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Rocket Redux
Gerry Callahan
April 20, 1998
With overpowering performances in his first three starts, Pedro Martinez has ignited the kind of ardor that Red Sox fans once reserved for Roger Clemens
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April 20, 1998

Rocket Redux

With overpowering performances in his first three starts, Pedro Martinez has ignited the kind of ardor that Red Sox fans once reserved for Roger Clemens

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The Untouchables

Last year Pedro Martinez became the first right-handed pitcher since Walter Johnson (above) to strike out more than 300 batters and have an ERA under 2.00 in the same season. In all, that feat has been accomplished only eight times in this century, and with the exception of Vida Blue the other pitchers in the select group Martinez joined are in the Hall of Fame.

PITCHER, TEAM

YEAR

RECORD

ERA

SO

Pedro Martinez, Expos

1997

17-8

1.90

305

Steve Carlton, Phillies

1972

27-10

1.98

310

Vida Blue, Athletics

1971

24-8

1.82

301

Sandy Koufax, Dodgers

1966

27-9

1.73

317

Sandy Koufax, Dodgers

1963

25-5

1.88

306

Walter Johnson, Senators

1912

33-12

1.39

303

Walter Johnson, Senators

1910

25-17

1.35

313

Rube Waddell, Athletics

1904

25-19

1.62

349

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU

Pedro Martinez had seen crowds this size before, but in Montreal they usually were in the stands during Expos games. In Boston the fans were at the airport when he arrived in town, a couple hundred of them cheering wildly and chanting his name as if he were some kind of rebel leader in charge of a surprise Red Sox resurgence. This was on Dec. 11, 2½ months after the Red Sox had finished 20 games out of first place and a long, cold winter away from reporting day for pitchers and catchers. This was all Martinez had to see.

"They were yelling and waving flags, and someone had a sign that said WE LOVE YOU, PEDRO," says Martinez, who had been traded to the Red Sox on Nov. 18. "That night I said to someone, 'I think I love Boston already.' " He loved it a lot more a day later when he signed a six-year, $75 million contract with the Red Sox, and now, three starts into his American League career, Boston's love has only intensified. The city and its 26-year-old superstar already have taken to each other like Rick Majerus and Mrs. Fields.

Even before he moved into an apartment across the river in Cambridge, Martinez was a splash of color on Boston's stodgy-gray baseball landscape, a proud Latin pitcher who shared an intense passion for the game with the fans in his new hometown. "That's why I knew he'd fit in so well," says Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, who also worked with Martinez in Montreal. "The atmosphere here is similar to the Dominican Republic [where Martinez is from]. Boston has the same passion and love for the game, and I knew he'd appreciate that."

As he stepped outside of Fenway Park and into the players' parking lot after the Red Sox home opener last Friday night, Martinez laughed aloud at all the outstretched arms poking from under the bottom of the security fence as if they were reaching from the grave. These resourceful fans wanted an opportunity to shake the new star's hand, even if they couldn't see his face. Baseballs and trading cards came sliding out as well, and Martinez signed each one and slid it back. "It's part of my life," he says. He vows to never refuse an autograph or an interview request and promises to embrace the stifling pressure that waits around every turn for the ace of the Boston staff, especially an ace making more money than any player in baseball history. "He loves everything about it," says Franklin Jaime, Martinez's cousin who lives in Providence. "This is the way he wants it. To him, this is what baseball should be like."

As soon as they got a glimpse of him heading to his car, a raucous mob of Red Sox fans broke into the chant "Pe-dro! Pe-dro!" despite the fact that the game had ended nearly two hours earlier and the temperature was 37°. That brought a smile to Martinez's face. "There was always something missing in Montreal, something that just didn't feel right," Martinez said. "To be here and play for people who eat, drink and sleep baseball, that makes me feel good. I think this is a special place."

It is now. Every fifth day.

Martinez's first two Red Sox starts were on the West Coast, but still they were events back in Boston. He struck out 11 in seven shutout innings on Opening Day as the Sox beat the Oakland A's 2-0. The next day Boston sold 15,122 tickets to future home games. He followed that up with a one-run, seven-inning, no-decision effort against the Anaheim Angels before making his Fenway debut last Saturday against the Seattle Mariners in an April game that came equipped with an October buzz.

Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, who played briefly in Boston at the end of his career, flew up from his home in the Dominican Republic to see his countryman's Fenway debut. Also on hand was Luis Tiant, a native of Cuba and a Boston legend thanks to his heroics for the pennant-winning Red Sox of 1975. Martinez called them "the two greatest Latin American pitchers ever." They were joined by hundreds of jubilant fans from various Latin communities around New England, making staid old Fenway look like a colorful World Cup venue. Many of Martinez's admirers waved Dominican flags and celebrated every strike their hero threw. They only added to the electricity that Martinez sends through a ballpark each time he takes the mound. "He just loves to pitch in front of a packed house, with everyone standing, watching him work," says first baseman Mo Vaughn. "I think he's going to thrive here."

Martinez didn't just beat the vaunted Mariners hitters, he dominated them. With a dazzling combination of velocity and location, and a dizzying array of fastballs, sliders and perhaps the best changeup in the league, Martinez allowed just two singles and struck out 12 en route to a 5-0 shutout victory. In his three starts with the Red Sox through Sunday, he had an ERA of 0.39 and a league-high 32 strikeouts. His $75 million price tag suddenly seems almost reasonable.

"His fastball is probably in the top five in baseball, his breaking ball is probably in the top 10, and his changeup is probably the best," says Red Sox reliever Jim Corsi. "You combine that with a great command of his pitches and just enough cockiness, and you get a guy who can throw any pitch, anytime, anywhere."

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