He's been a constant companion to this team even when thousands of miles away, even when the team was in first place and he didn't have a single IP next to his name. What's the latest on Pedro? Is he long-tossing? Making a rehab start? How'd he feel the day after the rehab start? When's he expected back? After the All-Star break? In August? When rosters expand?
Accompanying those questions were others — enough other questions to support a cottage industry of Gotham sportswriters. Was Pedro the best trading-deadline addition any team in the league would get? Would he restore the Mets' swagger? What would the Mets do if his rehabilitation went awry?
To be honest, sometimes it got kind of annoying, the waiting on Pedro. Not because of the man himself — he was down in St. Lucie or in the Dominican working his ass off to beat the knife, his own accumulated mileage and the doubts that can doom an athlete in twilight. No, what was annoying was the way the constant questioning gave short shrift to all the Mets had become. Few of us are sold on the 2007 Mets the way we were on the 2006 edition, but this is a first-place team without Pedro J. Martinez — just as the 2006 team clawed to within an extra-base hit of the World Series without him. Pedro was always a mournfully empty place on the roster and in the clubhouse, but to suggest the team was just treading water until his return was to insult the work of Wright and Reyes and Beltran and Maine and Perez and Glavine and El Duque and Feliciano and Wagner and all the other players who have brought the Mets to the brink of a second-straight magic-number countdown.
And yet yesterday was something special, as my co-blogger recounted. Down here on LBI, each time I looked at a clock in the morning there was a countdown in my head that hadn't been there the day before, even with the Mets trying to send the Braves into winter. 9:15 — four hours till Pedro. 11:30 — 90 minutes till Pedro. Charlie Hangley — a.k.a. CharlieH in our comments section — and I spend the same week on LBI, and had looked forward all summer to linking up. The day that worked wound up being Pedro's day, so around 1 Emily and Joshua and I headed up Long Beach Boulevard to their house for food and beer and kind-hearted camaraderie. (Many thanks to Charlie and Sarah for their hospitality — double FAFIF shirts pic coming when I can upload a photo.)
The buzz surrounding the game increased exponentially once we got our first look into the Met dugout. Over the years at weddings I've calmed a few nervous groomsmen who've worked themselves into tizzys over where they're supposed to look and what direction they're supposed to face. This is the easiest thing in the world, I've told them. You just look at the bride. Well, Pedro was the bride. Before Aaron Harang took the field, you could find Pedro simply by looking where the rest of the Mets were looking — and laughing and dancing. Whether it was an uncharacteristically animated Moises Alou or a characteriscally animated Lastings Milledge, one by one they waited for him, and once he came near they sprang to life in a way we're not used to seeing from professional athletes in their never-get-too-high, never-get-too-low worlds.
All very nice, but none of it would have meant much if Pedro had been hammered by Cincinnati. But he wasn't. No, he didn't have his killer arsenal of years past, but those weapons were decommissioned some years ago. What he had left was more than enough — he touched 90, changed speeds and threw strikes by the bushel. Defense and mischance undid him in the first (a Philliesque roller by Josh Hamilton, a bad break by Alou on a catchable ball, a Beltran heave to the plate that was just to the first-base side), but he shook it off and started simply erasing the Reds. Dunn. Valentin. Hatteberg. Encarnacion. Harang. Hamilton. Gonzalez. Griffey. Phillips. Nine Reds in a row retired before a spot of trouble in the fourth on more shoddy defense. So much for the gloomy talk about the difference between kids in the Florida State League and big leaguers.
And then the fifth, Hamilton on second, one out, Griffey at the plate with the deadly Brandon Phillips and slugging Adam Dunn behind him. At Charlie's house I think we all subconsciously leaned closer to the set. Whatever the radar gun showed, however the shoulder is now rebuilt, from the neck up the man on the mound was every bit the old Pedro. Looking in at Griffey, you could see him gather himself and narrow his eyes, his expression not growing cold so much as becoming blank, as if his will had shoved everything else aside. Pedro isn't a particularly big guy — he's got half an inch and a few pounds on me — but seeing that look on his face I would rather do anything than find myself between him and something he was determined to do.
He walked Griffey, I doubt with any particular regret, then bore down on Phillips and Dunn, coming back from 2-0 to get Phillips to fly out and getting Dunn to hit his pitch. And you know what? It wasn't particularly a surprise.
Mentally, Pedro Martinez can beat anyone in the game. We and he had grown so used to this that it was frankly shocking to him and us alike to realize, in those dark days against Atlanta and Pittsburgh, that his body had failed to the point that that will was unmoored and useless. Red Sox fans had seen him annihilate the Indians with half an arm; we'd really half-believed that with no arm he was more valuable than most pitchers. Of course that wasn't true, but whatever arm surgery and rehab have given him sure look like enough to give that will a vehicle to work through, and to electrify a ballclub and its fans once more.
When Joshua is older, I'll tell him about lots of players he's now too young to remember. And when the conversation comes round to Pedro, I'll tell him that 90% of what he'll read about intangibles and “beyond the box score” is claptrap. Then I'll tell him that Pedro Martinez was the other 10%. With Pedro, every legend was absolutely true.