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Pedro Martinez and the Joy of Baseball

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Pedro's dominance on the mound was one thing, but his joy in the game was everything.

The best. Ever.
The best. Ever.
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Gerald Williams was leading off, and I couldn't feel my fingers. It was early April in Boston, and I was sitting in the wind tunnel of the right-field grandstand, sharing a blanket with a good friend, neither of us old enough to at least warm our bones with an overpriced beer. The sky promised only sleet and wind, and the glorious green of Fenway's wall was muted in the mist. Three pitches later, Williams struck out, and I wouldn't care about my fingers, the sky, or the wind for another eight innings. Pedro Martinez was on the mound, and nothing else mattered.

Williams would be Pedro's first strikeout victim that day, but far from the last. The first six Tampa outs were all via strikes, five of them swinging. Nothing left the infield until a leadoff single by Felix Martinez in the sixth, to audible disappointment. There wouldn't be a no-hitter that day (which was greedy, given Hideo Nomo's debut a few days before), we'd have to settle for the everyday miracle that was a Pedro start. As his strikeout total rose from six to ten to ultimately sixteen, a chant went up after every final swing. "Uno! Dos! Tres! Cuatro! Cinco..." Every strikeout, counted out in Spanish by the Dominican segment of the bleachers. And counting right along, enthusiastically if less confidently once things got past ocho, was the rest of the crowd.

It's difficult to convey the experience of being a Sox fan during Pedro Martinez's prime. The numbers help a bit, at least as a way to start. Of course, every time I look, even having watched the games, I still briefly wonder if Baseball-Reference has suffered some sort of glitch. His numbers go beyond impressive and well into the realm of cheat codes. In seven seasons with Boston, Pedro went 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA, striking out 1,683 batters at a 10.9 K/9 clip. A 190 ERA+ and 53.8 WAR at Fenway Park in the greatest offensive era since the late 1920s. Utter, total, and unequaled dominance. But more than dominance, Pedro's time in Boston was characterized by joy.

To be a fan of the Boston Red Sox, traditionally, was seen as being part of the most ascetic of baseball orders, devoted to sacrifice and mortification of the flesh. That famed Marty Nolan quote, "The Red Sox killed my father, and now they're coming after me," was less gallows humor than it was an article of faith for many New Englanders. It infected everything associated with the team, to the point where optimism was proof that you weren't a real fan. The Boston Red Sox lost. Eventually. It was only a matter of when and how brutally. Wade Boggs could bat .350 every year, Roger Clemens would win 20 games and a Cy. Didn't matter in the end. And the guys writing about the team would never, ever let us think otherwise.

Pedro arrived in 1998 and gave nary a single crap about that. Legacy of failure? Complete lack of backup in the starting rotation? Left field wall brushing the elbow of the shortstop? The hell with all of that, watch this pitch. And the pitches were glorious. Every curve falling to the outside corner, every high inside fastball turning a slugger away in terror, every change twisting the best the AL had to offer into corkscrews, was a reminder of the pure joy that baseball can bring. The moment Pedro stepped on the mound, we anticipated a no-hitter. We didn't expect it, and were only mildly disappointed when it didn't happen. We just saw the possibility, and knew it could happen.

There were dozens of signature Pedro moments, and they're etched on our memories forever. Bringing the house down at the All-Star Game. Turning the Yankees into Little Leaguers on their home grass. No-hitting the 1,000 run Cleveland Indians in relief with a destroyed back and shoulder to send Boston to the ALCS. And those were just in one year, his should-have-been MVP 1999, and hell yes I'm still bitter about that. But really, the purest of all Pedro moments as far as his importance to this city's relationship with baseball was the interview in 2001 where he exhorted a reporter to "wake up the Bambino. I'll drill him in the ass."

Because none of the accumulated shit mattered. What mattered was the game on the field, and the pure artistry that Pedro was giving us every five days. Every five days, we knew the Red Sox could win. And the other four days, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro's partner in brilliance and the man who in a juster universe would be joining him in the Hall of Fame, would do his damnedest to pick up the slack. And perhaps more important than our delight in Pedro's games was the delight he took in them. He was the best on the field and he knew it, reveled in it, and compelled us all to watch. Whether you were a devoted fan or a newcomer to the game, you couldn't take your eyes away when Pedro pitched.

Boston was, to put it politely, an imperfect fit for Pedro Martinez. A young Dominican pitcher with the arrogance of pure talent, in a city not known for its friendliness to anyone not plausibly from Savin Hill. And indeed he took more than a pitcher of his skill might otherwise have. Still does, in fact, given the response of our local talk radio luminaries to his Hall of Fame election. And still it didn't matter. The talent, the charisma, the sheer force of his presence commanded the respect and eventually love of the fans. Five thousand Irish guys from Southie chanted in Spanish for a skinny dude from the Dominican on a cold day in April. That is not a normal occurrence, but then Pedro made a habit of making the amazing commonplace.

That roar, that immense exultation knowing that our guy is kicking ass. That is Pedro's legacy. The knowledge that baseball is fun. That even if your team loses, you've seen something great, and maybe even extraordinary. That his last year here ended with the first championship in 86 years is oddly less important to me, although that's clearly biased by three titles in a decade. Pedro didn't need a title to cement his legacy here, and yet he still got one.

If you want to truly appreciate the legacy of Pedro Martinez, think of the joy that springs from a Papi bat flip, or the memory of Pap dancing about after a save. Think of the cheer that rises out of you when Pedey lays out for a liner, or Koji threads that last pitch. JBJ hitting the wall, Mookie turning a groundout into a double, everyone tweeting SHANF after a routine double. The beautiful, inexplicable happiness that comes from seeing talent on a baseball field, with no worry that it's meaningless, or not done how Stan Musial would have done it.

Pedro Martinez was an absolute marvel on the mound, and every start brought joy to houses from Bar Harbor to Boston to Burlington. That's what matters. The plaque in Cooperstown is terrific, and well-earned. The starts, the duende, the celebration. That's what each of us can carry forever. Gracias para todos, Pedro. You reminded us that baseball, whatever else surrounds it, is a game of beauty, talent, and perfect joy.