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Martinez, Pedro Jaime

MARTINEZ, Pedro Jaime

(b. 25 October 1971 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), baseball pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in both the American and National Leagues and who set the major league record for the most strikeouts per nine innings pitched in one season.

Martinez grew up with three brothers and two sisters in the impoverished, rural Dominican town of Manoguayabo. A sensitive child who kept a diary and did homework in the branches of a mango tree, Martinez played stickball every day using makeshift equipment. He and two of his brothers, Ramon and Jesus, regularly threw rocks across a ravine behind their home to see whose landed the farthest; all three eventually became baseball pitchers in the United States. Their father, Paulino Jaime Abreu, a school janitor, was a former amateur baseball player. Martinez's parents divorced when he was nine, and the children were raised by their mother, Leopoldina Martinez, a homemaker.

When Martinez was thirteen, his brother Ramon signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Martinez often tagged along and carried equipment bags when Ramon pitched in the Dominican Summer League. Three years later the Dodgers signed Martinez for $6,000.

Eleodoro Arias, the Dominican Dodgers pitching instructor, was concerned about Martinez's wispy 137-pound build, but felt he had a big heart. Throughout every stage of Martinez's career his durability was questioned. The coaching staff at Single-A Great Falls (Montana) threatened to fine him if he ran laps around the stadium. When Martinez was with the Dodgers, the manager Tommy Lasorda assigned him to the bullpen because he did not feel he had the size to be a starter. In his late twenties, Martinez made midseason trips to the disabled list, sparking baseball experts to question how long he could maintain his edge as a flame thrower.

In 1991 Sporting News named Martinez the Minor League Player of the Year. The Dodgers called him up from Triple-A Albuquerque (New Mexico) late in the 1992 season, and he made his major league debut against the Cincinnati Reds, throwing two scoreless innings in relief. Martinez thrived in the Dodgers bullpen in 1993, winning ten games in sixty-five appearances. During the off-season the Dodgers, who were looking to shore up their infield, traded Martinez to the National League's Montreal Expos for the second baseman Delino Deshields.

Under the Dominican Expos manager Felipe Alou, Martinez sharpened his curveball, adding to his arsenal of pitches. He notched fifty-five wins in four seasons as a starter. Martinez pitched a perfect nine innings in June 1995 against the San Diego Padres, but Montreal could not score and lost the game in the tenth. In his fourth year he went 17–8, with a razor-sharp 1.90 earned run average (ERA). In 1997 he became the first Dominican to win a Cy Young Award for the outstanding pitcher in the National League.

The Expos had a history of trading emerging superstars before paying them top dollar. One week after winning the Cy Young award, Martinez was traded to the Boston Red Sox for two pitching prospects. Martinez signed a $75 million, six-year contract with the Red Sox, which at the time made him the highest-paid player in baseball.

In Boston, Martinez's signing sparked excitement and an influx of Latino baseball fans. Dominican-American fans brought tamburos (Dominican-style drums), guiras (metal scrapers), and accordions and proudly waved Dominican flags, creating a World Cup atmosphere at the traditionally staid Fenway Park. In 1998 Martinez finished his first season in the American League with nineteen wins and 251 strikeouts. The following season the still 170-pound ace pitched what many journalists characterized as the best season ever by a pitcher. His record was 23–4 with a 2.07 ERA, which was 1.37 better than the next best in the American League and the greatest winning margin in the twentieth century. His strikeout average of 13.2 per nine innings set a major-league record.

In September 1999 Martinez and his brother Ramon were reunited on the same team. Ramon had an impressive career as a starter with the Dodgers, but after he underwent rotator cuff surgery in 1998, the Dodgers declined to pick up the option year on his contract. After a fourteen-month recovery Ramon returned to the mound, pitching well enough to help the Red Sox nail down a play-off spot.

Martinez reserved his finest performance for the decisive game of the 1999 division series. He left game one after the fourth inning with a pulled muscle behind his shoulder and came in as a reliever in game five, hoping he could contribute one inning. With a stabbing sensation in his back after every pitch, Martinez delivered cut fastballs at various angles and held the Cleveland Indians hitless for six innings. (The Indians were the most prolific scoring team in more than fifty years.) Boston won the game 12–8 and took the series. For his 1999 performance Martinez won his second Cy Young Award, this time with the American League.

In 2000 Martinez lowered his ERA to 1.74. He fashioned an 18–6 record with little run support and gave up a total of only seven runs over the six losses. That same year he received the Cy Young Award for a third time, becoming one of only two pitchers in the American League to twice earn unanimous selection for the award.

In the dugout Martinez's creative antics, jokes, and zany catcalls to opposing players earned him the nickname "Pedro Zawacki" (a borrowed surname from Rich Zawacki, the team's physical trainer). Outside the ballpark, he was soft-spoken, read the Bible, listened to music, and tended to a flower garden on his balcony. He also was an eloquent, charismatic spokesperson for the impoverished people of the Dominican Republic. After signing his long-term contract with the Red Sox, he financed the building of a church, an elementary school, a playground, and three houses for homeless families in Manoguayabo. In his twenties, Martinez was the father of three children.

On the mound Martinez was fiercely competitive, with a studying stare known to unnerve hitters. When he delivered the ball, he grimaced like a bulldog sucking a lemon. His remarkable pitching repertoire, control, and ability to change speeds kept hitters guessing. He had a straight fastball that clocked consistently in the mid-nineties (miles per hour), a change-up that kept hitters off-balance, and a knee-buckling curveball. Martinez was also known to pitch inside, in an era when pitchers preferred to paint the outside corner. Opposing teams accused Martinez of being a beanball pitcher, a charge he denied. His longtime pitching coach and manager, Joe Kerrigan, credited Martinez's high-torque legs with a good part of his success. Martinez also acknowledged his long, crooked fingers, which bent back to add extra spin. Many baseball watchers noted his ability to read a hitter's body language.

At the turn of the century Martinez was the leader among active starting pitchers in career winning percentage, ERA, strikeout-walk ratio, hits per nine innings, and opponents' batting average. Baseball pundits enjoyed comparing Martinez's best years to Sandy Koufax's (1961–1966), when Koufax won three Cy Young Awards with a 2.19 ERA and a .733 winning percentage. Koufax often pitched on three days' rest without the pitch count. Martinez maintained a low ERA in an era of bulked-up hitters, lower pitcher mounds, and smaller ballparks. The debate itself is a tribute to the place Martinez holds in baseball history.

A file on Martinez is maintained at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York. Jim Gallagher, Pedro Martinez (1999), is a children's book that provides details of his life. Dan Shaughnessy, "The Man at Ease: A Conversation with Pedro Martinez," Boston Globe (3 Oct. 1999), and Tom Verducci, "The Power of Pedro," Sports Illustrated (27 Mar. 2000), are excellent profiles. Seth Livingstone, "Dominican Dreaming: Martinez and Lima—Two Dominating Dominicans," USA Today Baseball Weekly (8 Mar. 2000), offers more insight into Martinez's childhood. Mat Olkin, "Pedro Martinez' Season Was One for the Ages," USA Today Baseball Weekly (17 Nov. 1999), and Tom Verducci, "Duel Exhaust," Sports Illustrated (11 June 2001), offer interesting comparisons of Martinez and pitchers from earlier eras.

Dan Gordon

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