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Thursday, July 23, 2009
Pedro's value? He makes a difference

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

To my witness, there have been only two players who made The Earth Stand Still, which is to say they were able to shake a big league clubhouse out of a professional indifference.

The first was Barry Bonds, circa 2001-2005. When Bonds was in the lineup, the pregame blankness or postgame decompressions evaporated, and disinterested experts were transformed into eager first-year composition students, starry-eyed at a glimpse of Hemingway at work.

Pedro Martinez
Can Pedro be a focal point for the Phillies as he was for the Red Sox? Don't bet against it.

The other was Pedro Martinez, 1998-2003. Even in a clubhouse on the West Coast, players would watch Martinez on the television almost as eagerly as fans … in complete awe. At about 4:45 p.m. Pacific time, during the week, the guys stretching on the field would take a look at the scoreboard, East Coast games already in progress, and look to find No. 45 as the pitcher of record for the Red Sox. If Boston was trailing in the game, the news -- Pedro gave up a run! -- would spread through the incredulous boys in the middle of their calisthenics like electricity humming across high tension wires.

When he was at his best, Pedro could transform a clubhouse into a collective study group. They were professionals, millionaires all, but he was playing a game different than the rest of them … 97 miles per hour on the fastball, 80 on the change. Unfair. Inhuman. Would knock you on your keister, too. Guys lying on the training table being taped would crane their necks for a glimpse at the television. Guys leafing through their mail would stop, get up from their stools and take a few steps toward the screen to see what Pedro was doing.

Again, these were not fans, used to cheering the deeds of their hometown superheroes. These were his peers, players for whom acknowledgement of a higher talent is often viewed as a sign of weakness. Pedro was so good he reduced them all to little boys.

And now Martinez, 37 years old, the most dominant pitcher in the game during his time at the top, is attempting a comeback, with the defending champion Phillies, no less. He has thrown 64 pitches in a simulated game and is on schedule to throw again in a rehab start. If all goes well, Pedro could be pitching for the big league club as soon as next week.

Martinez has always been riveting, whether he was the great, snarling wisp roaring through the steroids era or during his bizarre, poignant final press conference as a member of the Red Sox, for whom he was 117-37 in seven seasons. That last moment was following a Game 3 win in the 2004 World Series. He knew it was over for him in Boston, as did the rest of the club and everyone listening to Martinez's wayward drift, talking about his dreams when he was a little boy in Santo Domingo sitting under the cool, comforting shade of a mango tree. Some reporters were snickering, uncomprehending, but that moment provided a rare glimpse behind the mask. He was wounded and tired and, finally, he was human. Riveting.

Pedro Martinez
When he was at his best, Martinez commanded attention like no other pitcher in baseball.

He has not been a truly great pitcher since 2003 -- in 1999, Martinez's ERA was three runs below the league average-- and he hasn't been a very, very good pitcher since 2005, his first year with the New York Mets. But he is, like Sandy Koufax, one of the best examples of pitching dominance over longevity. For voters who like milestone numbers, Martinez has a relatively light career win total -- 214 -- but he is clearly a first-ballot Hall of Famer. In 17 big league seasons, over 400 starts and 2,782-plus innings, he has a career ERA of 2.91 -- even including that 5.61 ERA in 20 starts with the Mets last year -- and has lost just 99 times.

So why is Martinez doing this? Why is he coming back? He is already pitching on the Roger Clemens Plan -- if your body can't last the nine months of the baseball season, catch on with a contender for the second-half pennant run. And after pitching for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic in March, he said he wouldn't return to the majors for anything less than $5 million. But he signed with Philadelphia for less than $1 million, $885,000 to be exact.

Clearly, he has more to lose than do the Phillies, who play in an offense-heavy ballpark that devoured him whenever he pitched there for the Mets. The word had always been that Martinez was so smart, so knowledgeable about pitching, and so tough that he was the one right-handed pitcher who could succeed with a mediocre fastball.

But that hasn't been exactly true.

If you happen to be the Philadelphia Phillies, you're counting on the magic. You know exactly why you made this deal. You aren't expecting Martinez to turn back the clock every day. What you are hoping for is that the legend has enough material left to write a final epilogue, to be the one standing on the mound on an important day during an important time -- September or October against the Mets or Dodgers or (gasp!) Yankees or Red Sox -- when Pedro reminds everyone of what he once was, back when he was beautiful.

In Boston, they remember Cleveland, Game 5, 1999 American League Division Series, when an injured Martinez pitched the clincher, six innings of no-hit, eight-strikeout ball in relief of Derek Lowe and Bret Saberhagen, a 12-8 thriller at Jacobs Field.

Pedro Martinez
Pedro hasn't exactly flourished in Citizens Bank Park, including this August 2006 outing for the Mets in which he gave up six early runs.

It is a fine gamble for the Phillies, especially if Martinez can find another moment left in him, a wondrous start or something less grand but equally electric, like when the great El Duque -- old yet resourceful and fierce -- eliminated the defending champion Red Sox at Fenway Park with three innings of dazzling relief pitching in Game 3 of the ALDS for the eventual World Series-winning White Sox.

Martinez doesn't have to carry a team for a month or even a week, but a championship-level team like Philadelphia could ride a revived Pedro. The pitchers could feed off him, and he could finish his career the way he wants to, with pride.

And yet, this isn't the movies. This isn't a Western, in which the gunfighter dusts himself off and comes out of retirement for that one last score. It rarely, if ever, works in baseball. Clemens tried it numerous times, but was felled by hamstrings and ineffectiveness. John Smoltz is finding it out now. Greg Maddux, by the end, looked every bit his age. The last time we saw Pedro, pitching for the Mets, he looked shot.

Whatever the result, Martinez will be compelling. He is a week or so away from finding out if he is different from the rest -- set apart as he was when he was a god -- or if we are merely witnessing the pride of an old lion being set up for a painful humbling, the one that awaits every man.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.