P. Martinez rise yields hope for O's

June 05, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

BOSTON -- Pedro Martinez once was a bigger outcast than Armando Benitez. He repeatedly hit batters, triggered brawls, faced charges that he was a headhunter. But those days are long gone for a pitcher who last season won the National League Cy Young Award.

Benitez, 25, is only a year younger than Martinez, but his own manager called him "very immature" after he hit Tino Martinez on May 19, prompting a brawl between the Orioles and Yankees. Maybe he'll never achieve lasting major-league success. But judging from the evolution of Pedro Martinez, maybe there's hope.

Martinez certainly sees it that way, and he told his fellow Dominican as much before Wednesday's series opener between the Orioles and Boston Red Sox. The two spoke at length while the Orioles took batting practice, Martinez doing most of the talking, Benitez and teammate Nerio Rodriguez listening.

"He's so young," Martinez said later. "There's so much he still has to learn. It seems obvious that he hit him on purpose. But we might be all wrong. We don't know. All we can do is hope for him to control his attitude and his temper and, hopefully, prove everyone wrong."

"How many times did I hit people, not on purpose, and have them charge the mound and tag me as a headhunter?" Martinez continued. "Now, all of a sudden, all that has disappeared. I have proven them wrong."

"The only thing I would say is, 'Do not quit pitching inside.' That's where he's going to make his living. As a stopper, he's going to need to do it even more."

That is, if the Orioles allow Benitez to develop. It was good news that they avoided trading him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Hideo Nomo, a right-handed starter who turns 30 on Aug. 31 and is in his third straight season of statistical decline.

If the Orioles want to trade Benitez, they should A) wait for him to rebuild his market value and B) acquire a similar young talent in return. For all his problems, Benitez still throws nearly 100 mph. He was too valuable to trade for a fading veteran, and Nomo went to the New York Mets.

Those closest to Benitez believe not only that he will recover from the Tino Martinez incident, but also that it could prove the turning point of his career. That analysis might be too rosy, but Benitez has pitched well since his eight-game suspension, converting both his save chances and allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings.

"He's a little bit embarrassed," Pedro Martinez said. "Knowing Armando, how he is, he feels bad with the team. Anytime he comes into a ballgame, everyone is going to give him a look, like, 'Uh-oh.' That's going to affect him a little bit.

"I hope he's strong enough to understand that these things happen. That's what I told him exactly -- keep pitching. I'm not saying hit people on purpose. But if you happen to hit them, it's part of the game. Go on. Go on."

Disgraceful as Benitez's incident was, he wasn't the first pitcher to engage in such conduct, and he wasn't the last. Seven players, both managers and three coaches were ejected from the Angels-Royals game Tuesday night after five batters were hit and two brawls erupted in Kansas City.

Martinez said that Tino Martinez had ample reason to be upset with Benitez for what happened in New York. But he added that the Yankees -- Darryl Strawberry, in particular -- must share part of the blame for the ensuing brawl.

"Look at Strawberry taking a cheap shot. You could create a concussion and kill a guy," Martinez said. "That's as dangerous as hitting somebody in the head. That created a bigger deal than it was. If Tino didn't do anything, I don't think anyone else should take justice into their own hands."

Whatever, it's over now. Benitez declined to comment yesterday when asked about his conversation with Martinez. First base coach Carlos Bernhardt, who was present for part of the talk, recalled Martinez telling Benitez, "Keep working hard, get yourself together, what is behind is behind."

Orioles manager Ray Miller was the Pittsburgh pitching coach for all but the final season of Martinez's NL career. Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone was the Montreal GM who acquired Martinez from the Dodgers for Delino DeShields.

"What ticked everyone off was that he was a little skinny kid throwing 95 on the outside corner, great changeup, great breaking ball," Miller said. "But it seemed every time someone got a hit, the next time up, somebody went down.

"[Joe] Kerrigan kept saying he was trying to pitch in," Miller continued, referring to Martinez's pitching coach in both Montreal and Boston. "[But] everything was down, down, down, and here would come one at your head, about 98. We chased him all over the field twice."

Martinez hit 11 batters to lead the NL in 1994, and plunked 11 more in '95. Kerrigan said that the perception of him began to change after he pitched nine perfect innings in San Diego in June 1995 (he lost his bid for a perfect game in the 10th). The following season, Martinez made a mechanical adjustment and hit only three batters.

"It's not that [hitters] quit thinking about it. But they are seeing the results of pitching inside," Martinez said. "I'll accept the tag anytime if I can get a Cy Young Award. I'll accept it if I can get a 1.90 ERA. I'll accept it if I can get 305 strikeouts. I'll accept any tag they want to put on me if I'm going to get results."

Martinez accomplished those very results he mentioned last season, and the Red Sox signed him to a six-year, $75 million free-agent contract. He is wildly popular in Boston, a hero in the Dominican, one of the game's truly special personalities.

When he talks, other players listen.

"I'm glad he spoke with Armando," Miller said. "He went through a lot. He was a marked man. Every team went after him. He was very immature then, but I listen to his comments now. He has grown up."

It happened once.

Maybe there's hope for Benitez yet.

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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