The Man Who Would Be King

Attending a postseason game is always a thrill, particularly the later in October the Yankees’ run goes. I’m lucky enough to have gotten to go to Yankee Stadium twice in one week, first for the ALCS clincher and then for Thursday night’s Game Two of the World Series. It was my first World Series game since the 2003 opener, and my fifth of all time (1998 Game Two, 1999 Game Four, and 2001 Game Three being the others).

I attended the game with my friend Julie, and our seats were in the left field bleachers, providing a fitting bookend to the season given that the two of us were also in the bleachers for the Yankees’ April 3 exhibition against the Cubs, the new ballpark’s unofficial opener. Raising the stakes even more was the fact that Pedro Martinez started for the Phillies against the Yanks’ A.J. Burnett:

For as much baggage as Burnett brought to the party, his opposite number, Pedro Martinez, brought more — an epic history of battles during his days with the Red Sox, highlights (his Yankee Stadium record 17-strikeout performance in 1999, the Red Sox’s 2004 ALCS comeback) and lowlights (his 2003 ALCS meltdown, his promise to “Wake up the Bambino, I’ll drill him in the ass,” and the taunts of “Who’s Your Daddy?”) aplenty.

But the Pedro who took the hill for the Phillies is a different Pedro, five years and several miles per hour removed from the end of his Boston tenure, and nearly a decade beyond a peak that can stand with any pitcher in the game’s history, from Walter Johnson to Sandy Koufax to Roger Clemens. He’s older, sadder—his father died of cancer last year—but almost certainly wiser. No longer able to summon superhuman velocity, he showed during his NLCS start against the Dodgers (a rich enough tableau in its own right) that he could still baffle hitters by keeping them off balance, moving their eye level and changing speeds, hitting nearly every increment on the radar gun between the mid-70s and the low-90s while artfully working in and out of the strike zone across seven shutout innings.

Martinez held the Yankees to one run through the first five innings, striking out six and yielding only one run on a solo shot by Mark Teixeira into the Yankees’ bullpen to lead off the fourth. But even when he was missing bats, he was running up his pitch count; his first four K’s cost him 27 pitches. He surrendered another solo homer, this time to Hideki Matsui, on his 96th pitch.

Martinez finished the inning with his pitch count at 98, but much to our surprise, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel sent him back out for the seventh, apparently forgetting the hard lessons of the 2003 ALCS Game Seven. Martinez yielded singles to Jerry Hairston Jr. and Miguel Cabrera to lead off the seventh, with Hairston’s pinch-runner Brett Gardner going from first to third, at which point Manuel finally went and got the wily, wiry 38-year-old. For all the taunts Martinez had endured on the night and over the years from the Yankee Stadium crowds — particularly in the bleachers — it was an incredibly poignant moment. If this was the sun setting on Martinez’s career, then it was one hell of a sunset, and I was determined to appreciate its brilliance:

I don’t care who you root for, it was impossible not to feel for Martinez as he slowly strode off the Yankee Stadium mound, perhaps for the last time in his storied career. The crowd in the bleachers jeered him rabidly, but I could only stand and applaud, doffing my cap not only at the magnificent effort he’d mustered, but all of the pain and pleasure his years of battling the Yankees had brought. At least from this writer’s vantage point, never was there an opposing player who made for better blog fodder. My season at Yankee Stadium wasn’t the only thing that had come full circle.

Looking back at a recording of the game a day later, the close-ups of Martinez’s face are priceless. Bated breath to collect his emotions before walking off the mound. A raised finger and a glance skyward as he headed towards the visiting dugout on the third base side. A head bowed, and then, as he approached the dugout, chin raised with a genuine smile [pic], perhaps at the large sign held by a Yankees fan near the dugout that read: “Daddy’s Got a New House.” Unable to withstand the lure of consumer capitalism in favor of a poignant moment in baseball history for one single second more, Fox cut to a car commercial. Perhaps their producer had something in his eye.

Their lead expanded to 3-1, the Yankees called upon the great Mariano Rivera to make his second two-inning save of the week. He went on to close out the game and help the Yankees even the series, and while there was so much more to say about his performance and that of Burnett, what stuck with me was Martinez, particularly as the reports of his post-game press conference emerged. Not to be confused with his pregame conference from the day before in which he made a bold declaration regarding the fans in the Bronx:

Q. You’ve had a unique relationship with the fans in the Bronx over the years. Why do you think that is? Have you thought about that over your career? And what about it do you enjoy?

PEDRO MARTINEZ: I don’t know if you realize this, but because of you guys in some ways, I might be at times the most influential player that ever stepped in Yankee Stadium. I can honestly say that. I mean, I have been a big fan of baseball for a long time, since I was a kid. My first ball I ever got from a Big League player I actually got to purchase in Dodger Stadium in a silent auction, was Reggie Jackson. I was actually a big fan of the Yankees, too.

For some reason with all the hype and different players that have passed by, maybe because I played for the Red Sox is probably why you guys made it such a big deal every time I came in, but you know, I have a good bond with the people. After playing in New York, I went to realize something: New York fans are very passionate and very aggressive. But after it all, after you take your uniform off and you deal with the people, they’re real human beings. It’s all just being fans.

I have all the respect in the world for the way they enjoy being fans. Sometimes they might be giving you the middle finger, just like they will be cursing you and telling you what color underwear you’re wearing. All those things you can hear when you’re a fan. But at the end of the day, they’re just great fans that want to see the team win. I don’t have any problem with that.

From his postgame presser:

Q. Could you just walk us through what your feelings were? A long rehab for you over a year, you come in, you pitched a great game in the NLCS, and then tonight. I know when you’re pitching, you’re not thinking about that stuff, but now that you got back to a World Series game and pitched so well in it, talk about what’s going through your mind about the whole year of rehab really.

PEDRO MARTINEZ: You know, regardless of what happened, the fact that I was the loser today for the game, I’m extremely proud and happy being able to participate, compete against a real, real good team, a very solid team, be able to put my team in position to catch up or win that game, and at the same time tell myself that I made the right decision by coming back and getting this opportunity, putting myself in the position to get an opportunity to pitch in the World Series.

It was a real good game. It was a real baseball game.

Q. As you were walking off the field, you were hearing it from the Yankee fans and the TV camera caught you breaking out into smile. Can you talk about as you were walking off the field kind of what was going through your mind in the new Yankee Stadium?

PEDRO MARTINEZ: Yeah, you said it right, it’s a new Yankee Stadium, but the fans remain the fans. They’re going to give you — like I remember one guy sitting right in front of the front row with his daughter, sitting with his daughter, and his daughter in one arm, and a cup of beer in the other hand and saying all kinds of nasty stuff. I just told him, “Your daughter is right beside you. It’s a little girl. It’s a shame you’re saying all these things.”

I had to stop and tell him because I’m a father myself, and God, how can you be so dumb to do those kind of things in front of your child? What kind of example are you setting?

But the fans, I enjoy that, because at the bottom, I know I played for the Mets, I know they really want to root for me. It’s just that I don’t play for the Yankees, that’s all. I’ve always been a good competitor, and they love that. They love the fact that I compete. I’m a New Yorker, as well. If I was on the Yankees, I’d probably be like a king over here. (Laughter.)

That’s not the case right now, and it’s going to be that way.

As you’d expect, there were plenty of good articles about Pedro Martinez to go around, both before and after the game. Jonah Keri had some great stuff about Pedro’s days with the Expos. The Wall Street Journal‘s Matthew Futterman provided great context for both of Martinez’s press conferences while comparing him to Reggie Jackson and calling his comments “subversive.” The Faster Times’ Lisa Swan predicted the postgamer would be a doozy, no matter what the outcome (she also did a nice retrospective of great Martinez quotes as he was returning to the majors in August). Esquire’s Charles Pierce to compared him to Luis Tiant, the hero ace of an earlier Red Sox era, for his ability to get by on guile and guts.

The legend goes that back when Martinez was breaking in with the Dodgers, manager Tommy Lasorda felt he was too small to withstand the rigors of starting. In retrospect, it seems clear he was right, at least if that meant starting for Lasorda, who broke many a promising young Dodger starter – Doug Rau, Rick Rhoden, Fernando Valenzuela, Orel Hershiser, and older brother Ramon Martinez. Who’s to say the baseball world wouldn’t have been deprived of a Hall of Fame talent and one of the game’s great personalities had he not been traded to the Expos? Ultimately, it was in the best interests of baseball.

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