A staple of every book I ever read about Tom Seaver and every article I ever read about Doc Gooden in his prime was the testimony of a teammate who said he and everybody else played better behind their ace. Fielders were more confident, more on their toes, just sharper. Interesting to me that the guys who were the best were pledged the most help from their supporting cast. You’d figure the eight non-pitchers on any given evening would commit themselves to aiding those who needed it more, to trotting to their position amid a rallying cry of “Let’s Do It For James Baldwin!” But that’s not how it works. You play your best behind your best.
That’s how I felt about rooting as Pedro Martinez pitched for the New York Mets. We fans played our part behind No. 45 like Buddy behind Seaver, like Wally behind Gooden. We backed him up because he stiffened our spine. We didn’t want to make a mistake lest we let him down.
The Pedro Martinez Show seems to have gone on permanent hiatus where the Mets channel is concerned. It’s said over and over that it won’t be renewed for another season, but I’ve yet to see an irrefutable cancellation notice. Our fifth starter still looms as non-roster invitee T.B. Determined. I’m not sold on any of the contenders and I’m not necessarily buying that the guy is yet in our midst. I really don’t think it will be Pedro Martinez, but until I see him pitching on another Major League frequency, it’s impossible to rule out that he’ll re-air as a Met.
I don’t even know that I want that. All the comebacks, all the setbacks, all the healing, all the timetables…it gave me a touch of Pedro fatigue by last year. The man who once said something about some team being his daddy turned into a sitcom dad whenever our rotation misbehaved: Just you wait ’til your Pedro comes home! When he came home, he almost automatically gave up first-inning runs and dug us a hole. The Pedro of 2008 was not the Pedro of 2005 or early 2006 or even the last gallant month of 2007. Maybe the Pedro of 2009 will truly the one who did Team Dominican proud in the WBC — or maybe those were six spring innings against the Netherlands.
So much was invested in Pedro his four seasons as a Met, and not just the $53 million. Pedro was to be the ace the Mets had missed since Doc was demoted to Dwight; and he was going to be the go-to guy in the clubhouse; and he was going to mentor the young pitchers; and he’d be the focus of our marketing efforts; and he was bringing more guys with him, guys who wanted to be Mets because Pedro was a Met; and let’s not forget the Dominican Republic would be the Mets’ for the picking because if you check the Caribbean on the baseball map, that’s Port St. Martinez.
Pedro the Met promised so much. Just the thought of him, the sight of him, every dispatch that he was feeling a little looser, that another bullpen, another thirty pitches against Florida State Leaguers, another side session under the watchful eye of Guy Conti was going to bring him that much closer to the mound and the stature from whence he held court in 2005. Pedro really was worth it that first year, those first few months. One of the most incisive observations Gary Cohen ever made came in the first revelatory weeks of that season: Pedro Martinez isn’t a diva; Pedro Martinez is a maestro.
Now he’s trying to orchestrate another return, and who can blame him? Conversely, who could blame the GM, Met or otherwise, who isn’t so easily moved? I can’t believe he won’t be pitching for somebody soon enough. I don’t believe he will be pitching for us. I don’t even know that I want that.
I had dinner with a friend Wednesday night who asked me if I’d do it all over again, $53 million over four years. No readjusting the terms, no retroactively renegotiating the contract. Pedro Martinez, would you sign him as we did in December 2004, yes or no?
After a little “on the one hand…but on the other hand” back and forth, I declared, yes. Not to have him back in ’09, but to get him here for ’05 and early ’06 and, knowing full well that he’d disappear before the playoffs and be largely unavailable for crucial swaths of ’07 and ’08…yes. Yes because he — and the pre-Madoffed Mets checkbook— opened the gates to Carlos Beltran and his big-money buddies; yes because he would put a figurative arm around a teammate who needed pumping up (Victor Zambrano comes to mind); yes because he’d wear the orange suit and the second head and then give a dissertation on what went right and what went wrong in a given outing; yes because even in a reduced state, you can still make out a maestro from the Mezzanine.
And yes because we rooted better behind Pedro Martinez.
Maybe we should’ve rooted harder for Steve Trachsel and urged him on with something more supportive than THROW THE BALL! Maybe we should have dug deep down on behalf of Kevin Appier and Bruce Chen. Maybe every slinger since Randy Tate and every lobber through Brian Lawrence would have benefited had we given that little extra cheer, applauded just a bit harder, stood two seconds quicker on strike two. But we play our part like the players play their part. We play it our best behind the best. Nobody was better at bringing it out in us than Pedro Martinez.
Nobody was better at bringing it out in me, anyway.
You may be thinking that Seaver and Gooden and Santana, who chopped their liver into a fine pâté? As pitchers, they definitely qualify as Met maestros. But what differentiated Pedro Martinez from those aces, as well as the less studly among our starters, is the game felt like a group activity when he pitched — and we were part of the group, not just the groupies. We responded to Tom and Doc and respond to Johan because of their great pitching. We responded to Pedro because he was Pedro. I’m not convinced there is anything inherently magnetic about Tom or Doc or Johan. Maybe there is in real life, but we discovered that we loved them because we loved how they pitched. Pedro…there was something more there. I am convinced he is magnetic. I’m pretty sure I’d be drawn to him if he were my congressman, my mechanic, my rabbi. I would just so want to root for this guy in a way that transcended my needing to root for the Mets’ starting pitcher. And when he took to the Shea Stadium mound, I rooted my head off and my heart out.
I rooted for every Mets pitcher who took to that mound, but with Pedro, I was more confident, more on my toes, just sharper.
Pedro knew it, which is the beauty of Pedro. The maestro understood we were an element of his orchestra, a component of his game just like his breaking ball and his second baseman. Pedro acknowledged us in a way the Pelfreys and the Perezes never do and probably aren’t capable of. Pedro would practically applaud us before we could applaud him. He did it that first life-affirming start against the Astros in September ’07, he did it that final melancholy walk off the field against the Cubs in September ’08. Pedro Martinez knew we were with him. He was cognizant of the fans. Others tipped caps. Pedro practically bowed. It was Hall of Fame stuff as much as anything he threw in a Red Sox uniform.
What a pleasure for a baseball fan to root for somebody like that. What a thrill. I’ve sat down and looked forward to all sorts of pitchers pitching for the Mets. Only Pedro Martinez made me feel like I was trotting out to my position as I took my seat.
Whole lotta rootin’ goin’ on in Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available NOW via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers.