How Marichal and Country Inspired Pedro

By Roberto Salvador Klapisch

How tall does Juan Marichal stand among fellow Dominicans? Tall enough for his legacy to have molded Pedro Martínez’s memory, if only because it was regarded as gospel during his youth. The 2015 Hall of Fame inductee remembers the respect given to Marichal when he was just a kid, and what it means to be mentioned in the same sentence today.

“I was too young to have ever seen Marichal pitch, but I heard so much, it was like he was higher than the human race,” Pedro said. “I mean, if you ask me who was the greatest Dominican pitcher of all time, I would say: Marichal. There is no question in my mind. Marichal.”

That’s high praise coming from a first-ballot inductee in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. But with good reason. Marichal, part of the first wave of Latino stars in the integration era, pitched most of his career for the San Francisco Giants and stood out for his high kick and command of multiple pitches.

Marichal is the first Latino to throw a no-hitter and in 1983 became the first Dominican enshrined in Cooperstown. In an era when wins and complete games mattered, Marichal flourished in the cold and windy conditions of Candlestick Park, retiring with a record of 243-142 and 52 shutouts.

Marichal pitched his second-to-last season for the Boston Red Sox, missing Martínez by more than two decades. But they were both the same kind of towering and transcendental figures. You can’t think of Boston baseball in the late 1990s and early 2000s without remembering who catalyzed the overthrow of the Bronx Bombers: a tough little right-hander who defied the odds on the way to the top.

To say Pedro was a winner at Fenway barely covers it. In his years with the Sox, 1998-2004 — the height of the so-called Steroid Era — he won two of his three Cy Young Awards while posting a 117-37 record with a 2.52 ERA.

A giant by any standard

By any standard, old school or new school, Pedro was out of this world during those seven seasons in Boston. He led the major leagues in ERA and FIP four times each, in winning percentage three times and WAR for pitchers twice. He led the American League in strikeouts three times and K/9 four times, and in WHIP and H/9 four times each. And he cemented his legacy by helping the Red Sox break their 86-year World Series curse in 2004.

Martínez came from the Montreal Expos with every possible blessing — except size. Officially listed at 5-foot-11, he looked far smaller than the average major league pitcher. Yet he could dial up the fastball to 99 mph when he felt like it, then destroy hitters’ timing with a change-up that looked it came out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

“It was impossible to hit Pedro when he was on,” Yankees right fielder Paul O’Neill once told me.

A game O’Neill will never forget was Martínez’s one-hit, 17-strikeout performance against the Bombers on September 10, 1999. Martínez’s only blemish was a second-inning home run by Chili Davis. He retired the final 22 batters he faced. No pitcher in the Yankees’ 96-year history had ever fanned that many. Not Sandy Koufax in the 1963 World Series, not Nolan Ryan, not Randy Johnson.

Of all the great pitchers of that era — a list that includes Johnson, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens — opponents say Pedro was the most formidable in a big game. It wasn’t just his arsenal, either. What set Martínez apart was his fearlessness. He didn’t need anger or adrenaline or any other psychological crutch to rise to the occasion. Pedro had it in him all along to be a monster.

Only, how? While some pitchers are peeking into the dugout after five innings, like Marichal — who once won a 1-0, 16-inning complete game against a 42-year-old Warren Spahn — Martínez wanted his conquests to be complete. Not just holding the other team scoreless but crushing their spirits, as well.

“There were days when the mound felt closer than it was supposed to. That’s when I knew, right away, you were (in trouble),” Martínez said.

Carrying the dominican banner

The inner strength came from two places in Martínez’s past. The first was his pride in being a Dominican, and honoring those who came before him. Among those who Pedro cites are the Aloú brothers — Felipe, Mateo or Matty, and Jesús — as well as Manny Mota and Rico Carty.

“Those are the players I heard about from my uncles and how much they mean to us (growing up on the island),” Martínez said. “I respect them all, but I single out Felipe because he was the (second) Dominican player to be called up to the big leagues (San Francisco Giants on June 8, 1958). You know how teams were back then; Felipe faced a lot of adversity and he deserves respect for that.”

Carrying the banner for his countrymen segues into Martínez’ other motivation — proving the scouts wrong who said he wasn’t big enough to pitch at the highest level or in the most hostile of environments. To this day, talent evaluators favor hurlers who look good in the gym, starting at 6-2, 220 pounds. Anything less and a pitcher’s odds of succeeding become longer.

Martínez heard all the whispers about his deficiencies. He could throw hard, sure, but was liable to break at any time. No one under six feet, it was said, could generate the necessary torque to throw 90-plus heat, at least not for long. Rival executives praised Martínez for his determination, but had already started the countdown to a blown-out elbow or shoulder.

The Red Sox, however, were willing to take a chance. After finishing fourth in 1997 with a 78-84 record, they were looking for an ace to replace Clemens, who had signed with Toronto as a free agent after the 1996 season.

In order to acquire Pedro, the Sox had to give the Expos Carl Pavano. At the time, the big right-hander was a prized prospect; it was a gamble on Yawkey Way. Then again, Pedro had just won the first of his three Cy Young Awards in ’97, leading the majors with a 1.90 ERA while going 17-8 with 13 complete games. But the Expos finished next to last in the NL East and Martínez was growing impatient.

Here was his real test, in the hitting-rich AL East: All Pedro did was win 19 games in his first season at Fenway in ’98, followed by a memorable 23-4 campaign in 1999 that statistically is mind-numbing, given his 2.07 ERA, 1.39 FIP, 13.2 K/9 and 313 total strikeouts.

Pedro continued rolling in 2000, with a 18-6 record while leading the majors with a 1.74 ERA and four shutouts. Measured by his 291 ERA+, a metric that sets that season’s standard at 100 and is adjusted for the pitcher’s ballpark, it was the best year by any hurler since 1961.

How did Martínez do it in an era in which hitters looked bigger than NFL linemen and were pounding home runs at a record rate? Easy, Pedro said. It was like the last laugh, directed at the doubters.

“Every game I pitched, every big game, I considered it an honor,” he said. “All the negative thoughts about me throughout my career — I was proving them wrong. In the biggest game, I felt totally relaxed because no one believed in me. I always happy in those situations, because I was able to say to myself, ‘I made it.’”

Featured Image: Jean Fruth / National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum