Pedro Martinez was scared. This is a man whose career and image are founded on his cold-blooded willingness—or outright eagerness, in the view of his enemies—to instill fear in his opponents. Standing on the mound, Martinez’s brown, equine eyes go as dead as a sniper’s. He’s long been branded a headhunter, someone willing to use the baseball as a weapon by firing it high and inside at more than 90 miles per hour, shrugging off the damage it might do in exchange for the invaluable intimidation it can cause. In 2004, he fearlessly tossed off the security of a spot with the world-champion Sox to try to rescue the scuffling Mets. Even at rest, laughing and joking with his teammates or reporters, Martinez exudes a steeliness, a hardness of will.
Yet here he was, last October, on a gurney at the Hospital for Special Surgery, in one of those silly tie-in-the-back gowns, submitting his most valuable asset—the thing that had lifted him from poverty to riches, from scrawny little brother to certain Hall of Famer, the thing that made him a star and a man: his right arm—to surgeons on the Upper East Side. And Pedro Martinez was scared.
The moment comes to all but a few freaks of nature, like Roger Clemens. Pedro Martinez has dodged the crisis longer than his frail frame suggested was plausible. But now he is playing out a drama bigger than contract disputes or a mere pennant race. He’s confronting athletic mortality.
Martinez has always been more sensitive and intelligent than the caricature of him allowed; he’s a ferocious competitor, but far more of an artist than a brute. It was harder to see the full picture during his seven seasons in Boston, when some weirdness or nastiness dominated the view: Martinez cavorting with a midget sidekick, showing up for games on his own schedule, threatening to wake up the ghost of Babe Ruth and “drill him in the ass.” But his two seasons with the Mets have been shockingly tranquil. Martinez shrugged when I asked him about the difference last summer—the controversies were a fiction created by the Boston media and the Red Sox ownership, he said. “Ask my teammates, ask the manager, and ask my performance. Nobody, nobody, nobody with a different set of rules gets by on a team. Not all these years,” he said, bachata trilling softly from his portable CD player. “Wakey, Varitek, Damon, Millar, Manny, and David still say they miss me. It’s just that sometimes owners don’t know how to tell the fans, ‘We’re gonna get rid of this guy.’ So they blamed the guy that went away.”
His exit last September was simply sad, and his vulnerabilities came plainly into focus. In Pittsburgh, at the end of a poor performance, Martinez cried in the dugout. A week later, after an even worse game in Atlanta, he called friends and family from his hotel room and told them something was desperately wrong with his shoulder.
Ron Darling knows the feeling. His right elbow crumbled while pitching for the Mets in the eighties. “The entire 1987 season, I couldn’t take my cap off with my right hand,” he says. “I could throw seven, eight, nine innings, but I couldn’t lift my arm up at the correct angle to take off my cap.”
Darling, now a broadcaster at SportsNet New York, was 27 years old at the time, and has spent much of his life in pain, the constant companion of elite pitchers. “We become connoisseurs of pain—is that from Molière?” Darling says with a laugh. “You get in tune with that pain, and understand it, and know where it’s coming from.” Until you don’t: Darling needed surgery. He came back to pitch nine more seasons. But for a pitcher, any arm operation is a brush with professional death. “There’s a relationship between you and your arm, almost as if it isn’t attached to you,” Darling says. “Your arm is your alarm clock the day after you pitch, it’s your friend after a brilliant game, and it betrays you—too often. I didn’t realize how important pitching was to who I was.”
Martinez is an all-time great; he’s won a World Series; he’s made millions. At 35, he could walk away right now with nothing to prove. It’s not nearly that easy. “Especially if you do something that’s in front of the public, at some point you take it for granted: ‘Boy, I’m the shit. People love me!’,” Darling says. “With an arm injury, you realize, ‘I’m really not that special unless I have this right arm.’ You feel almost ashamed.”
The Mets’ team doctor, David Altchek, performed the surgery on Martinez, but the patient called in Dr. Bill Morgan to observe. The former Red Sox doctor had helped him survive other injuries. Morgan—famous for stitching Curt Schilling’s ankle during the 2004 playoffs—says Martinez’s shoulder was a mess. “Pedro had a number of studies done preoperatively, but it really did not demonstrate the magnitude of injury he was pitching with,” he says. “It was probably 33 percent worse than what we’d anticipated. It was surprising he was pitching, period.”
The ritual after such high-profile sports surgeries is to issue a statement declaring the operation “successful.” True in a medical sense; meaningless in the athletic reality. “The surgical techniques today are much better than when I played,” Darling says. “But they still tell you you’re going to be as good as new. And they don’t know.”
Martinez has been fighting for his baseball life in lonely Port St. Lucie, Florida, the site of the Mets’ minor-league headquarters, for more than six months. Most days he’s stretched, run, lifted, and thrown for seven grueling, often boring hours, under the supervision of his personal trainer, Chris Correnti. But it’s the emotional strain that’s been the most arduous. He’s haunted by the example of his older brother and idol, Ramon, a star with the Dodgers who never fully recovered from rotator-cuff surgery. The uncertainty drove Martinez to “dark days” where he seriously considered retirement. In July, he went home to the Dominican Republic for a weeklong vacation but instead stayed seventeen days. He turned to Ramon for counsel, but remains apprehensive. “I’m wondering right now, just like the fans,” Martinez said after returning to Florida. “What is it going to be like when I pitch? I don’t really know. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Two recent starts against minor leaguers have been inconclusive. A Mets executive who has closely monitored Martinez’s recovery rates his velocity as poor, his pitching in general as decent—and his chances of returning to the big leagues this season as 50-50.
“From the day he started rehab to the day he steps on that mound in Shea Stadium in front of 60,000 people, he will have worked harder than any person in the game to get back,” says Guy Conti, a Mets coach who has known Martinez since he was a skinny teenager pitching minor-league ball in Montana. For Mets fans, it’s their 2007 World Series hopes that are on the line. For Pedro Martinez, the stakes are higher. “This is a one-time shot,” Conti says. “If it doesn’t work, that’s it. He’s done.”