Wednesday, June 28, 2006


In the eternal competition to find the single most irritating Boston sports non-story, the "will fans boo returning ex-Red Sox" currently maintains a lead of several lengths.

This tedious tale burst from the pack when Johnny Damon came to Fenway last month as a Yankee. He got booed with a few cheers thrown in. Tonight, Pedro Martinez returns to Fenway to pitch against the Red Sox as a Met. He'll get cheered with a few boos on top, like jimmies.

And who on earth cares? Fans pay their money and can do whatever the hell they want, as long as they understand that their opinions don't change facts. If someone wants to reveal themselves as a small-minded moron by jeering a ballplayer for the sin of putting his paycheck ahead of loyalty to the sacred Red Sox, let them go for it. Their noises off didn't change Damon's status as a high-quality major leaguer, and won't alter Martinez's status either.

Let me put it this way. When Pedro's plaque goes up in Cooperstown in a decade or so, there won't be a sentence reading, "some Red Sox fans and some media members found him too high-maintenence for their tastes."

Immortality dissolves public opinion. Ted Williams was the ULTIMATE high-maintenence ballplayer. The Kid was approximately a billion times more controversial in Boston than any Red Sox of the past 45 1/2 years since his retirement. No one was more criticized, both fairly and unfairly. Williams could be a self-pitying boor, and was called out for it. On the other hand, what is a player supposed to do when writers rip him for a) taking too many walks when his team needed extra base hits and b) not laying down bunts and opposite field grounders for singles when opponents put a shift on?

It's been a long time since 1960, and the number of New Englanders who participated in the great Ted debates has shrunk accordingly. Know what? Ask the remaining old-timers left about Williams and a significant percentage will lie their senior asses off. Go ahead. Poll Bostonians aged 70 and over. See how many now say, "Oh, yeah, Williams. I always hated that selfish jerk." If you find one, call Diogenes. His search is over.

So it will be with Pedro. Is Martinez overly sensitive and prone to pout over slights more imagined than real? Yes. I have first-hand experience of that side of Pedro's nature. It is more than counter-balanced, however, by Martinez' intelligence, charm, sense of humor, and the fact he IS sensitive, aware of the needs of others as well as his own. I've had first-hand experience of those sides of Martinez, too. In the conformist world of baseball, a player has to be pretty secure in his own skin to let the New York Times run a front-page story on his gardening prowess.

The above paragraph was an assessment of Martinez as a person-as if he were a neighbor, or a co-worker, or a distant family member. Now we'll throw the biggest fact onto the scale. Pedro Martinez was one of the two greatest pitchers I ever saw in 50 years of watching baseball, and there are days when I think he was the top dog of the two.

Great pitchers come in many flavors. For a hurler who could get hot and spur his club to a 23-6 month, Jim Palmer might be tops. For one playoff game you couldn't lose, there's Catfish Hunter. But for sheer dominance, for going to the park convinced the other side would be flat out lucky to get a hit, let alone score, there are only two names in my mind, Pedro and Sandy Koufax.

Baseball enthusiasts could go back and forth ranking those two forever and a day to be named later. Koufax's numbers from 1963-66 and Martinez's from 1997-2000 are eerily similiar. Looking behind the data, each man has plenty to bolster his case.

Koufax had two unhittable pitches, fastball and curve. Martinez's change-up gives him three such weapons. Koufax dominated because he had to. His Dodgers scored runs at the same pace Italy's World Cup team scores goals. But Sandy was the top pitcher in an era when pitchers dominated the game as a whole. Pedro rendered hitters helpless in the midst of the game's all-time offensive explosion. He created dead-ball numbers in the steroid era.

Koufax, of course, dominated through incredible pain. His career and future left arm use were at risk with every pitch he threw, and everyone knew it. His retirement at age 32 was greeted by as much relief as sorrow. Martinez has had a more traditional approach to injury. He's babied his arm through a number of them, has to be carefully handled, and has lost quite a bit off his turn of the century fastball. This has led fans and commentators of the chickenhawk breed to call him soft.

On the other hand, Pedro's still here, still a quality major league pitcher, one who made the most difficult transition of learning how to use his brain to make up for that lose 5 mph off the old heater. Would Koufax have done the same if he'd been making the $13 million per year Martinez does instead of $100,000 per annum? We'll never know.

This pleasant comparison of two artists who brought me joy has led me to digress from my original point. Red Sox fans and their enablers in the media would be easier to take if they'd TRY to get over themselves once in a while. Those who boo Damon or Pedro, those who try to make that a news story, are really saying the following, "I'M what's most important about the Red Sox, not these players. The team only matters because I like/cover them."

That's a crock of shit. I covered the Red Sox for 25 years, and I didn't matter. Fans can have season tickets for just as long, and while the club is happy for the money, the Sox story would be the same had those fans spent the dough on something sensible. The play's the thing, or, in this case, the players.

Anyone wishing to discredit themselves is free to boo Pedro Martinez. As Ted Williams has already proved, however, it's a particularly futile exercise.

Twenty, no, ten years from now, everyone who boos Pedro tonight will deny they ever did it.


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