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Pedro’s Bookends

The one advanced metric I haven’t seen bandied about much this Hall of Fame winter is HAV: Happiness Above Victory. HAV measures how much sheer joy one derives from the successes of a given player beyond merely being glad that the player contributed to your favorite team’s winning.

On the basis of HAV, just as by the reckoning of the BBWAA [1], Pedro Martinez is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I can’t think of a single Met whose exploits generated more organic excitement or enthusiasm on a per-appearance basis. I was at his first home start at Shea. I was at his last home start at Shea. I was at a dozen of his home starts at Shea in between and, later, his one-off start at Citi Field in another uniform. Fifteen times I saw him as a Met or a recent Met. Fifteen times, before and after debilitating injuries, it was a love-in. Long after the novelty of “We have Pedro Martinez!” wore off, there was still that extra spark to Shea Stadium when No. 45 was announced as pitching and batting ninth. The wins were extra-special because of who authored the opening chapters. The losses somehow stung just a little less because of who was trying his damnedest to keep the wolves at bay.

The glitter never fully faded when Pedro pitched. Every outing always embedded the promise of that first Shea start, April 16, 2005, a sunny Saturday afternoon bursting with symbolism and expectation and, wherever you looked, people. A legitimate 55,351 were on hand for all the undercards of Mets vs. Marlins: Martinez vs. Leiter; Today vs. Yesterday; the team we wanted to be vs. the team we were sick of having been.

“This is my show now,” Bill Murray is said to have snarled backstage at a contemptuous Chevy Chase when the latter returned to host Saturday Night Live in 1978. On a different New York stage, several decades later, the same sort of bravado was on display, New Breed to old guard.

The Florida box score from that day in 2005 resembles, with hindsight, a Met halfway house. Six of the thirteen players Jack McKeon used, from Luis Castillo to Lenny Harris, had been or would be ours. Al Leiter — who “knew Pedro would do his thing” — was the most obvious among them in real time. He’d been the default ace in these parts since 1998. He’d done a solid job of it, but now he was teal and thus no longer spectacular to us. Lee Jenkins of the Times quoted the sentiments of a fan who informed Leiter, “I love you, Al, and I appreciate everything you did, but I’m still going to boo you.”

Pedro was our undisputed ace now. He was the guy we rallied around. He was the guy whose every move we cheered. He was going to make today good and tomorrow even better. “Everything is going to change here,” the home team’s starter declared. “I have a lot of people and they are going to follow me.”

And so we did on April 16, 2005. The Mets of starting left fielder Chris Woodward (sensational running grab), starting second baseman Miguel Cairo (two runs scored), starting right fielder Victor Diaz (2-for-4), reserve catcher Ramon Castro (walkoff single to beat Guillermo Mota) and starting pitcher Pedro Martinez carried the day, 4-3. “The ball was just exploding out of his hand,” according to his catcher, Mike Piazza. Pedro struck out nine in seven innings, giving up only two runs of the manufactured sort, yet left trailing, 2-1. Technically, the other Mets picked him up; Carlos Beltran and Piazza drove in the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth and Castro’s plating of Diaz made up for Braden Looper giving back that short-lived lead in the top of the ninth.

But make no mistake about it: It was Pedro’s show and it was Pedro’s year, his Met season in the sun. The 2005 Mets were as team-in-transition as a ballclub gets. Messrs. Martinez and Beltran accepted gilded invitations to join good old Mike and the kids David and Jose and that nice man, Cliff Floyd, who was fine when healthy but hardly ever healthy before 2005. With varying degrees of comfort, the key Mets melded into something short of a contender but something more than an also-ran. There was an overreliance on the Cairos and Castros and Woodwards along with Doug Mientkiewicz and Mike DeJean and Eric Valent. Looper was a cross to bear as closer. But all told, it worked more often than it didn’t.

Mets came. Mets went. Pedro starred. He either won or pitched well enough to win. When he wasn’t pitching, he was still fascinating. “Not since Dwight Gooden lit up radar guns twenty years ago,” Jenkins wrote, “have the Mets had a starting pitcher who could bring this dingy old ballpark to life.” Now they did. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. Every fifth day, “We have Pedro Martinez!” translated to a chance to move up in the Wild Card standings. The other four days were for hoping everybody else did their part and waiting for the MSG/FSN-NY cameras to show us what he was up to in the dugout.

Plenty of images depicting Pedro as a Met from 2005 to 2008 are stored somewhere, yet when word went forth that he was officially a Hall of Famer, most of the file footage used was of Pedro in his Red Sox period. In 2015, that seemed accurate. Baseball mostly remembers Pedro Martinez in Boston. Pedro Martinez in Boston is why Pedro Martinez in New York was so tantalizing. Pedro Martinez in Boston was why “We have Pedro Martinez!” was our pinch-us exclamation remark.

Throughout 2005, however, nobody seemed more suited to Shea. He slipped into his Mets uniform and stuck out as the Mets’ media magnet. By April 16, his third Met start overall, it didn’t matter where he came from. It didn’t matter that someday he’d go. He was here. He was ours. He was beautiful that way.

“Michigan,” Paul Simon once reflected, “seems like a dream to me now.” So does Pedro Martinez in his role as Met among Mets. Yet ten years removed from his arrival, one is moved to wonder. Was he really here? Was he really ours? Was he not, in that way we so craved, The Man for us? Do videotapes and digital archives exist attesting to his presence in blue and orange and omnipresent black from his 31 starts in 2005? His 48 starts that followed between 2006 and 2008?

His last home start came in the rain on September 25, 2008, a gloomy, cold Thursday night. Attendance was 51,174, though the announced crowds of 2008 always seemed a little padded. It was the end of Shea. Many were saying goodbye on any given evening. Many other seats were spoken for by brokers who snapped them up as part of some nefarious plot to secure access to presumably hard-to-get Citi Field tickets come 2009. Whatever. There were a lot of people at Shea Stadium for Pedro Martinez’s last start. His last regularly scheduled regular-season start, at any rate. Hope was held out that there might be something more.

His opponent was the Cubs, packing less emotional symbolism than they should have. Chicago had wrapped up its division. They stubbornly played to win anyway. So, of course, did Pedro. The mantle of The Man had passed to another glamorous import, Johan Santana, in 2008, but if the Mets couldn’t have Johan pitch every night in a playoff chase, they couldn’t do much better than Pedro Martinez.

They really couldn’t. Pedro missed a big chunk of 2006, most of 2007 and selected gobs of 2008. His ERA was up by nearly three runs over 2005. Still, on a staff where the non-Santana options were Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey and scared-witless rookie Jon Niese, you’d take your chances with Pedro Martinez.

The Cubs scored twice in the first. They did more hitting than manufacturing. The Mets got one back off Rich Harden in the bottom of the inning. Micah Hoffpauir, who had homered in the first, doubled in the third to extend Chicago’s advantage to 3-1.

And then Pedro, as he did when he had to do, discerned a route to survival. He struck out the side in the third. He stranded Harden (infield single) in the fourth. He limited the indefatigable Hoffpauir to one base in the fifth and retired everybody else. He grounded out Kosuke Fukudome, struck out Koyie Hill looking and Harden swinging in the sixth. By the seventh, the Mets had made it 3-3 and Jerry Manuel couldn’t help himself. Pedro, who had thrown 90 pitches through six and struck out nine — the same number he fanned against the Marlins in his first home start — was asked to keep going. It probably wasn’t the best idea, but there might not have been a better one in the context of the 2008 Mets bullpen.

So Pedro went out there. Felix Pie singled and stole second. Ryan Theriot walked. Two on, none out, the mighty Micah Hoffpauir due up.

That was that. Pedro was done. Jerry took the ball. Pedro left the Shea mound for the last time as only Pedro could have. He waved to every section of the ballpark, covering left field to right field and maybe the Picnic Area. We 51,174, or however many of us were actually there given the weather and the papering of the house, knew he was saying goodbye. We had risen to say the same and thank him for 2005 and whatever else he managed to give us right up to this point in a span of four seasons, all of which featured winning records and viable playoff contention. We thanked him for the 9 K’s against Florida way back when and the 9 K’s against Chicago tonight. We thanked him for choosing to take his business to New York. It was business, him signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Mets when the Red Sox were offering only three — we weren’t naïve — but Pedro made the relationship feel personal in the best sense possible.

We Mets fans take everything personally. On the day Pedro Martinez was elected to the Hall of Fame, we took quite personally the slight the writers issued Mike Piazza. The average Mets fan, if such a creature exists, was probably more insulted on Mike’s behalf than Mike was. Mike will likely get into the Hall in 2016 [2]. The average Mets fan will be at least as exultant as Mike himself.

Pedro intrinsically understood this quality about our essential nature. He recognized the gratitude that cascaded down from the Upper Deck, Mezzanine, Loge and Field Level, and he maintained the presence of mind to return it in kind, 51,174 times over. “I couldn’t pass by without saying thanks to the fans,” he explained.

It was the only wave in the middle of a baseball game that ever made sense.

Because they were the 2008 Mets, rented stranger Ricardo Rincon came on, threw one pitch to Hoffpauir and changed the 3-3 tie to a 6-3 deficit. Because they were the 2008 Mets, we saw Rincon followed into action by Brian Stokes, Scott Schoeneweis, Pedro Feliciano and Joe Smith. The five of them searched for nine outs and somehow collected them. Also in the category of “somehow,” somehow the Mets — randomly represented in their do-or-die contest by Robinson Cancel and Ramon Martinez — tied the game at six in the eighth. The final somehow unfolded in a positive fashion in the bottom of the ninth via the actions of more familiar 2008 Mets. Jose Reyes singled and stole second; Carlos Delgado accepted an intentional walk; Carlos Beltran lined a ball past the diving Hoffpauir (5-for-5 with his bat) and scored Reyes.

Just as on April 16, 2005, the Mets won in a walkoff on September 25, 2008 — the last of its kind at Shea, it turned out. There were hugs and high-fives, but the jubilation couldn’t help but be different. In 2005, we were finding our footing on an upward journey. In 2008, we were barely hanging on to our stadium let alone what was left of good times that had been, in all honestly, not superb. By beating the Cubs, the Mets remained tied with the Brewers for the National League Wild Card. The night before, the Mets had lost in ten, wasting a leadoff triple in the ninth. Two nights before that, callow Niese was lit up. Over the previous weekend in Atlanta, the Braves had taken two of three. For the second consecutive September, the Mets were blowing the division and trying desperately, with Ricardo Rincon and Robinson Cancel, to not miss October altogether.

But hanging on beats dropping off, and a win in the bottom of the ninth is a win in the bottom of the ninth. And when Pedro Martinez strikes out nine and centers your attention, it’s his win, no matter who’s identified as the pitcher of record.

The HAV — Happiness Above Victory — was off the charts for both of Pedro’s bookend starts. Shea was his world and we were just standing and applauding in it. I probably didn’t understand that Pedro was essentially on loan to us for four seasons, a temporary exhibit underwritten by the baseball gods. Maybe that’s why the news Pedro is a Hall of Famer felt not quite as splendid as the news Mike still isn’t felt unfair. We continue to take Mike Piazza personally. Mike’s a part of our permanent collection in a way few who’ve been Mets are.

Pedro Martinez wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, be ours forever. But it sure was fun being an extended stop on his tour.