Friday, September 26, 2008

Pedro Martinez Says Goodbye to Shea Faithful
By Nicholas Stix

(See also: The Tears of Pedro Martinez)

A couple of starts ago, Mets announcers Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez were speculating on Pedro Martinez’ future. One of them thought that the Mets might try to sign Martinez for only one season, but that Pedro would want at least a two-year deal. I wondered what planet they were on.

By tonight’s start against the Cubs, they’ve arrived at the opposite extreme, expecting the worst, with excuses at the ready. The once almost unhittable Martinez comes in with an astronomical 7.88 ERA in his previous three starts, a 5.50 ERA for the season, and a 5-6 record. He’s never endured a season remotely this awful, and if he fails to win tonight, his last start of the year, he will have suffered the first losing season of his career.

In 2005, the first year of his four-year, $53-million free agent contract, Martinez went 15-8, turning around a franchise then in a tailspin, which at 83-79, posted its first winning season since 2001. In the intervening three seasons, however, the 36-year-old Martinez has been plagued by injuries, and has compiled a record of only 17-15.

Two starts ago, against the pathetic Nationals, with the bases loaded, two out, and a 2-2 tie in the sixth, Martinez had two strikes on Anderson Hernandez, who during his brief time with the Mets, was a worse hitter than the team’s pitchers. And yet, Martinez made Hernandez look like Manny Ramirez, giving up a game-winning, two-run single to him.

With Cubs’ skipper Lou Piniella having given his big guns the night off, Martinez has gotten a reprieve, yet one announcer suggests surreally, “Today, Pedro is facing a B lineup. If you’re a big-time pitcher, does that make it harder to prepare?”

Oh, sure. Give me Derek Lee and Aramis Ramirez anytime, instead of whats-his-name and who-ja-ma-wass-is.

Gary Cohen notes, “And Pedro’s struggled in the first inning all year.”

And so he does. Pedro has his usual, disastrous first inning, giving up two runs, including a home run to late-season call-up Micah Hoffbauir, and barely gets out of the inning with his life. His “fastball” is a misnomer—it takes all his will to get it up to 85 mph, and Hoffbauir crushes that one—and he isn’t hitting his spots. He’s wild, in and out of the strike zone. After Hoffbauir’s blast, former Mets pitching star Ron Darling observes, “It just seems like every time [Pedro] makes a mistake in the first inning, they never miss it.”

“Well, the first inning jumps up and bites Pedro once again.”
Although the wind is gusting in powerfully, Darling waxes poetic of Hoffbauir’s blast, “That just turned the wind around.”

Hoffbauir has the game of his life, going 5 for 5, with two home runs, a double, and five RBI. Against Pedro in his prime, the youngster would more likely have struck out five times.

At this point, Martinez is a $13 million-a-year batting practice pitcher. Gary Cohen had the most insightful comments: “This has not been a Pedro Martinez-like season…. You’re talking about a guy who was the best pitcher of his generation, who may have reached the end of the line.” Darling adds, “He used to dominate big games, and big games are dominating him.” Cohen again: “It’s really been a lost season for him, and the question is whether the lost year is his last year.”

And yet, as he has done so many times this year, Martinez finds a way to get men out, and stay in the game. Notwithstanding a third-inning run he gives up, Martinez settles down. His fastball recovers some velocity, getting as high as 91 mph, and stays close enough to the corners to benefit from home plate umpire Jerry Layne’s huge strike zone. He changes speeds on his change-up, from which he at times gets screwball-type action. Martinez is also able to get away with mixing in the occasional breaking ball, and gets through six innings with a season-high nine strikeouts, but also with four walks, another sign of the decline of the pitcher who used to be one of the best control pitchers in baseball.

After the game, Mets skipper Jerry Manuel says, “I thought Pedro had some of his best stuff tonight, but they had one guy that was on fire…”

That’s true, relative to the season Martinez has had, but he is a shell of the pitcher he was in the late 1990s and early aughts.

Even though Martinez has thrown 93 pitches through six innings, Manuel runs him out to start the seventh inning, with the score tied, 3-3. A single and a walk later, Manuel runs out to the mound to take the ball.

Pedro walks off the mound, and as is his custom, holds his index finger at his gut, pointed heavenward, and softly hits his chest. The capacity crowd rises as one to give him a standing ovation, and he responds with a raised fist, and now points that same index finger at them, waving it from left to right, to return the respect to the the entire crowd.

It’s an emotional moment for any baseball fan.

* * *

Martinez is relieved by 38-year-old Ricky Rincon, fresh from the Mexican League. Rincon’s first pitch to the 28-year-old Hoffbauir, a hanging slider, lands about 400 feet away, for a three-run Cubs lead, still with no one out in the seventh inning. Two of those runs count against Martinez, giving him a line for the night of six innings, seven hits, five earned runs, nine strikeouts and four walks. During the late 1980s, as Steve Carlton sought to forestall the inevitable, he was having lines like that for the Twins: Lots of strikeouts, lots of home runs, lots of earned runs.

(By the way, Mets GM Omar Minaya is looking for bullpen help. If you can throw a baseball 60-feet-six inches to one batter per day, he would like you to call him.)

In the bottom of the ninth, batting with two out and two strikes, Carlos Beltran hits a cut fastball over the first base bag that Hoffbauir fails to handle, and Jose Reyes scores from second, for a 7-6 Mets win.

In the NL East, the Mets are one game behind the Phillies, who play their last three regular season games against the hapless (59-99) Nats this weekend. After Milwaukee’s ten-inning victory on a Ryan Braun walk-off grand slam, the Mets remain tied with the Brewers for the wild card playoff spot, and live to play another day. The Mets close out the regular season with three games at home this weekend against the feisty Marlins.

After the game, a reporter asks Martinez what went through his mind as he left the game.

“What went through my mind, actually, the fans, and I appreciate their support, just in case this might be my last game as a Met, or my last start as a Met.”

Another reporter: “Had you been thinking at all about that?”

“No, not really. I’m not even worried about any of that. I wish I could come back and continue on with the Mets. This is the wrong time to start thinking about those things but at the time I left the mound, I, once I was done, I quickly realized that was my last outing of the season… I couldn’t just pass by without saying thanks to the fans and all of you guys for the support [unclear], and actually say goodbye to Shea. It’s been a fun place for me….

Reporter: Were you surprised [by the standing ovation]?

“It doesn’t surprise me at all from the fans here. Ever since I got here, I’ve been treated the same by the fans, and it’s something that I will never forget. It’s always going to be with me, whether I come back or not, the appreciation that they showed for me, the respect that they showed for me, it’s been my deepest impression of playing for the Mets. I don’t have no words to thank everybody that’s been around. It goes from the last fan to probably the lowest security guard, or the lowest employee that there is at Shea Stadium, and I haven’t seen anything different since I got here. I couldn’t pass by without saying thanks for the time.”

But will Pedro Martinez live to pitch another day? He thinks so, but I hope not. Seeing him as he now plays, I am reminded of the frail 80-year-old Harry Truman’s last public meeting with journalists, whom he told, “Remember me as I was, not as I am.”


(P.S. Although I set up the doohickey to enable comments, it doesn't seem to be working for this blog, so if you want to respond to this essay, write me at Add1dda (at) aol.com., and I'll post your response manually. Thank you.

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