Martinez in Boston: It's baseball heaven

July 13, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- It's his town, his year, his moment. If there were a face on tonight's All-Star Game at Fenway Park, it would be Pedro Martinez's face.

Baseball should get so lucky every year.

Martinez, the Red Sox ace who will take a 15-3 record to the mound tonight as the American League starter, embodies all that's still good about the game.

"He's a guy I have total respect for," the Indians' Jim Thome said yesterday. "He's probably the toughest competitor I have ever faced."

It's hard to decide what's more remarkable, the fact that Martinez is a little guy accomplishing such big things, or that no one ever mentions the $90 million contract he signed with the Red Sox before last season.

Imagine, a big-money, free-agent signing so successful that the money becomes a non-issue.

Of course, salaries become an issue only when players fail to earn the money, and there's no debate with Martinez, 27, who grew up poor in the Dominican Republic. He deserves each of the many pennies the Sox are paying him.

He's 34-10 since signing the deal, led the Sox to a wild-card playoff berth last season and probably will do it again this year.

He's also that rarest of baseball commodities, a humble, team-only star who sets a perfect, winning tone in the clubhouse.

Think Albert Belle, then go 180 degrees.

"I don't care about the money, the fame, the exposure, anything," he said. "I just want to do my job, win and be an example."

Go ahead and pass out from shock, Orioles fans.

It's no wonder Sox fans have embraced him as a son, showing him more affection than they even showed such franchise touchstones as Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn. Starts by Martinez have become civic occasions, his suc cess a source of deep pride.

It all makes perfect sense, of course; Martinez's baseball-mad Dominican roots are a perfect match for Boston's baseball-mad fans. Both have an abiding respect for the game.

"It's a great thing to see," said former Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, who threw out the first pitch before Sunday's Futures Game for minor-league stars. "[Martinez] is great on the field and just as great off the field. The [fan] reaction he gets reminds me of what I used to get."

Fenway's old walls will rattle tonight when Martinez faces a National League lineup including Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire batting third and fourth.

"I know my fans," Martinez said yesterday with a grin, "and they're going to be going crazy."

But then, what fans wouldn't fall for Martinez's all-out style? He's slender and 5 feet 11, yet throws a 95-mph fastball and virtually unhittable changeup. And it's a rare night when he doesn't pitch into the eighth or ninth inning. He's from the old school, preferring to do the job by himself.

"My success comes from part God-given talent and part hard work," he said.

"He's out there giving you the stare, the smirk, everything he's got," Thome said. "When you go into a game he's pitching, you know you're in for a tough fight. He gets right in your face and doesn't let up. You can't help but admire that."

It's hard to believe the Dodgers gave up on him six years ago, trading him to the Expos for Delino DeShields, if you can believe that. The Dodgers needed a second baseman, and they were concerned that Martinez's size and hard-throwing style would lead to an injury.

"A lot of people doubted me back then, and I can sit here today and say to them, `You were wrong,' " Martinez said, still obviously stung. "It hurt me deeply when people thought I couldn't make it. I lost my confidence and wondered if they were right. But I kept working, and here I am today."

Montreal manager Felipe Alou, who had played with Martinez's father in the Dominican Republic, unlocked the mystery of Martinez's potential. Martinez pitched four solid years in Montreal before coming to Boston in a trade as he was approaching free agency.

"I never dreamed it would work out as great as this," he said. "It's been all roses for me since I got here. I just hope I can keep it up."

His 15-win total at the All-Star break has led to speculation about his chances of winning 30 games. No pitcher has done it since Denny McLain in 1968, and that was before five-man rotations and deep bullpens.

Winning 30 in an era when pitchers make 35 starts a season is nearly impossible, but if anyone is going to do it, it's Martinez.

"I'm not thinking about 30. I've never even won 20 [in a season]," he said. "But if I get close, I'm going for it. If I can make three starts in the last nine days, I'll do it."

A more immediate concern is tonight's All-Star start. He tried to dismiss it yesterday as "no biggie," but his smile gave him away. Starting the All-Star Game at Fenway Park, as the Red Sox's ace, brings his rising career into clear focus.

"I like what it says," he conceded.

It says he's a star, one of the best in the game, and he's found the perfect home.

Pub Date: 7/13/99

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