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Armed, Yes, But Dangerous?

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Now it’s Martinez’s turn. Things look immediately brighter and weirder. It’s blustery out, so Martinez, gardener and cockfighting enthusiast, breaks into a mournful version of Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.” He only knows the title line. “Against the wind, against the wind,” he sings atonally.

On the mound, Martinez flings off his cap and waves for the pitcher’s cage—in place to prevent $13 million-a-year pitchers from being disabled by line drives—to be removed.

“C’mon, there’s no crying in baseball, let’s play baseball,” he says. As he warms up, Wilpon gingerly steps on a riser behind the backstop for a better look. His bodyguard, derisively known as his manservant among Mets observers, lurks a few feet behind him in a loud shirt and loafers without socks. Even with the acquisition of Santana, a Martinez bull-pen session is an all-hands-on-deck franchise priority. Willie Randolph arrives to watch as Martinez works easily, throwing mostly breaking pitches. “We got game, we got game!” he shouts to no one in particular. For twenty or so pitches, Martinez expertly works his pitches up and down and all around the strike zone.

Then Mets spare part Jose Valentin steps into the batter’s box. Martinez launches five erratic but crisp fastballs, then a ridiculous curve. Valentin reflexively bends his knees while his backside bails out of the box.

Wilpon gently taunts Valentin. “Jose, you could move in a little.”

Valentin laughs and says, “Nah, that’s Pedro Martinez. He throws the hee-haw.” Valentin makes the motion of a ball coming into his rib cage. “No way.”

His work complete, Martinez saunters off as John Denver sings on the PA, “Life ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle.” Peterson shakes his hand.

“Great pitching, Pedro,” says Peterson.

“Don’t call me Pedro,” chides Martinez. “Call me Picasso.”

“Okay, Pablo,” says Peterson with a smile.

Actually, Peterson thinks Martinez now pitches like a first-rate forger. “When he was young, he’d pitch a Pedro,” explains Peterson. A Pedro was characterized by thirteen or fourteen strikeouts, many on Martinez’s rising fastball. “Now he may pitch a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh, whatever he needs.”

What Peterson is saying without saying it is that post–shoulder surgery, Martinez has to rely on guile and adapting his stuff to each batter’s weakness. Before his rotator-cuff tear, Martinez’s “out pitch” was a virtually unhittable fastball thrown at 95 mph. That’s gone now. In his September comeback, the radar gun never broke 90. So he throws curves and changeups, sneaking in his not-quite-fastball when batters aren’t expecting it.

Martinez has always been a proud and eccentric man, and the transition from power pitcher to crafty veteran is a touchy subject with him. After one practice, reporters asked him about his pitches’ topping out in the mid-eighties. He answered politely, but as the throng started to drift away, he said to no one in particular, “Let me ask you a question. Why is everyone so hung up on my velocity? I can name you ten guys in the minor leagues who hit 95. Guess what? They’re still in the minor leagues.” He squirted moisturizer on his hand from a container in his locker with the word pedro taped across the top. “You know when I’m happy? When I strike out a guy with a 78-mile-an-hour changeup.”

He has a point. “Even when he had that 95-mile-an-hour fastball, he pitched like a junkball artist moving the ball up and down, inside and out,” a former pitcher told me. “He always had a plan on how to set up batters, even when he was young.” Ron Darling, the former Mets pitcher who is now a broadcaster for the team, urged me to watch on video the six innings of no-hit ball Martinez pitched against a tough Indians lineup back in the 1999 playoffs. “His shoulder was killing him, he had nothing on the ball, and they still couldn’t touch him,” said Darling.

A few mornings later, it was Martinez’s turn to throw again. Afterward, he was in a melancholy mood. Sitting in a practice-field dugout not far from his black Aston Martin, which occupies a better parking space than Minaya’s or Randolph’s car, he talked fatalistically about what he had left. When I asked him about his rehabbed shoulder, he was succinct. “It feels really good,” said Martinez, trying not to sound too hopeful. “If it goes, I’m done. No more rehab.” He gave a sad half-smile. “It makes my life easier. You just go out there, leave it all out there, and hand yourself to God and see what happens.”

As spring training droned on, the Mets’ everyday lineup looked increasingly suspect. The open secret of the Minaya-built Mets is that, with the exception of Reyes and David Wright, their offense is now as old as dirt. In the off-season, Minaya re-signed rickety-kneed second-baseman Luis Castillo and chronically injured Moises Alou in two potentially Isiahesque moves. (Alou didn’t disappoint: He’s out until perhaps June with a hernia.) Loudmouth catcher Paul Lo Duca was shuttled out for weak-hitting nice guy Brian Schneider, one of Omar’s boys from his days as a Montreal Expos executive. Meanwhile, center-fielder Carlos Beltran made a slow comeback from knee surgeries, and then the slump-ridden Delgado missed a week after a shattered bat gashed his right arm. The team seemed scarily perched on a precipice; it could lose 90 games just as easily as win the National League East.

With their offense a series of question marks, the Mets’ pitching becomes ever more crucial. The relief corps, headed by Wagner, returns largely intact. The bull pen was a team strength for most of 2007, until it broke down under the weight of too many fifth-inning bailouts. The addition of Santana and a healthy Martinez could eliminate that problem.

There have been some signs of hope. By late March, Martinez flirted with the low nineties on the radar gun. After he shut down the Detroit Tigers for four innings, catcher Ramon Castro gushed, “His fastball has that late move, where it goes whoosh and goes up. It didn’t have that rise last year.”

Martinez’s buddy El Duque’s future has looked less promising. On March 23, Hernandez finally made it into a spring-training game and gave up five runs in three innings. Minus the leg kick, he looked like a gunslinger without a gun. But El Duque caught a break. Mike Pelfrey, his possible replacement, followed him and stunk even more, giving up eight runs in four and a third innings. Pelfrey will likely keep Hernandez’s seat warm for a couple of April starts while the Cuban stays in Port St. Lucie and looks for his misplaced mojo. If he doesn’t find it, Minaya will have to make a trade; there’s nothing but cannon fodder at Triple-A.

Fittingly, it was El Duque who inadvertently created this team’s rallying cry. After a bull-pen session, Hernandez was asked if his new windup would be effective. He grinned broadly. “I don’t know,” he said. He then thrust his broad hands over his head and interlocked the fingers. “Everyone cross your fingers!”


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