Editor’s note: This week, I’m running a week-long tribute to some of my favorite players, stretching from my earliest days to the present.
I was sitting at the bar in a 99 with a couple of friends for Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. It was a Saturday afternoon, and it seemed like a good setting to plop down for three hours with a beer, chicken wings and baseball.
Pedro Martinez was on the mound for the Red Sox, facing off against the Yankees’ Roger Clemens. And before long, there were shenanigans. Pedro hit Karim Garcia, gestured to Jorge Posada to “use his head,” and when Roger Clemens threw a high fastball that came within about four feet of Manny Ramirez’s head, the benches cleared.
And, famously, for reasons that aren’t quite clear, Don Zimmer, the 72-year-old bench coach for New York, made a bee line for Pedro, looking to exact revenge for — well, that’s not exactly clear, either.
Zimmer charged at Pedro, arms aloft. Pedro took one step back, grabbed the old man’s head and spun him to the ground.
Our reaction was primal. “OHHH! YES! PEDRO! HAHAHA!”
There was no doubt where our sympathies lived. Pedro Martinez was the man, a king in Boston. If the king throws an old man to the ground, you don’t question it. You stand and cheer and beg for more.
★ ★ ★
In the mid-1990s, there was a vacuum with the Red Sox in terms of identity. Through dysfunction, aging and underperformance, the team more closely resembled a beer-league softball team, absent the camaraderie. Mo Vaughn was starting to have issues off the field. John Valentin griped when he had to make room for Nomar Garciaparra. Mike Greenwell got old and cranky. Roger Clemens got old and crankier. Add to all this Jose Canseco, Kevin Mitchell and enough losses, and it wasn’t easy to find some unifying presence.
From the moment the Red Sox traded for Pedro Martinez, that changed. It was obvious that he had style, charisma and an insane amount of ability. That much was proven early in 1998 when he provided the Red Sox the ace they hadn’t had in years and the hope that the losing of 1996 and ’97 would become just a memory.
I usually resisted throwing my weight behind a star of Pedro’s ilk. It seemed too easy. But to resist the pull of Martinez’s star was to resist the game itself. He was small, a self-made virtuoso who’s game hung on the torque and snap of his sleight, 5’11” frame. He was fearless, he was determined and he was the last word when it came to command of the strike zone.
The way his fastball, change-up and curveball baffled hitters was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. While he pitched for Montreal, I knew the numbers, but felt he was likely a tick below the elite pitchers in the game — Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and so on. Watching him in person was to defy belief. He was a wizard, holding court every fifth day as he exacted payment from the opposition in the form of arts.
He was a king, benevolent in his treatment of New Englanders, cruel and unyielding to the remainder of the American League.
★ ★ ★
I don’t put too much faith in superstition. After turning 10 or so, where I sat on the couch or which shirt I wore stopped influencing whether or not the Red Sox could beat the Royals on some random June night.
Rituals, however, stuck with me. There was and remains a comfort and a connection in repeating acts when watching a baseball game. Keeping the same living room set up for a series or a week, pulling out a pitcher’s baseball card when he’s on the mound, those kind of pointless acts still carry a bit of weight.
With that in mind, for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, I made sure to wear my blue Pedro Martinez t-shirt every day he pitched. Dumb? Of course, but it was a way to connect to the game, to feel a part of the moment when the best pitcher alive worked his magic.
I wasn’t, really, no more than any fan could be. But it was a good excuse to keep washing and wearing that shirt.
I wore the navy blue shirt with the red 45 that Saturday at 99. After the dust-up, Pedro pitched with fire and fury, going perfect for the next three innings with three strikeouts and nothing hit out of the infield. Whether it was the Gerald Williams game, following a Chili Davis’ home run or any number of less celebrated incidents, Pedro always pitched his best when he was angry, when he felt wronged.
Why did we cheer when Zimmer attacked Martinez? Because after four innings of good-but-not-great baseball, we knew Pedro would be fired up following an incident like that. He was.
It wasn’t enough that day; the Yankees won 4-3. They’d famously win that series in seven games, with Pedro a main player in the drama that included extra innings, a walk-off home run and a manager’s release. But in the moment, it didn’t seem to matter, and there was no doubt that I’d walk through fire if it meant Pedro Martinez would take the mound for the Red Sox.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in that feeling. We were completely behind our king.
This is the fourth in a series chronicling my timeline of favorite players.
Monday: Dwight Evans
Tuesday: Mike Greenwell
Wednesday: Tim Naehring