WHEN THE CAMERA LIGHTS GO ON, THE FUTURE HALL OF FAMER IS STILL A MASTER OF THE MOMENT, COLORFULLY CHANGING SPEEDS AND BRINGING PIERCING HEAT IN HIS NEW TV ROLE
This is an article from the Oct. 21, 2013 issue
Pedro Martinez was signed by the Dodgers in 1988, a 16-year-old from the Dominican Republic weighing no more than 135 pounds. From such unlikely circumstances began one of the greatest pitching careers in baseball history, as well as one of the most compelling. Colorful on and off the mound, Martinez finished his career with three Cy Young Awards, 219 wins, five ERA titles, three strikeout titles and a world championship with the 2004 Red Sox. The 5'11" righthander ranks third all time in strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.15:1), third in strikeouts per nine innings (10.04), fifth in WHIP (1.054) and sixth in winning percentage (.687). Martinez, who turns 42 this month, will appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time after the 2014 season.
This year Martinez has embarked on new ventures. In January he rejoined the Red Sox as a special assistant to general manager Ben Cherington, and this month he's serving as an analyst for TBS on its postseason studio show along with SI senior writer Tom Verducci. Between shows, and with the same blunt thoughtfulness he brought to the mound, Martinez sat down with Verducci to talk about his career transition, the return of the Red Sox to the American League Championship Series, beanballs and assorted other topics, including Derek Jeter's impromptu, face-to-face pitch to become a Yankee.
A lot of people might think that based on what you've done in your career, you should be off on an island somewhere with a drink in your hand. Why have you decided to try television?
I had too much time not doing anything at home. It was uncomfortable sitting at home and my wife questioning me, "What are you doing?" It's also a good opportunity to explore something different, because I really want to expand on what I learned in baseball. Some of the guys, like Kevin Millar, Barry Larkin, Manny Acta, they all know the knowledge in my head about the game and they all thought that as loose as I am, I would be a person that could do this.
You threw your last pitch in the 2009 World Series. How much did you miss the game that next year, and compare it to how you feel about missing the game now?
The second year [after retiring] was the toughest one because I knew I was healthy and I had been home for long enough. Some teams would call me and [they'd] ask, "Are you ready to make a comeback? We'll give you a chance." I didn't want to go back without a good reason to go back. I had traveled and spent time with the family. Then the kids went back to school and there was another problem: too much time at home. Now my wife is complaining about me being on the boat too long. "Widow to a boat." I pretty much divorced her to go on the boat and go fishing. It was starting to affect our relationship. I would get really cranky because I wasn't going seven hours to a gym and then to play a game. I was just a lazy cat at home.
That's a tough transition for a professional athlete, when the schedule and travel and competition stop all of a sudden and you have to fill the time.
It is a tough transition. I did not miss the attention. The people in the Dominican, they respect me so much. At the same time I knew I wasn't erased from everybody's mind right away. It was hard to just be normal, to hang out in the streets or in the bar or in the restaurant.
What about the game on the field and the competition?
I'm still having a hard time, because I still see the holes. I still see the things that should be done. One instance: Tampa Bay and Boston, Game 3 in the ALDS. [Red Sox righthander Clay] Buchholz makes that mistake [to Evan Longoria, who hit a game-tying three-run homer]. It's not that the pitch was [bad]. It was the mental mistake. If I'm on that team, I'm telling Bucky, Don't let this guy beat you. Pitch off your fastball, keep it away or hit him. You hit him in the leg with a changeup, and he's at first and you save three pitches.
It's a pleasure for me to watch the games with you. It's almost as if the game already has been played and you're seeing it a second time—the way you understand pitch sequences and read hitters' swings and weaknesses. How did you come to understand the real finer points of the game?
[Dodgers pitching instructor] Dave Wallace introduced me to that. I wasn't considered a prospect, wasn't important in the Dodgers' organization. Only to Dave Wallace. I was so small, so skinny. But he took a video camera and recorded me. It was the first time I could relate my mechanics with my arm speed and know what it meant to stay closed. I got hooked on it. I have five or six cameras at home. I love to record what I'm seeing, to see where my mistakes are. I was always into binoculars and telescopes and stuff like that. I was like a pirate. I would go in the dugout and get my two fists together and open a hole and look through it at one single spot. It could be the pitcher. It could be the hitter.
You were known for your great control. So as many batters as you hit, I have to believe many of them were intentional. What would it take for you to move a guy off the plate, and how did you do it?
You commit to that pitch. You go into that pitch saying, I am making a statement here. If you don't move back, you're getting hit. You look at the rib area, turn your hips and toes at the hitter and do it with clear determination. Sometimes you are going to hit people whether you want to or not because some [hitters] don't know to get away from pitches. The consequences after, you deal with. I never intentionally got close to anybody in the head. Because I knew exactly what to throw. It's from your hips to your ribs. That's it.
The times you did have to hit somebody, was it in retaliation for something that was done to a teammate?
Almost 99.9%. Every time I hit someone that I squared up, it was in retaliation for something they did to my team, disrespected someone or someone got hit and I didn't like it, even if my teammates didn't tell me I should do it. I felt like it was my responsibility to respond to it.
The pitching has been superb this postseason. Tell me what you see.
I see the most exciting playoff baseball in probably the last 20 years. Why? The talent is so even. Between Boston and Detroit and St. Louis and Los Angeles no one team is better than the other. That's why the games have been exciting. I love it. It's classic playoff baseball. And in a short series you see the importance of power pitching. You need power pitching to beat good teams. What Max Scherzer did in relief against Oakland and against the Red Sox, Michael Wacha for the Cardinals.... Power pitchers can take over a game.
What's it like to take the ball in a postseason game at Fenway Park?
I've always said, I'm not taking anything away from any other city, but Boston fans are the most loyal fans I've ever seen. Lose, chicken and beer, heartbroken.... Regardless of what they have to go through, every day the fans are there. They know the game. They know when you are a max-effort guy or you are a 50%-effort guy. But I have a great amount of respect for them because of their supportive attitude. They are proud of their team regardless. They are unique.
It must have been really hard for you when you left as a free agent after the 2004 season.
It was hard for me to leave a place where I felt so comfortable. The guys on the team, we had been through the good and the bad ... and then we win [the World Series] and I'm like a black goat. It was hard for me not having Derek Lowe, who I took under my wings from the get-go; Bronson Arroyo; Tim Wakefield, the oldest starter on the team and at the time became really close to me.... We used to analyze each other a lot, believe it or not. One is a knuckleballer and the other is a power pitcher. But both were students of the game. Wakey would see what I was doing wrong. D-Lowe was always impressed, like, "How do you do it? Every day? Every time you come out?" And I used to laugh. He made me laugh a lot. Bronson Arroyo was like a sponge, just soaking in everything we had to say about life or being in the moment.
So how close did you come to becoming a Yankee?
If it wasn't for [Mets GM] Omar Minaya, [the Yankees'] was the best offer I had out there.
Tell me about when you met with George Steinbrenner.
That was interesting. I was a little bit hesitant because of the time he said, "He probably needs to be suspended for a long time."
He was referring to the July 2003 game in which you hit Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter in the same game and sent them to the hospital in the same ambulance.
Yeah, but Soriano swung at the pitch [that hit him in the hand]—I want you to write that. Two days before, Roger [Clemens] hit [Kevin] Millar. Ramiro Mendoza was pitching [that game for us], and I felt like we were not going to make a statement with Roger throwing 98 and Ramiro 82 and 83. I just told Ramiro, "Just pitch your game. Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. I'm the ace of the team and I deal with the situation better than anybody else." I can also match Roger as far as velocity and handle the problem. So I decided to go after Jeter. I tried to aim at his hips and ribs, but then he moved and it ended up hitting him in the hands.
So when you sat down with Steinbrenner ...
The first thing he said was, "Pedro, hi, how are you?" And he says, "My God, you gave me a lot of headaches! Oh, my God! I have a lot of respect for how you play the game." And he kept repeating that I gave him a lot of headaches. I said, "You know what? You guys didn't make it easy for me, either."
Then I expressed how much respect I have for Joe Torre. I would have loved to have played for Torre or Bobby Cox. I ask a couple of questions, and then Jeter walks by. He peeks in and sees me and says, "What are you doing? Oh, Boss, please sign him."
[Steinbrenner] was kind of jumpy and he was like, "Well, I know your best interests are in Boston, so think really what you want to do. If you can't work it out with Boston, I'll be more than happy to make you a Yankee. Would you be able to play for the Yankees, you think?"
I'm like, "Yeah." And he goes, "Would you cut your hair?" I started laughing: "Yeah. You know if I'm an employee of yours, I have to obey your orders."
If you think about all the games and moments of your career, what comes to your mind as the most special?
In '99, that [ALDS] relief appearance in Cleveland. [Martinez, pitching with a back injury, threw six hitless innings of relief to help Boston win Game 5.] [Manager] Jimy [Williams], the last word he said to me was, "Petey, I might lose my job if I allow you to [pitch].... I was told you might pitch one inning, maybe if we need you to save the game. Eighteen to 20 pitches, no more." I just said, "Jimy, you know what? I'm going to try it and see what I can do. I'm going to have to disobey you." And I walked out to the bullpen.
Rod Beck was ready to come in [to start the fourth inning]. I said, "Shooter, if I'm O.K., would you allow me to pitch? Because if not, Jimy's going to have two pitchers on the mound." He looked at me and goes, "Yeah, Big'n." That's what he called me, Big'n. He was old school: "Don't worry about me. I'll go sit my ass down on the bench."
I have never been in more pain than I was that night when the plane took off. On the ground I could handle it. When we got up into the air, it was like a knife stabbing you in the back. It never went away until we got off the plane.
O.K, runner on second base, late in a close game. Who is the last person Pedro Martinez wants to see in that batter's box?
He doesn't get rattled. He doesn't get excited. He's cold, like an icebox. You make a good pitch, and it seems like he bloops it all the time. You make a great pitch, and somehow he finds some area on the bat. I don't know if he's not strong enough to break the bat or the ball does not hit an area to break it.... And if you make a mistake, he will take you deep. It's impossible to make him change his approach or his demeanor. The program that he has to approach you doesn't change. He knew I would come after him. And I don't think Jeter ever thought I would hit him in the head or put him in jeopardy. The most I could do was hit him in the ribs or something like that—and only in retaliation because I have a huge amount of respect for Jeter.
All postseason long, get series previews and daily analysis from Tom Verducci, Albert Chen, Ben Reiter and Joe Lemire, and video breakdowns of the day's news from SI Now. Go to SI.com/mlb