Let the Show Begin

The return of Pedro Martinez to the playoff stage adds spice—and mystery—to an already intriguing first round of matchups
October 11, 2009

As a small groupof Philadelphia players loosened their arms in rightfield at Citizens Bank Parklate last week, a middle-aged man in a Phillies hat and jacket, a baseballglove on his left hand, sat nearby, halfway up an otherwise empty section offield-level seats. The man jumped up, threw his arms over his head and sat backdown. With great glee, he waited a few beats before repeating the exercise. Thesight gag, the one-man wave, cracked up everyone, mostly because the jokesterhappened to be a three-time Cy Young Award winner, maybe the most dominantpitcher of his era. ¶ Ladies and gentlemen, Pedro the Entertainer is back. Overthe past two decades, no one has commanded a baseball audience quite like PedroJaime Martinez, whose pitching style and personal showmanship have made everymound a stage. Martinez has fascinated as much as he has dominated, a conundrumin spikes who was a premier power pitcher in a junior varsity body, a ferociousheadhunter (or so his critics wailed) who loves gardening, a ruthless king ofthe hill who played the clubhouse jester with equal aplomb. Put a baseballcelebrity like Pedro under the spotlight of the postseason and, well, you weretreated to one of the great spectacles of the modern era, performance art thatwas equal parts mastery and mischief.

Now, for the firstOctober in five years, it is must-watch time again. After sitting out the firstfour months of this season—tending to his recently widowed mother in theDominican Republic, building her a garden, restoring his injury-weakened bodyand watching weekend baseball while bobbing on his boat in theCaribbean—Martinez established himself in nine starts as an importantcontributor to the pitching-starved defending World Series champs. The Phillieswon eight of those nine starts, while Martinez pitched to a 3.63 ERA.

No longer an ace,yet still effectively beguiling, Martinez, who turns 38 this month, haspresented Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel with several possible ways todeploy him in the postseason. His most obvious place would be as the club'sGame 3 or 4 starter in Colorado this weekend, though the prospect of turninghim into a late-inning weapon, even an emergency closer, is tantalizing aswell. Of the eight playoff teams' bullpens, none is more unsettled than thePhillies'.

Manuel is notdismissive of bringing Martinez out of the pen. "We'll go with our bestpitchers, however we use them," he said last week. "He's a guy youtrust. The only thing I would have to do with him is give him plenty of time towarm up if he's coming in out of the bullpen."

"I'll doanything they want me to do," Martinez says. "I was hoping for thisopportunity, and I'm very grateful for it. It's kind of a wish come true. Thisis I'm sure how my dad wanted it for me."

Martinez's father,Pablo Jaime, developed brain cancer in 2008 during the last of Martinez's fouryears with the Mets, a tenure marked by injuries and unfulfilled expectations:Pedro won 32 games while earning $53 million. A frail Pablo told his son duringone visit in July 2008, that he wanted him to continue playing baseball. Pedroflew back to rejoin the Mets. Three days later, his father was dead. "Thosewere his last words to me," Martinez says. "Today it's all for him andhis wishes."

Carrying onwithout his father while comforting his mother, Leopoldina, Martinez says,"I became a man last year—a true man."

Martinez wantedanother shot at the postseason, preferably in the National League, and figuredhe would return to the Mets. "They said I should take a [Tom] Glavine kindof contract," he said, referring to the minor league deal Glavine signedwith the Braves last off-season. "At least I pitched last year, even thoughI did [poorly]. I felt like at least I deserved a big league contract."

The Indians,Dodgers, Cubs and Rangers each made inquiries about Martinez during the summerbut never made a big league offer. Martinez kept his arm in shape by throwinglong toss with a softball for an hour three times a week. "From myexperience, I knew somebody would need pitching in the middle of theseason," he says.

The Phillies werethat team. They sent special assistant Charley Kerfeld to scout Martinez, thensigned him to a contract that will pay him about $1.4 million, includingbonuses, for his two months of work. Martinez, freshened from the respite,returned with his best velocity since 2004, his final year with the Red Sox.His body recovered from starts so well that he felt loose and limber enough tothrow long toss the day after his starts; he said his body hadn't bounced backlike that since 2001.

Indeed, Martinezfelt so good that in back-to-back starts in September, Manuel allowed him tothrow 119 and then, against the Mets, 130 pitches—the 249 pitches being themost he had thrown in consecutive starts since 2000. Martinez left his nextstart with a stiff neck, the result he said of "popping a rib" whiletrying to hit a curveball. Scouts believe otherwise. "He's paying for those130 pitches," says one who watched his last regular-season start, againstthe Astros. "He didn't have the same command, the same release point or thesame finish on his pitches."

Martinez's healthand his role are uncertain, but this is not: He has become relevant again, awelcome Topic A in the postseason discussion. At the same time this may verywell be his last appearance on this stage, one last opportunity for fans tosavor one of the game's transforming figures. It was Martinez who made ballgames into events at Fenway Park when he arrived in Boston in 1998, ushering inan unprecedented era of growth for the franchise. And he usually won, likealmost no one else. Among all pitchers with 150 wins since 1910, only WhiteyFord (.690) has a higher winning percentage than Martinez (.687).

At the height ofhis dominance, in 2000, smack in the middle of the Steroid era in a DH league,Martinez allowed fewer walks and hits per inning than anybody in history (0.74)and posted the lowest ERA relative to other pitchers in his league (1.74, onethird the AL average). Such magnificence, built upon a mighty fastball, wasmade all the more remarkable because of his frame. At 5'11", 170 pounds, heseemed as petite as one of the roses plucked from his garden, but inside himchurned a desire as massive as the machinery of the engine room of abattleship.

The Pedro packagewas spiced by a carnival barker's gift for showmanship. He kept a dwarf friend,barely bigger than a breadbasket, as a clubhouse mascot, stared down hittersafter strikeouts and threw at Yankees as if they were milk bottles at a statefair. In other words he was made for the postseason, when the lights arebrightest. In 13 career postseason games—eight of them openers or eliminationgames—Martinez is 6--2 with a 3.40 ERA. Such numbers, though, are inadequate atcapturing even a whiff of the drama of what seemed more like novellas than ballgames.

In the 1999 ALDS,he came out of the Boston bullpen into a wild 8--8 slugfest with Cleveland and,with a strain in his shoulder and a mockery of a fastball, threw six no-hitinnings to eliminate the Indians. "Pedro came in," Martinez says,mastering the third person like his changeup, "and Cleveland said, 'We'redone.'"

In the 2003postseason alone he outdueled Barry Zito to eliminate Oakland in the ALDS,instigated an ALCS brawl with the Yankees in which he tossed a 72-year-old DonZimmer to the ground and took the Red Sox to within five outs of the pennantbefore losing the lead and Grady Little's job. In 2004 he shut out St. Louisfor seven innings to put Boston one win away from its first world title in 86years. That game was the Beatles atop the Apple building in 1969, the last timeon stage—until his reunion with October this year.

The game doesn'tchange," Martinez said last week, when asked to explain his approach to thepostseason. "You still play nine innings and have to get 27 outs. So it'sabout concentrating and treating everything the same. When the other team isletting the hype get to them, I stay strong mentally. It's 100 percent in mymind."

Martinez doesn'tthrow his fastball in the upper 90s as he did in his prime; it typically humsalong at about 89 now. But he remains worth watching because of the guile hesummons. "His changeup is still so good, hitters can know it's coming andstill not hit it," teammate Jimmy Rollins says. "And he's got two ofthem: one he throws to get ahead and the Bugs Bunny changeup to get you out.Just when you think you have it figured out, he'll make it move even more—andit's gone."

Of course, theremay be another reason to keep a close eye on Martinez this month. "The wayI feel, and if this team wants me, I could pitch one more year," he says."But if we win, even if I feel the way I feel physically now, I reallycould see staying at home. I'm thankful for the time with my mom, and when itwas time to leave her, it wasn't easy."

There always was aspecial poignancy to Martinez's brilliance, a wondering, like that of theDodgers 16 years ago when they traded him to Montreal, how long "my smallframe" would endure the demands of such power pitching. It was wonderwasted. Poignancy remains, but now age is the potential saboteur. It seemsright that he gets this October, but how many more remain? It is just anotherreason to see what happens, one more mystery behind the mastery and mischief ofPedro Martinez.

Now on SI.com

Tom Verducci'sFive Cuts daily throughout the entire postseason at SI.com/bonus

PHOTOPhotograph by CHUCK SOLOMONSALVATION ARM Martinez still brings a filthy change to go with an 89-mph fastball; he just might be what a struggling Phils' bullpen needs.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)