Pedro Martinez has was one of my favorite ball players, even in his late Red Sox days, and by favorite I mean I knew who he was and vaguely like him, which was something that I could say of barely any Mets at a time when I did not follow baseball if I could avoid it; and this was only made difficult in the post season by an obsessed room-mate.
What I liked about Pedro then was the depressed intensity that he exuded on the mound; his Eeyor-like face, and the bitter concentration that he seemed to pour into every pitch. As someone who was essentially a non-fan, the drama of his persona, coupled with the mixtures of despair, passion, and desire that could be clearly read into his expressions and body language was one of the few avenues that I found open into the game. Perhaps more than any of the other Red Sox, Pedro Martinez really looked like a man playing under a curse.
I only liked him more as a Met in 2005, and while it was partially because he was playing for my favorite team, it was also because his persona seemed to switch from perhaps the most conspicuously sad ball player in the game, to someone who was frequently exuberantly happy. It seemed very much that the experience of winning the World Series, or perhaps more importantly, beating the Yankees, had given him a capacity for personal irony and an ability to take things lightly that he had lacked- he could not have been like that before, and retained the dark sense of drama that seemed to define him as a Red Sock.
The clearest illustration of this came not on the mound, but at the plate. In the ’04 World Series, I made a point of watching the game that he pitched in the Cardinal’s park, because I wanted to see him bat and he did not let me down: he was visibly confused and angry at having to be on the receiving end- he didn’t swing at all, and his disappointment when one at bat ended with him drawing a walk was far greater than when he was called out on strikes. As a Met and a National leaguer, however, he seemed to enjoy his time at the plate- he talked exuberantly with reporters when he recorded his first hit and joked about his desire to hit a home run. One of my favorite memories of the ’06 season came late in one of the extra innings marathons that the team played early in the season, when Pedro and Glavine stood in the dugout waving bats, asking to be brought in to pinch hit.
Of course, this is one of a fairly small number of good Pedro memories that I have from the ’06 season; injuries quickly limited his playing time, and when he did play he was frequently fairly ineffective, getting mercilessly beaten a couple of times. On other teams, and certainly on any other Mets team in recent memory, the injury, re-injury, and injury related mediocrity of a player of Pedro’s caliber, price-tag, and expectations would have dominated the coverage of the team- but, weather it was the frequently phenomenal offensive performances, the tribulations of various starters that they brought in to try and fill his spot, or the Duaner Sanchez saga, there was too much else going on with the 2006 Mets for the Pedro story to really command anyone’s full attention. Furthermore, the team’s colossal lead in the standings, and their continued winning regardless of what Martinez did, removed all sense of urgency from Pedro-related speculation.
On some level, I feel that the indifference that has been forming in the minds of Pedro’s fans and, presumably to some extent, teammates will be as significant a factor in his eventual return as any of the physical aspects of the rehabilitation. With some ball players, the A-rods and Carlos Beltrans, the experience of leaving the team for nearly a year and finding that, in his absence, the infielders could still throw to first and a plague of locusts had failed to descend on the stadium, would be amazingly positive. Pedro, however, seems to have incorporated being the center of attention into both his personality and his game (or more accurately both because with a player like Pedro drawing a line between the two is probably impossible); in fact, he reminds me a lot of the Chicago Bull’s Ben Wallace, one of my other favorite athletes. Like Pedro, Wallace is a ‘special’ player, whose incredible physical talents are almost overshadowed by their passion and competitiveness. When Big Ben was on the Pistons, he was the face of the franchise and his gritty defensive play was the team’s calling card; last year when they brought in coach Flip Saunders, the style of play became more offensive and the attention shifted slightly away from Wallace. At one point, Wallace responded to this by showing up in ridiculously loud eye goggles, which he said that he needed for a clearly fictional eye injury, and only wore for about twelve minutes before getting tired of them. Still, everyone looked at him, and he drew a couple of puff pieces in the local papers, and all was right with the world. Also, he signed with the rival Bulls for slightly more money in the off season.
I thought that a similar set of feelings, the desire to regain the attention of the crowd and a sense of confusion about what to do in its absence, was visible in Pedro when the Mets clinched the NL East. Pedro was one of the first people out of the dugout when they rushed the field; I think he used his connections to be the first person given one of the “NL East Champions” shirts, which he proudly displayed; he sprayed more than his share of champagne. Still he always seemed to be standing a little bit apart from his teammates, and all the reporters were more interested in talking with David Wright and Jose Reyes.
When Pedro returns, his emotional and mental state will be a significant factor in what he is able to do for the team, along with the physical aspects of his rehabilitation. I actually have my reasons for thinking that things will work for the best, but this post has gone on quite long enough as it is.