July 14, 2015

Book Review: Pedro, By Michael Silverman And Pedro Martinez

John Updike wrote, "Gods do not answer letters." However, with the publication of Pedro, we now know they sometimes write memoirs.

The story of Pedro Martinez's journey from sitting under a mango tree in the Dominican Republic to baseball's Hall of Fame is long overdue. Pedro, written by Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald, comes more than five years after Martinez's retirement (stats). Pedro will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 26 and his #45 will be retired by the Red Sox on July 28.

Although JoS readers will be most interested in Martinez's insights and memories from his seven years with the Red Sox, the early chapters - of Pedro growing up in Manoguayabo, a small village eight miles west of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, of his signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers and his minor league travails, and his emergence as one of baseball's best pitchers during his short stay in Montreal - are equally fascinating because they give us the chance to see the young, maturing Pedro, and learn who and what influenced and shaped him as both a pitcher and a man.

Silverman paints a vivid picture of Martinez's childhood. Pedro was the second youngest of six children, and he grew up idolizing his older brother, Ramon, who was five years older. After Ramon signed as a pitcher with the Dodgers (the first team to establish a baseball academy in the DR), Pedro would sometimes accompany him to Camp Las Palmas, a 60-90 minute bus ride from the Martinez home. Pedro secretly hoped that the Dodgers would notice him, too. Martinez thought playing baseball for a living would be cool, and the idea of being able to send money back to his parents was even better. That's what Ramon was doing, and so that's what Pedro wanted to do.

It was because of Ramon's success with the Dodgers that the team agreed to let young Pedro attend a tryout in 1987. The Dodgers' rules stated that no player under six feet could try out, but they relaxed the rule in this case. Afterwards, Pedro overheard some of the coaches talking about his session: "Ramon is a superb athlete - this one, he's not going to develop." ... "He threw fine, not great, not terrible. But really, was he anything special?" ... "You saw he wasn't throwing that hard. Maybe 82 miles per hour." ... "To be honest, there's nothing I like so much."

It would be hard to overstate how important those few minutes were to Pedro Martinez. For the first time, Pedro has doubts about the possibility of his success in professional baseball. But it is clearly more important than that. It's a seminal moment in Martinez's life - the day he becomes driven to prove wrong any and all doubters. It's a pattern that comes up again and again and again in Pedro. Any time Martinez is slighted, even the most casual and informal way, he takes offense (sometimes quietly to himself, sometimes out loud publicly) and vows to never forget.

Martinez was a sensitive kid and would often express his extreme anger by breaking out in tears. He also could not always harness that anger and he would act out. However, he was just the opposite on the mound, showing nothing but a cold, dead-eyed stare and a refusal to cede anything to any batter. Pedro had no fear of pitching inside and because of his lack of control early in his career, he got a reputation as a headhunter. (He was nicknamed "Senor Plunk" while in Montreal.) He says he felt slighted and misunderstood because of this: the HBPs were not intentional (well, most of them weren't) so why can't he just pitch like he pitches? Alongside collecting grudges to nurse against various coaches and opposing players, Martinez also fears that if he cannot pitch in his style, he may be sent down or released.

When Martinez believes he has worked hard enough to get something, he believes he has earned it - "I had done my job and done it well. Success was supposed to follow." - and cannot understand when events don't follow that linear course. When circumstances change and what should happen does not happen, Martinez acts out. After an excellent spring in 1993, Pedro appears to be a shoo-in for the Dodgers pitching staff, but is sent down to the minors at the last minute. He is livid: "I can understand now why people snap and kill their bosses". He plans to quit the game and go home. While a reader can perhaps understand his frustration, Martinez still comes across as immature. (And one week into the season, the Dodgers call him up.)

After two seasons with Los Angeles, Martinez was furious (and saddened) once again when he learned that he has been traded to the Expos. All he had known was Dodger Blue and it felt like the ultimate betrayal. (To this day, he has no love for the Dodgers organization.*) The trade to Montreal also took him away from his support system and his brother. It is Ramon who set Pedro straight, telling him the trade was a good thing. The Expos want him as a starter, which is what Martinez yearns to do. Ramon: "This is your chance to become whoever you want to be."

*: Even when he was with the Red Sox, his anger towards the Dodgers burned. "I couldn't stand the possibility that the Dodgers would find some small amount of pleasure knowing I had broken down before reaching 30."

Martinez is shocked by the cold weather in Montreal, but he loves the city. ("I noticed right away that the women in Montreal were gorgeous . . . Suddenly, learning French became very important.") It was in Montreal, pitching for manager Felipe Alou, that Martinez became a star. "I felt liberated living in a nonjudgmental place, and I grew into a man during my time in Montreal."

There is plenty of good information on how Dan Duquette, then the general manager of the Expos, had his eye on Martinez for awhile, thinking he was exactly the sort of pitcher the Expos needed. However, soon after trading for Pedro, Duquette left the Expos to accept a job he once dreamed about having even as a child: general manager of the Boston Red Sox.

With the Expos in 1997, Martinez became a star, finishing the year with a 1.90 ERA and winning his first Cy Young award. However, the Expos could not afford to pay its players the money they deserved once they neared free agency, and so GM Jim Beattie asked Pedro where he would like to pitch, and he'd see if he could swing a deal. Martinez told Beattie he'd pitch for the Yankees, or maybe Cleveland, Baltimore or San Francisco. The Red Sox were "not even on the outer region of my radar". And yet Dan Duquette, down in Boston, continued calling Beattie. It turned out that the Red Sox had several young pitching prospects that interested the Expos so it wasn't long before Carl Pavano, Brian Rose, and Tony Armas Jr. were sent to Montreal (outfielder Trot Nixon was at one time considered part of the deal).

Martinez planned to play one year in Boston and then hit the free agent market. Duquette asked him what would it take for the young pitcher to remain with the Red Sox. Martinez listened to Duquette's extensive explanation of what he wanted to do with the Red Sox and how plausible the plan was. In the end, Duquette convinced Martinez to sign a long-term deal with Boston, though whether it was the GM's long-range plan for the Red Sox or the massive amount of money on the table is not clear. regardless, Pedro signed a six-year contract with the Red Sox for a guaranteed $75 million, making him the highest paid player in baseball. There was also a club option for a seventh season, meaning Martinez would likely be with the Red Sox through the 2004 season.

The overriding theme of Pedro is Martinez fighting against The World.

Early on, Martinez notes, "I have never felt that enough people appreciated my honesty."

Throughout his career, the grievances pile up: "I continued to be a magnet for flare-ups and misunderstandings." ... "I bumped into more ignorance about what it means to pitch inside" ... "just one more time when somebody misinterpreted my actions as being mean-spirited and breaking the rules of baseball." Martinez says he "felt targeted" over flak he received concerning the size of his uniform sleeves and the red laces on his glove. "I felt the league was caving in to complaints from opposing managers, who were looking for any available weapon they could find."

At another point, he says, "I believe that baseball saw me as a threat, a foreign threat" (i.e., not an American). Martinez is quick to cite racism in various snubs and disagreements (and in many cases, I believe he is right). Martinez even admits that part of him suspects sportswriters George King and LaVelle Neal colluded to deprive him of the 1999 AL MVP by both leaving him off their 10-man ballots.

Martinez's frequent complaints about being misunderstood and allegedly singled out by the baseball establishment pile up to a degree that threatens to come off as whiny. Pedro appears to be aware of this. When he arrived late for his start on August 14, 1999, Red Sox manager Jimy Williams started someone else. "I took it personally, as I always tended to do."

After being booed at Fenway after a bad start in 1998, his first year in Boston, Martinez vowed: "From that day forward, I would never tip my hat at Fenway ... the respect had not been there, so there could not be a mutual respect." In short, Martinez believed that because he always gave 100%, he did not deserve to be booed - ever. (He mentions Ted Williams's "rabbit ears", and the way TSW could seemingly hear one heckler out of a stadium full of cheers. Pedro is much the same.)

Concerning the heart-breaking end to the Red Sox's 2003 season, Martinez writes, "I didn't execute, and it cost ... us a trip to the World Series ... The blame was my own." It's an admirable gesture, but I prefer to believe Martinez expressed his real feelings shortly after that Game 7, when he said: "It's difficult for us as competitors to say we're tired. That's why we have coaches."

There is no love lost between Martinez and the Boston sports media. He calls the media's perception of him "ridiculously warped, wrong, and negative", noting that the writers who covered the Red Sox "overlook the good, overemphasize the bad". Indeed, "the media latched onto any slip of the tongue, any hint of divisiveness, any scent of dissent." (Silverman appears to have always been an exception. He often got interviews with Pedro during Martinez's Red Sox career, even when Martinez was supposedly not speaking to the press.)

Martinez makes several not-so-subtle hints that he had to pitch to hitters who were using steroids. He mentions Mike Piazza and Luis Gonzalez as guys "who found sudden success at the plate" or whose powers numbers took a big jump. Pedro says he was first offered steroids in 1992 in the minor leagues, but that no one approached him once he reached the major leagues. He says saw teammates on the Expos injecting themselves. And like all baseball fans, he wonders what his ERA would have been "if the playing field had been level".

There is plenty of background information on Pedro's decision to leave the Red Sox and sign a four-year deal with the Mets. (It's also clear that Martinez would have seriously considered pitching for the Yankees, but he "never got a formal offer" after a friendly meeting with George Steinbrenner.) After his father's death in the summer of 2008, Martinez was unable to fully concentrate on baseball and "began to pull away from playing" the game he loved. "I lost my will to battle."

For all my love of Pedro - this blog grew out of a Pedro website I ran for a few years - and recommendation of this book, Pedro is far from perfect. Many highlights of Pedro's career are given very short mention. There is a little bit about his state of mind while warming up in Yankee Stadium on September 10, 1999 - "cranky, tired ... snippy" - but next-to-nothing about his 17 strikeouts (outside of some play-by-play description added by Silverman).

Likewise, the historic 2004 postseason zips by, as though it was of no more importance than any of his other years in Boston. Martinez's start in ALCS Game 5 against the Yankees - what turned out to be his final game in Fenway Park as a Red Sock - is quickly described. Pedro's memories of the World Series against the Cardinals constitute one page, and are not insightful. The first two games are dismissed in one sentence: "We won a tight Game 1 against the Cardinals at Fenway, and then Curt came back strong in Game 2." All we get of Pedro's masterful seven-inning, three-hit, no-run performance in Game 3 - one day after his 33rd birthday and his last game in a Boston uniform - is some play-by-play of the first and third innings. The account of Game 4 is barely there.

There is also very little about his return to Fenway Park in June 2005 as a member of the Mets, just a brief dig at Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy. And I was disheartened to read Martinez using sexist language (at least twice) in describing the arm and elbow pads worn by many batters as "pussy pads".

While these disappointments are real, I do not hesitate to recommend Pedro.

[Note: I received a copy of Pedro from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.]

1 comment:

allan said...

Jere points out that Brian Rose was not actually involved in the Pedro trade from Montreal to Boston.

I would have bet $$ that he was, but Pedro's BRef page says: "November 18, 1997: Traded by the Montreal Expos to the Boston Red Sox for a player to be named later and Carl Pavano. The Boston Red Sox sent Tony Armas (December 18, 1997) to the Montreal Expos to complete the trade." (Which is the same info as this BP article from November 1997.)

This OTM article has Rose going from the Red Sox to the Rockies at the 2000 trade deadline.