With apologies to Steve Phillips (the last time I’ll ever say that), the Phillies are a 24 + 1 team this weekend. There are the 24 Phillies the ground beneath Citi Field can open up and swallow — opening up and swallowing Shane Victorino 24 times and spitting him back 23 times before reluctantly sucking him down would also suffice — and then there is Pedro Martinez.
Pedro shouldn’t be wearing a jersey that says Phillies across his chest. It should just say Pedro. Now that he is back in the game, he is once more baseball’s most singular personality. He transcends the team from whom he is collecting a paycheck. That’s not to say he’s not a good teammate. It’s just that I’d prefer he be on a more innocuous roster, and that I’m not going to let his unfortunate temporary condition detract from the bottomless reservoir of goodwill I’ve kept stashed away since last September for the next time I would see him.
Don’t take that to mean I wish his uniform top still said Mets on it. I wouldn’t go quite that far. It said Mets about as long as it could, and I really appreciated that it did. I appreciated the man inside it for four years, even the last couple when we didn’t see all that much of the pitcher we thought would fill it. Pedro Martinez made a nice living as a Met and I believe he did his best to earn it. His Met trajectory would suggest his contract should have been front-loaded, that he didn’t do much to merit getting paid as much as he did after the middle of 2006. He was either injured, rehabbing from injury or pitching at less than optimal levels because of injuries for the longest time. The Pedro who signed for four years and $53 million would have been awfully handy to have had around in October 2006 and the balance of 2007 and 2008. That Pedro wasn’t generally available.
The Pedro of 2005 and the first two months of 2006 was the Pedro we signed, and he was a sight to behold. Yet it’s not the pitching from more than three years ago that stays with me. It’s the presence — on the mound, off the mound, wherever he went.
I loved listening to him, whatever it was he was talking about. Too often it was a conversation about why he couldn’t quite throw the way he wanted or how his velocity or location wasn’t where it needed to be. But it was always substantive and it was always soulful. Pedro Martinez may have been the deepest-thinking, most genuine voice to ever grace the Mets clubhouse, at least as it was transmitted back our way. He had a sense of occasion second to none. He understood who we the fans were and he cared that we cared. He may have been kidding himself on occasion, such as when he decided the only way he’d come back to the Mets in ’09 would be if they offered him a deal befitting his past more than his present (forgetting, apparently, that much of what he was paid between ’05 and ’08 was for the reputation he forged circa ’99), but Pedro, as ever, was being Pedro.
Friday, before the Mets beat the Phillies, Pedro met the New York media at Citi Field. As ever, he was graceful, he was thoughtful, he was Pedro. He evinced no hard feelings toward Met management for foregoing his services while implying sharply that he believes they made the wrong decision. He looked forward to “mutual respect and fun” when he takes the mound Sunday (though given his current uniform and the surfeit of criminally short memories in our ranks, I wouldn’t necessarily count on either). He kept his pronouns in order when he regretted that “we” lost in bad way last year. And he entered my personal Hall of Fame when he referred to “this place,” realized it wasn’t where he pitched previously and, sporting the warmest of smiles, corrected himself with “not this one — Shea…Shea Stadium…my beloved Shea.”
“My beloved Shea…” Somebody put that on a commemorative coin or something.
Last September 28, in quintessential Met fashion, the Mets managed to get themselves eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the season for the second year in a row to the same team, one that was ostensibly not as good as them. And they did it on the final day their stadium would ever host baseball, casting a most sour pall over the closing ceremonies, which took on an air of funereality. I don’t know what the plan was had the Mets won and perhaps clinched a playoff spot. I would assume some if not all of the 2008 Mets would have joined in the Shea Goodbye festivities. Instead, none appeared, except in highlight form on DiamondVision. Each time the image of a frontline Met flickered by, even from 2006, it was booed.
It was a small regret in a day crammed full of them that no then-current Met took part in the official farewell. As with so many aspects of our dyspeptic existence, it was understandable, but it was still regrettable. To watch the 43 Mets take their places around the Shea infield was to think Mets history ended in 2005 with the departure of Mike Piazza. Even if you convinced a couple of them to emerge from what must have been a very morose clubhouse, the atmosphere in the stadium was way too toxic to send a Wright or a Reyes or a Beltran out to represent the last years of Shea. Too many Mets fans hated the Mets too much at that instant to take a step back and appreciate all that made them so passionate about their team from ’06 on.
Three Mets could have done it, I thought.
• Johan Santana could have stepped outside and he would have been cheered. Johan hadn’t blown a second straight postseason berth. Johan very nearly made us collapse-proof just just one day before.
• Endy Chavez could have stepped outside and he would have been cheered. Endy had immunity from October 19, 2006 into eternity, I’m pretty sure.
• And Pedro Martinez could have stepped outside and he would have been…well, he wouldn’t have been booed, even by this crowd. Pedro threw a gutty game three nights earlier and, though he left it with go-ahead runs on first and second, he exited to a standing ovation. The shortfalls of September 2007 and 2008 were never deposited at Pedro’s doorstep. He transcended the Mets’ failures even if, in the end, he couldn’t do all that much to halt them from transpiring.
We said goodbye to Pedro’s beloved Shea without Pedro. We now find ourselves unexpectedly saying hello again to Pedro at “this place”. Ex-Met homecomings can be funny things. Sometimes, as with Piazza the Padre, they can be magical. Usually, however, erstwhile Mets lose their flavor on the bedpost overnight. I’ve stood and cheered truly amazing Mets of yore long after they changed colors and wound up sticking out like the inevitable French fry in an order of onion rings. They don’t have to be John Olerud or Edgardo Alfonzo to receive some variation on the returning hero treatment from me. For example, I gave a sitting but hearty round of applause to Xavier Nady (whom I never much cared about) in his first post-Met appearance. My companion that evening was mystified as to why I’d want to do that. He’s a Pirate now — screw him.
Pedro Martinez is a Phillie now. Screw them, I’ll say, but Pedro…not so fast there. In his press conference Friday, he said of us, “I think it’s going to be great to see them and exchange with them.” That’s one of those Pedroisms he used when he was here: exchange, as in exchange with the fans. When he takes to the mound Sunday, I’ll be exchanging my usual greeting for Phillie starting pitchers for one more suitable toward someone so singular. I’ll look past that unfortunate red writing on the gray uniform and I will stand and cheer for Pedro Martinez.
After that, he’s the enemy and the Mets are advised to hit him at will. But for a moment before, he will be the Pedro with whom I exchanged so much mutual respect and fun at our beloved Shea.
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