three exceptional confluences: the long, hard winter that makes ordinary fans long for the spring and the summer, with the symbol of it being baseball; the distinct geographic formation of greater New England that makes the Sox a truly regional team, a region totally connected by radio and television coverage of the team's games; and, finally, the Red Sox are almost always very good -- which is to say, just good enough to break your heart.

How fortunate then that someone who loves the game so much and plays it with such elegance and intelligence as Pedro Martinez performs before fans who know what baseball is about and are able to appreciate and value his singular skills. He loves -- and understands -- the game, and it shows every time he pitches.

So I feel partially deprived this summer. I saw him in one game earlier in the year. I betook myself to Yankees Stadium with my friend Gay Talese, the writer, and we watched what was in effect a perfect game -- not in the literal sense, but in the more figurative sense, in that it was baseball played in all ways to perfection. Martinez had hooked up with Mike Mussina, in what was simply one of those rare games when fans could understand that the teams were so evenly matched, that every pitch count mattered, and that every runner on base, even in the early innings, might be the deciding moment.

Mussina, for my money, though not really a power pitcher of Pedro's range, is also an artist, and great fun to watch. Though he can occasionally throw a fastball at 93 or 94, he does not live off his fast ball. He is the ultimate pitcher's pitcher, he knows the craft, he lives off his intelligence, his sense of the hitters, a great instinct for location, and the ability to keep the hitters off-balance. Watching him pitch is like going back in time and watching Bob Feller hook up with a more powerful version Eddie Lopat -- that is, a Lopat who in key moments could reach back and throw heat.

That day they both struck out 12. Mussina, remarkably, was the equal of Martinez. One of the great things about watching Pedro pitch is the pressure he puts on other teams --spot him a run, and it can seem like the biggest hole in the earth. The Red Sox took an early lead, but the Yankees scored twice, on a Bernie Williams home run and a run they scratched out. On this day, it was like watching two masters pitch. I did not keep a scorecard -- I stopped scoring long ago -- but if Mussina went to three balls on any batter, I have no memory of it. It was a very good pitcher rising to greatness, and exerting the maximum leverage on opposing hitters, because pitching against Martinez meant that he was allowed almost no mistakes.

Some colleagues of mine believe Pedro Martinez is the best pitcher ever. There are even statistics which point this way: He has the best winning percentage of any pitcher in baseball history; he is No. 2 in hits allowed per nine inning game, 6.73; he is No. 2 in strikeouts per nine innings, 10.36, right behind Randy Johnson; he has the lowest career ERA of any starting pitcher in the last 80 years -- if you don't count Hoyt Wilhelm, who should not count because he was a knuckleballer, and there ought to be a separate category for them anyway; and, of course, about 10 other indices.

That seems a little heady, and it is very hard to compare different eras. Is he better than Koufax or Gibson or Carlton, or Feller, or Clemens, when they were in their prime? We might ponder that.

There are those great Koufax years: from 1961, when he finally discovered where the plate was and harnessed that great talent -- up to then he seemed to be dangerously near being a reincarnation of Rex Barney, who it was said would have been a great pitcher if the plate had been high and outside -- through 1966. In 1960, Koufax was just beginning to get there: He walked 100 and struck out 197. But the next year was the breakthrough one, an 18-13 record, 96 walks and 269 strikeouts, and it signaled the beginning of a great six-year run of almost complete domination, ending in 1966 with a 27-9, 317 strikeouts and only 77 walks, and an ERA of 1.73. Then, seemingly still in his prime, having pitched a total of 54 complete games in his last two season, he walked away from baseball at the age of 30.

Or Bob Gibson, in those marvelous mid-'60s and early-'70s years, when he was so dominating that they actually changed the level of the mound because of him. We can cite 1968, when he was 22-9, struck out 268 with only 62 walks, pitched 13 shutouts and 28 complete games -- take that, Sandy! -- had a season ERA of 1.12, and in one memorable game, a fierce and majestic prince on the mound, the drive and passion and ferocity clear for the entire nation to see, struck out 17 Tigers, a great fastball hitting team, in the World Series.

I was 34 years old that season, watched that game, understood, I thought, what drove Gibson, and some 25 years later, in part because of what I saw on television that day, I wrote a book that was in no small part about him.

Gibson, too, was a gamer. In the World Series, he was 7-2, with 92 strikeouts in 81 innings, and a cumulative Series ERA of 1.67 (Koufax in 57 World Series innings pitched, had an ERA of 0.97). A few years ago when I wrote a book on Michael Jordan, I sent a copy to Gibson, with an inscription: "The person he reminds me of is you."

So who knows who is the best? Only the hitters could really know, and who batted against Feller and Koufax, and Gibson and Martinez when all were in their prime? What we do know is that Pedro Martinez is the best in the game today, a nonpareil, that he almost always dominates, and perhaps most important, he is a true gamer. The bigger the game, the better he pitches.

Let us recount two great Pedro moments: One against the Yankees in September of 1999, the other against Cleveland in a 1999 playoff game.

Let us take the first one, against the Yankees, in what was a very tough pennant race, where he clearly has to carry the Red Sox -- especially in big games, where his psychological presence can influence his teammates and effect more than the game he is pitching. I went back the other day to watch a replay of it. He was matched against Andy Pettitte, leading in the seventh, 2-1, on a two-run Mike Stanley home run. Bobby Murcer, calling the game for the Yankees kept repeating, "One run for Pedro Martinez is like five runs for anyone else," while Tim McCarver kept saying, "What a great ballgame this is."

  How fortunate then that someone who loves the game so much and plays it with such elegance and intelligence as Pedro Martinez performs before fans who know what baseball is about and are able to appreciate and value his singular skills. He loves -- and understands -- the game, and it shows every time he pitches.  
 

Late in the game, Boston had loaded the bases with no outs, but Jeff Nelson had come in and gotten the Yankees out of the jam, first with a force play at home, then a double play. That was a huge incentive for the Yankees to turn the momentum the other way. They had Jeter, O'Neill and Williams coming up. So, of course, here we have Pedro at his best. The count went to 3-2, and he got Jeter on a called third strike. The next hitter was O'Neill. Again a 3-2 count. Got him swinging, his 11th strikeout of the game. And then Bernie. The count was 0-2, and he decided not to waste any time. Got him on a breaking ball. He struck out 17 Yankees that night, a personal best. Excepting Don Larsen's perfect game in the World Series in 1956, this might have been the greatest game ever pitched in Yankee Stadium, and given a choice to be on hand at either, I would have taken the Martinez-Pettitte game.

The other great night for him as a gamer was the fifth game of the Divisional Series against Cleveland. By that point, it was clear that the pitching on both teams was gone, that the pitching staffs were exhausted. Martinez himself had been hurt, and had had to come out of an earlier game with a shoulder that was giving him pain. By the time he entered the fifth game, the score had begun to resemble a football score, 8-8 at the end of three innings. Ailing shoulder or not, he pitched six magical inning of no-hit baseball.

Here is what we know about him -- and I am indebted here to my generous colleague Dan Shaughnessy, the immensely talented Boston Globe columnist. He has every pitch: fastball, slider, curve and change. The change, notes Shaughnessy, is remarkable -- it starts with the same fierce motion, same delivery, same angle as the fastball, but with much less speed. In spring training, he will even tell batters that the change is coming, and they still can't hit it.

No small amount of Pedro's success, Shaughnessy believes, comes from his unusually long fingers. That allows him to do more things with the ball. "It's like Michael's big hands -- the ball is smaller for Michael than it is for the other players, and he can do more things with it. That's true of Pedro, as well," Shaughnessy says.

The Red Sox paid handsomely for him when they got him from those poor folks up in Montreal, but it has turned out to be a bargain of the first order. It was Montreal which got him on the cheap. He was 22 years old at the time, clearly just coming of age; in 1993, his first full season with the Dodgers, he won 10 and lost 5, had an ERA OF 2.61, and struck out 119. He appeared to be a pitcher just about to bloom. Then the Dodgers traded him, even up, for Delino DeShields. Pedro seems to get along with most people in baseball, but Lasorda is another story. The anger here is a blood thing, because the Dodgers never game him a real chance and judged him on his size, not his talent and his heart.

So forget whether he's the best ever. Just accept the fact that he's an artist, and there are always too few of them and too many others who think they're artists, and flaunt their behavior as if they're artists, but aren't, legends only in their own minds. Settle for the idea that he's the best around these days, a Cy Young winner three times, and in both leagues, and that it is a pure pleasure to watch him, a craftsman at work, all those tools, and all that intelligence and that self-evident love of the game.

So I've missed him this summer. Last Saturday there was a series against Chicago, and it was a beautiful day, just that kind of day when you're supposed to be outside, but I figured, if he had been pitching, I somehow would have cheated on the weather -- maybe told my wife that I was working on a book -- and stayed inside and watched the game.

But Pedro wasn't there, so I was forced to be something of a grown up. I went fishing with my pal Allan LaFrance, who is a builder on this island and a friend for 20 years, and his friend Pat Taaffee, a carpenter. We went off the Great Point Rip on a gorgeous day and the water was alive with fish, bait fish everywhere, and the big fish trying to nail them. When we caught a blue, the baitfish and the miniature sand eels they had already hit, still undigested, would come out immediately. I've fished here for more than 30 years, and I don't think I've ever seen so many fish in the water. We had a strike or a follow on almost every cast. We caught and released more than a dozen blues and even took two good-size stripers. If you can't watch Pedro pitch on a perfect day in July, this was not half bad as a substitute.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

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