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Pedro Martinez and the Papacy of Sports Geniuses

From Barry Sanders to Pedro to Stephen Curry, the through line that brings us closer to a higher power.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

We are going to be like this forever. Pedro Martinez was our guy, is our guy, and will remain our guy for as long as we're able to tell anybody as much. "You don't understand," we'll say, lost in the fog of age or booze or rage -- "Pedro was different." Then we will attempt to explain, and I suspect it will go something like this:

Sometimes there are just the guys, right? The ones who are in it at the highest level, artistically, no matter what the field of play. It's easy to compare Pedro to Bob Gibson or Juan Marichal, his idol growing up, because they're pitchers on a baseball diamond and that's cool and good and right, but Pedro's greatness crosses sports for me. The two athletes he resembles the most closely to me are Barry Sanders and Stephen Curry, in the way they combined excellence and artistry to conquer sports that, physically, they may have little business conquering.

It is a convenient analogy with Curry right now, as his star burns as bright as possible. It's a level neither Pedro nor Sanders achieved -- an MVP season topped with a championship -- but it hardly matters. There's no father to any of their styles, but they're still first cousins in excellence. One is in the Hall of Fame, another is about to be, and the third has done everything possible to make it a certainty before he starts his seventh season.

Their genius boils down to this: every time they touch the ball, they can do something that no one else in their sport can do, has ever been able to do, and, quite possibly, might ever be able to do, in their specific way. Battlestar rules apply and all that, but there are few athletes that are legitimate glitches in the matrix. Sanders should not have happened, and may have basically walked away for that reason. Curry should not be happening, and let’s hope his ankles don’t remember that. Pedro should have never happened, but he did, and now you have to hear about it. He's the middle chain of my adult lifetime's sports papacy of transcendent, undersized brilliance.

This is a Red Sox blog, so I’ll skip ahead to the day the Sox traded for him. I was in college, and saw the announcement on the computer screen of the (name drop coming!) kid who lived next to me at the time. I can remember what the room looked like, smelled like, felt like. This guy had just won the Cy Young award and was coming to a team that had made the first wild card round in history (in 1995) only to, you know, lose. At this point in my life this was basically as important as stuff got, and my friend started telling me what a coup this was, but I shushed him and said the Red Sox were my department, thank you very much, and went back to dreaming.

I don’t know what my expectations were, but what Pedro proceeded to do over the next seven years, both objectively and narratively, was nothing short of miraculous. He started out as a tortured genius and ended as a Jheri-curled champion-slash-maniac-slash-free agent. It felt less like "personal growth" than it did like a flowering, and by the time he ran down to Queens in 2005, the withering had already started. As with everything with Pedro, the moment his career began to ebb wasn’t subtle: it was the Grady Little game, which seemed to age everyone involved a few years.

With age comes wisdom, though, and the next year whatever Pedro had lost in skill he had made up for in letting it all hang out, an ideal he more or less nails to this day. The younger brother to end younger brothers, at least in baseball, he finally realized that he had nothing left to prove, and everything left to say. It’s been better for all of us. On top of everything else, let’s enjoy this exchange with -- and this is important, so pay attention -- Sports Illustrated for Kids, in 2001, which I’m cribbing from the Joy of Sox:

SIFK: Favorite color?

Pedro: Green.

SIFK: Favorite book?

Pedro: Whatever.

SIFK: Favorite actress?

Pedro: Sandra Bullock.

SIFK: Secret ambition?

Pedro: I would like to fuck Sandra Bullock.

Five years later, still via Joy of Sox, there was this exchange, with David Buscema of the Times Herald-Record of upstate New York:

Q: What's your favorite movie?

Pedro: Any movie that has Sandra Bullock in it.

Q: Oh, yeah? Big Sandra Bullock fan?

Pedro: Probably her biggest fan.

Q: Too bad you weren't here a few years ago, they did that scene at Shea for a movie, Piazza was in a scene with her.

Pedro: Really?

Q: Yeah, "Two Weeks Notice". You ever see that one?

Pedro: No.

Q: Yeah, they did a scene at Shea, Piazza did a scene with her.

Pedro: Lucky him!

Q: He didn't sound like he felt too lucky. He said it took too long.

Pedro: Really? Well, I'll spend ... I know my wife is ...

Q: You'd better be careful ...

Pedro: Yeah, my wife will be really jealous if I say what I meant to say...

Q: Who are three people you'd like to take to dinner?

Pedro: They have to be someone else, other than you know?

Q: Yes.

Pedro: Sandra would be one of them. (Laughs) I would like to spend some time with [Joel] Osteen, the preacher from Texas. I like the way he preaches and the way he talks about the Lord. ... The other person would probably be ... someone from politics, would probably be Hillary Clinton. She'd be interesting...

To crib a phrase from HBO’s newest star, another Pedro lover: yep, these are my heroes.

Little of it matters, of course, without the greatness on the field -- though it’s a fun thought experiment to imagine the Zimmer brawl today, now that we have Twitter and the like. Pedro generated heat on the mound, but the hot takes he would have inspired would be A Song of Ice and Fire-level insane in their complexity and brutality. Maybe it’s for the best that we got him when we did. Or maybe that’s just a convenient way to look at it. At least this way, I can still feel like he belongs to me, and not some random Twitter dude throwing out a bon mot I could never have imagined in a million years while I sit there waiting for a single freaking favorite.

The point is: for a certain segment of the population, he was ours, and he will remain so. As a good many of us on the Internet know, the king stay the king, the same way an actual Pope is considered no less close to God in death. Pedro is being inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend, but that honor is for everyone else. This weekend is just a celebration of what we already knew: that pure, joyful greatness crosses the boundaries of teams and even sports, the type we'll crown with words until we run out of them. If I can watch Curry play basketball and think of Pedro against the Yankees in That Game, it means, in a way, that Pedro’s work is never done, and that’s good, because I’ve never loved watching anyone work more, and have rarely felt closer to God.