If there’s one athlete who rivaled Michael Jordan’s ability to hold grudges, it was Pedro Martinez. In interviews, Martinez has spoken candidly about how the Los Angeles Dodgers — and especially manager Tommy Lasorda — didn’t believe in him because he was a paper-thin and paper-light 5-foot-10, 146 pounds when he entered the majors. He’s been open about how he felt Joe Kerrigan, the Expos pitching coach, didn’t properly support him as he worked through command issues early in his career. And he’s had no problem calling out the many, many players, writers, and announcers who accused him of being an unabashed headhunter.
As Martinez stepped to the stage in Cooperstown on Sunday, we couldn’t rule out a 23-minute, scorched-earth offensive similar to the one Jordan delivered for his Hall of Fame speech back in 2009.1 It turns out, though, that Lasorda, Kerrigan, & Co. had no need to fear.
Let us not forget: Jordan called out Bryon Russell, George Gervin, and Isiah Thomas — all of whom were at his induction.
Once he was in front of the mic, Pedro mostly steered clear of any talk of retribution. Outside of a well-placed quip or two, he regaled the crowd with a heartfelt speech filled with shout-outs to his native Dominican Republic. He talked about his fellow nominees and lovingly referred to Randy Johnson as such: “The Big Unit. My brother from another mother.” This was a moment to celebrate, and Pedro was the beaming figure at the center of it all. Even though I was surrounded by hundreds of other media members, I felt like I should cheer.
Over the weekend, Tommy Harper, the first MLB infielder to put up a 30-30 season and a longtime coach and instructor who’s been in the game more than 50 years, told me about seeing Martinez for the first time. It was 1993, when Harper was coaching for the Expos and Pedro was a rookie with Los Angeles. The young righty made easy work of All-Star center fielder Marquis Grissom, who walked back to the Montreal dugout, shaking his head. Hey Grip, Harper said, you gonna let a mop-up man do that to you?
As hard as it might be to believe now, Martinez started just two games in his first full season in the majors. He put up big numbers: 107 innings pitched, 119 strikeouts, 76 hits, and five homers allowed. And his killer repertoire was there from the start: the 97 mph fastball that exploded as it reached the plate, the hammer curve that made your knees buckle, and the changeup that would become, along with Randy Johnson’s slider and Mariano Rivera’s cutter, one of the greatest pitches of his generation. Yet Lasorda and others in the Dodgers organization didn’t believe Pedro’s slight frame could withstand the rigors of pitching in a starting rotation.
At season’s end, then–Expos GM Dan Duquette acquired Pedro in exchange for 24-year-old second baseman Delino DeShields. The Montreal media howled. DeShields was growing into one of the most dynamic infielders in the league, but he was also due for a substantial raise, which critics claimed as the lone reason for the trade. Columnist Michael Farber wrote that it was “one of those trades that gives Montreal baseball fans a sick feeling in their stomach.” He then went on to add: “The deal was rotten to the core.”
Oh, how wrong that would turn out to be.
From the moment Expos skipper Felipe Alou met Pedro, he relayed a clear message: There would be no relief work and no second-guessing of Martinez’s abilities. He was a member of the Expos rotation, and he wasn’t going anywhere.
Pedro’s second start as an Expo — only the fifth of his career — justified that faith. On April 13, 1994, he fired 7.1 perfect innings against the Reds, gunning fastballs at the inside corner to freeze trembling batters, then finishing them off with that lethal curve and unhittable change. There was one notable blip, though: Against the second batter of the eighth inning, Pedro missed inside with a fastball and hit Reggie Sanders in the shoulder. The pair had exchanged words earlier in the game after Martinez brushed Sanders back, but it’s doubtful Martinez plunked Sanders intentionally: He was five outs from a perfect game. Unimpressed by that logic, the Cincinnati outfielder charged the mound anyway.
That mid-April start serves as a good microcosm of Pedro’s early existence with the Expos: flashes of dominance mixed with bouts of occasional wildness, all colored by widespread accusations of head-hunting.
As Martinez gained experience, though, his location improved and his dominance became more common. On June 3, 1995, he tossed nine perfect innings against the Padres, only to lose the perfecto when the scoreless game went to extras and Bip Roberts broke it up with a leadoff double in the 10th.
From there, Pedro didn’t look back. He struck out 222 batters in 216.2 innings in 1996, making his first All-Star team and emerging as one of the best non–Greg Maddux pitchers in the league. In 1997, he blew past Atlanta’s ace and everyone else, en route to winning the first of three Cy Young Awards. He led the league with a 1.90 ERA and posted two numbers that looked like relics from the days of four-man rotations: 13 shutouts and 305 strikeouts.
Like every other Expo of that era, he wasn’t going to stick around long. After the ’97 season, broke and incompetent ownership decided it could no longer afford the most electric pitcher in franchise history, and Duquette, then the GM with Boston, swooped in yet again. The Expos got Tony Armas and Carl Pavano, two talented young right-handers who would fail to live up to potential due to injuries. The Red Sox, of course, got a player who would achieve Boston immortality, taking his place in the city’s sports lore alongside Russell, Orr, and Bird.
As Bill Simmons raved about many times in the past, Pedro’s Red Sox years were transcendent, and seeing him at Fenway in his Boston prime became a near-religious experience. As impressive as Sandy Koufax, Maddux, Johnson, and other all-time greats were in their prime, no pitcher in baseball history was better at the height of his power than Pedro was in 1999 and 2000. In those two seasons, he ran a 1.90 ERA across 430.1 innings, struck out 597 (?!?!) batters, walked 69, and allowed just 288 hits and 26 home runs. Remember: This came during the heart of the PED era. Pedro’s league-adjusted ERA in 2000 was the best by any starting pitcher in 120 years. And by fielding-independent-based Wins Above Replacement, Pedro’s 1999 season was the best by any pitcher ever.
Try to identify the highlight from Boston-era Pedro and you’ll struggle:
• His 17-strikeout one-hitter against a loaded Yankees team: It was the best performance of his career, and one of the best by anyone ever.
• His five strikeouts in two innings against a murderers’ row — Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell — at the ’99 All-Star Game: For baseball fans, this video is a high-powered drug.
• His spectacular relief outing in Game 5 of the ’99 ALDS against the Indians: Despite fighting a shoulder injury and, as he told me last year, never feeling the same afterward, he was so, so good.
Honestly, when it comes to the specifics of the legend of Pedro, we could keep going and going. The long fingers that bent in a way human fingers shouldn’t bend, enabling him to perform all kinds of sorcery on baseballs. The magnetic personality and give-no-effs mentality that made him a wildly entertaining quote machine. But what stands out the most is that ineffable, intoxicating feeling that rose up every time he took the mound.
Jeff Carlick/MLB Photos/Getty Images
When the Red Sox broke one of the most infamous droughts in sports history in 2004, a reporter shoved a microphone in front of Pedro’s face. Soaked with champagne, beaming from playing a major role in an unforgettable championship run, Martinez was asked for his thoughts. In that gleeful moment for Red Sox Nation and for the sport as a whole, these were the first words out of Pedro’s mouth:
“I would like to share this with the people of Montreal, who are not going to have a team anymore. But my heart [Derek Lowe dumps an entire Gatorade bucket on his head.] and my ring are with them too.”
On Saturday night, I led a group of nine jersey- and cap-clad Expos fans who were sort of invited/sort of crashed a fancy Red Sox party in Pedro’s honor. He was going into the Hall as a member of the Sox, and so we all stood there sheepishly as Boston executives, commissioner Rob Manfred, and other dignitaries in suits talked among themselves. Suddenly, Pedro pointed to my buddy Dave, who was standing 20 feet away and wearing an old Expos Rusty Staub jersey.
“Bienvenue, mes amis!” Pedro yelled, motioning for all of us to come over. For almost every day of every year, I will write and report objectively on baseball, but for one night, all decorum and protocol were lost.
I am a Pedro fan. And Pedro, even after everything he’s done in baseball and all he’s accomplished in life, is a Montreal Expos fan. He speaks gracefully about his proud heritage, and isn’t afraid to speak with nuance about controversial subjects such as how Hall voters should treat PED users, but he also shares his love for a team that no longer exists, a city that remembers him vividly, and a fan base that so rarely gets a chance to cheer anymore.
Sure, over his 18 years in the big leagues, that continent-size chip on his shoulder revealed itself in the form of a sometimes arrogant, always combative attitude, but Pedro’s appeal never quite soured. Despite incidents like the run-in with Don Zimmer and the constant chatter about his overly aggressive approach, his own, obvious joie de vivre always managed to shine through.
Maddux, Johnson, and a few others carry more impressive overall résumés — Pedro’s career WAR of 84 leaves him tied for 54th all time — so Martinez can’t quite claim MJ’s G.O.A.T. status, even if they did share that same inner drive to crush everyone who got in their way. But as he takes his place among baseball’s legends, there’s one thing I can say for certain: There might be better pitchers, but there will never be another Pedro.
Other Sights and Sounds From Cooperstown
The Saturday afternoon of induction weekend is a big party on Main Street. In a span of two hours, I met Gary Carter’s son (who looks just like his dad), watched Pedro’s extended family walk by (Ramon still looks like he could pitch), and ended up standing next to John Rocker (who was on his way to a booth where he was selling T-shirts that read “Speak English”). Later in the day, I met Ric Flair, and as I spoke with the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be, all I could hear was, “WOOOOOOOOOOOO!”
I also met Dr. Michael Schwartz, an orthopedic surgeon from Kings Park, Long Island, who works with the Hofstra University athletic department, the New York Islanders, and other athletes. In his throwback Koufax jersey and with his son Luke (Dodgers cap, NL All-Star jersey) by his side, Schwartz told me that he grew up with Craig Biggio, playing on the same Little League and high school football teams as the Hall of Famer.
“He was the fastest kid I’d ever met in my life,” Schwartz said. “We played that game, ‘Kill the guy with the ball,’ which was popular in the ’70s — the one where someone would have the ball, run around the field, and you had to tackle him. He was the guy who no one could ever catch.”
Schwartz and I chatted for a few more minutes. Then he unveiled the pièce de résistance: a picture from his 1971 kindergarten class.
See the second kid from the left, in the second row? That’s Schwartz. Immediately to his right, the blond kid, mouth agape, in the brown jacket and tie? That’s 6-year-old Craig Biggio.
Ranking the Class of 2015
This is a phenomenal group of inductees. In addition to Pedro, you’ve got arguably the best left-handed pitcher of all time, a righty who dominated as both a starter and a closer for close to 20 years, and a player who excelled at three different up-the-middle positions and was dubbed by Bill James as the second-best player of the 1990s.2
I wouldn’t have Biggio quite that high, but his well-rounded game made him a worthy inductee — even if he never would have spent those last couple of years limping to 3,000 hits.
This quartet’s greatness got me thinking: Where does Martinez–Johnson–John Smoltz–Biggio rank among the best induction classes of all time? Here’s my top five, ranked by a combination of Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement and a dash of subjective criteria:3
We’re including only BBWAA-voted players, so everyone inducted from 1936 or later.
5. 1947 (293.6 WAR): If Johnson isn’t the best left-handed pitcher of all time, Lefty Grove is. Mickey Cochrane, Carl Hubbell, and Frankie Frisch offer impressive company.
4. 1955 (262.9 WAR): The first three — Dazzy Vance, Gabby Hartnett, and Ted Lyons — are reasonable inductees, though not necessarily inner-circle ones. But when Joe DiMaggio’s in your class, you’re going to get a big boost.
3. 1982 (249.8 WAR): This is a two-man class, so it lags behind some others based on WAR alone, but it makes up for the lower win number with loads of historical import. Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were not only two of the 15 best position players of all time, they were also pioneers who followed Jackie Robinson in evolving the game beyond its lily-white past.
2. 2015 (320.7 WAR): Given the number of terrific candidates inducted over the past two years and voters’ continued resistance toward recognizing even suspected PED users, we might not see a class to match Martinez, Johnson, Smoltz, and Biggio for a long time.
1. 1936 (712.4 WAR): When you’re inducting the first class, you’ve got decades’ worth of greatness to honor. So while this class might deserve an asterisk, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner will never be topped. Not even by Pedro.