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If the Devil ever gives me one pitcher to play for my soul …

May 12, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT

Pedro Martinez AP

Tony Pena still owns the house where he grew up in the Dominican Republic. The floor is dirt and you see bits of the sky as you look through the roof and the walls are as thin and brittle as graham crackers. But it still stands and Tony Pena comes by every so often to see it and to remember. His life is a miracle. That’s the thing he wants to remember. There was so little hope in that poor little town of Palo Verde. Life inescapably led to the banana fields. Only his life did not. Because … baseball.

The day he showed us the house there was a woman living there, and she is still there … she is a family friend and lives there for free. There is only one thing Tony Pena asks. She must not change things. This house must remain as it was because this house is what connects Tony Pena to a past he must remember. He was an All-Star catcher. He was a baseball manager. He has long been a bench coach for the New York Yankees. He is a hero to his people. He cannot accomplish all that he must do if he does not remember.

But even in this, the woman does not have to keep everything exactly the same. It is her home now.

“Right there,” Pena said as he pointed at a photo on the wall, “there used to be a picture of Jesus.”

The picture is now of Pedro Martinez.

 

* * *

Some stories get repeated so often that they lose their wonder. The story of Dominican baseball is such a story. There are roughly as many people in the Dominican Republic as in the state of Georgia. Since 1960, there have been three shortstops from the state of Georgia who have gotten 500 plate appearances in the big leagues. There have been 37 from the Dominican Republic.

There has never been a pitcher born in Georgia elected to the Hall of Fame — Kevin Brown is probably the closest and he didn’t even make it to the second ballot. There is a Hall of Fame pitcher from the Dominican Republic — Juan Marichal. And next year Pedro Martinez will become the second.

Martinez’s story is one of those one of those we have grown numb to; it is in its own way the essential Dominican Republic baseball story. Pedro’s father Paolino was by all accounts a brilliant sinkerball pitcher who simply could not afford to go to the Major Leagues. According to one version, Paulino could not even afford the necessary cleats. Paulino was from that time in the 1950s when Dominican baseball was still largely undiscovered and attempting to go to the Major Leagues was a bit like Magellan attempting to circumnavigate the earth. Paulino always said he was offered a tryout by the New York Giants. His friends Matty and Felipe Alou found their way to the tryout and they became Major League stars. The Alous would always say Paulino could have been a major league star too.

Pedro did not grow up with much more than his father. He grew up in Manoguayabo, just outside of Santo Domingo. Martinez talked often of playing baseball with doll’s heads and tree branches, fruits and pipes; he talked sometimes of the trash on his street. His home like Pena’s had a dirt floor with a crumbling roof but it did not have walls; sheets separated the rooms.

In a way, though, Pedro Martinez grew up in a very different time from his father; this was after Marichal and Joaquin Andujar and Mario Soto and Jose Rijo, when scouts were scouring the island looking for live arms. There was another pitcher who was pivotal to how scouts came to view Dominican pitchers, and he happened to be Pedro’s older brother Ramon. He was the true phenom. At 17, Ramon pitched for the Dominican Olympic team, which was chosen to replace the boycotting Cuban team.

That Dominican team was badly overmatched but Ramon Martinez left scouts awestruck. He was a whole new kind of Dominican pitcher. He was tall and lanky with a blazing fastball. Marichal had been barely 6-feet tall and his genius was in his slider and the way he changed speeds. Soto was also about 6-feet tall and was a pioneer of the circle change. Andujar, another 6-footer or so, would baffle hitters with various motions and arm angles.

But Ramon Martinez, at 6-foot-4, was a pure power pitcher. At age 22, pitching for the 1990 Dodgers, he finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. He went 20-6 with a 2.92 ERA, a league leading 12 complete games and 223 strikeouts in 234 innings. By then, his younger brother Pedro — who was not even 6-feet tall and seemed more in the mold of Marichal and Soto — was pitching for Great Falls in the Dodgers minor league system. In truth, Pedro was a new kind of pitcher. He had the magician’s dexterity of Marichal. But he had the overpowering fastball of his brother. The combination was breathtaking.

In 1992, Pedro made it to his first big league camp and was impressive enough that, according to Norm King’s well-researched SABR article, Dodgers’ executive Fred Claire insisted that he Martinez untouchable in trade talks. “I won’t trade Pedro Martinez, I don’t care who they offer,” he told a reporter from the Ocala Star Banner.

Well, it turns out, he did care. The fact the Dodgers traded Martinez a year and a half later just proves a point: people will do dumb things for dumb reasons. By the time the Dodgers traded Pedro, they had to know his brilliance. As a rookie in 1993, he pitched 107 innings, mostly in relief. He won 10 games. He struck out 119 — 10 per nine innings — and had a 2.61 ERA. That combination has only been done one time in baseball history by a rookie — Dwight Gooden. This was a once-in-a-lifetime arm and the Dodgers had to know that.

But the Dodgers could not get a gnawing image out of their heads: Martinez looked too small and frail to be a starter. They thought he would have to be a 100-or-so inning guy out of the pen and, so, not overly valuable. Years later, this exact reasoning would keep several teams from drafting Tim Lincecum out of college. The Dodgers in November 1993 — 18 months after saying they didn’t care WHO was offered — traded Martinez to Montreal straight up for Delino DeShields a tall second baseman from Delaware who was coming off a fine season with the Expos. DeShields hit .295 and had a .389 on-base percentage and played a solid second base.* He would play three ghastly seasons in Los Angeles before escaping to St. Louis and rebuilding his career.

*This is unrelated, but DeShields in 1993 had 562 plate appearances and hit .295, but he had only 29 RBIs all year. This seems exceedingly low so I looked it up. His total is low, but it pales in comparison with the astonishing season Luis Castillo had in 2000 for the Marlins. Castillo had a fantastic year in various ways. He hit .334 with a .418 on-base percentage. He stole a league-leading 62 bases and scored 101 runs. Even his .388 slugging percentage, while certainly low, is not a disgrace for a light-hitting batter who bunts a lot. He hit three triples and two homers.

Do you know how many RBIs Castillo had in 2000?

Seventeen.

The trade, of course, is one of baseball’s all-time fiascos and perhaps a reason why the Dodgers have not come close to a World Series since 1988. The Dodgers, after winning 15 pennants between 1946 and 1990, did not win a single playoff game in the 1990s. Ramon Martinez was their Game 1 starter in both of the 1990s playoff series. In retrospect, Pedro might have been a better option.

You might recall, Martinez when he first got to Montreal was basically known for being a hothead so it is certainly possible the Dodgers had some questions about his character. Martinez hit a league leading 11 batters in 1994 and was thrown out of a game. In his second start for the 1994 Expos, he was throwing a perfect game and in the eighth inning he plunked Cincinnati’s Reggie Sanders, who charged the mound. Now, Reggie Sanders is a pretty sensible soul but he was convinced that Pedro hit him on purpose … convinced that making a statement was more important to the young Pedro than throwing a perfecto.

Whether Sanders was right or wrong is not the point. The point is that was how many people felt about Martinez. He was flashy and temperamental and a touch erratic. He was breathtaking — hopping mid-90s fastball, nasty slider and a change-up that was developing into perhaps the best in baseball history — but he was also less than the sum of his parts. He threw nine perfect innings against San Diego in 1995 (he gave up a hit in the 10th) but that year he also had some injuries and was an uninteresting 14-10 with a 3.51 ERA. The next year, he had a 3.70 ERA. For three years in Montreal, he was a very good pitcher, not a great one. But he was a pitcher batters recoiled from, a pitcher who made them uneasy and uncertain and filled with general dread. And it seemed like that, more than anything, was his goal in the early years.

Then, in 1997, the stars aligned and the tumblers clicked and the change-up locked in. For the next seven years — when not halted by various injuries and pains — Pedro Martinez was the greatest pitcher I ever saw. In those seven years, Martinez went 118-36 with a 2.20 ERA, a 213 ERA+, 1,761 strikeouts, 351 walks, and just 93 home runs allowed. Batters enjoying the greatest hitting conditions in more than a half century, managed only to hit .198/.253/.297 against Pedro over that time. There was simply never a pitcher quite like him.

What made Martinez so great? Bill James once referred to it as the power of exponentials. You probably know the story of wheat and the chessboard. There are countless versions of it, but the way I always heard it was that a man saved the king’s life and, in return, wanted to marry his daughter. The king said no, but he could have anything else in his kingdom. So the man pulled out a chessboard and said, “Then all I want is this. Give me one wheat stalk for the first square on the board, then double the stalks for every square after that. Give me one stalk for the first square, two for the second, four for the third, until the end of the board.”

The king of course says yes … even when you know how it ends it still sounds so utterly reasonable. But you know how it ends. There are 64 squares on a chessboard. By the 21st square, simply by doubling, we are over a million. By the 30th, we have crossed a billion. At the 39th square, the number crosses a trillion. By square 64, the number is: 9,223,372,036,854,780,000 — which is not QUITE as many stars there are estimated to be in the galaxy, but is a mere five zeroes away. I would say it’s probably a little bit more wheat than the guy has in his kingdom … or in the world … or in the known universe. The king, impressed by this display, allows the man to marry his daughter in the version I heard. A more realistic version would have the king executing the guy for making him look like a dumbass.

Anyway, the chessboard of wheat was Pedro Martinez. His fastball was great, then his slider was great so you double it, and his change-up was all-time great so you double it again. He was a fierce competitor — double it. He threw inside about as brazenly and as often as any pitcher ever — double it. He had a genius for pitching that often went unappreciated — double it. He got better every year — double it once more.

In 1997, Martinez won his first Cy Young. He went 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA, 13 complete games, 305 strikeouts, 67 walks. The only seasons you could really compare that one to — where a pitcher has a sub 2.00 ERA, strikes out 300 and hardly walks anybody — were those great Koufax seasons in the mid-1960s. Koufax threw a lot more innings each year but Koufax also pitched off Mound Fuji at Dodger Stadium and pitched in a time when the strike zone was high and weight training was low. Teams averaged barely four runs a game in Koufax’s prime. In 1997, teams averaged 4.6 runs per game, about — 15% higher.

Thing is, 1997 was not even close to Pedro’s best year. In 1999, pitching now at Fenway Park in a league averaging about 5.2 runs per game, Martinez struck out 313, walked 37 (this has to be a misprint), and allowed nine home runs all year. There was almost nothing to compare this season to … by Fangraphs WAR, this was the second-greatest season since 1900 behind only Steve Carlton’s famous 1972 season. It should be noted that Carlton threw 130 more innings in 1972; it was a different time. Inning-by-inning, no pitcher was ever as good as Pedro Martinez in 1999.

Unless … it’s Pedro Martinez in 2000. Baseball Reference, which figures pitcher WAR differently, ranks Martinez’s 2000 season as being considerably better than 1999. His ERA was a.1.74, he struck out fewer (284) but amazingly walked fewer too (32). His ERA+ of 291 — that’s the pitcher’s ERA measured against the league ERA — is the best ever recorded by a full-time starter. To offer a comparison, as good as Koufax’s seasons were, he never had an ERA+ of 200. The year Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA, his ERA+ was 258 … still not approaching that of Pedro in 2000.

He won the Cy Young both of those years, and if he had maintained anything close to that level of greatness for a few more years he would be in the Top 10 of this list. But he did not. The Dodgers were not entirely wrong about Martinez; he did put a lot of strain on his body and his arm and he was more or less done was a pitcher at 33.

Like Koufax, he was great — truly great — for seven or so years, though Pedro achieved more on either side of his prime. But I would say, as great as Koufax was, Pedro was even better at his peak. I’ve said it before; if the Devil ever gives me one pitcher to play for my soul, I’m taking Pedro Martinez around 1999 and 2000. He wasn’t just the greatest pitcher I ever saw. He was the one pitcher who would damn well move the Devil off the plate.

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