Before their game with the Chicago White Sox tonight, the Boston Red Sox will retire Pedro Martinez’s number – 45 – two days after Pedro was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. This is a big week for Boston and Red Sox Nation, as evidenced by the sheer number of times the word “legend” has been thrown around lately. (Exhibit A: NESN’s declaration in an article that includes “Absolutely Legendary” in the headline. Random Anecdotal Exhibit B: one of the staff at my physical therapy clinic randomly shouting “Pedro was a f*ckin’ legend for us!” a few weeks ago, context unknown.)
In light of this big week of news, and as I’m someone who was a die-hard Sox fan during Pedro’s heyday, I’ve been asked by the Powers That Be to share my reminiscences of Petey. Warning: rampant nostalgia to follow.
I was a big Sox fan when I was a kid, but my interest all but disappeared as I hit middle school and stopped playing little league. Despite my complete disinterest in baseball at that point in my life, it was impossible to escape the phenomenon that was Pedro Martinez.
I kept hearing about his heroics during the ’99 playoffs, and knew he must be good because of how much my Yankees-loving best friend hated him. I even stood up for him once as said friend went off on a rant about how much he sucked. I hadn’t even seen the guy pitch, yet I somehow already knew how important he was to Red Sox Nation, and knew his honor must be defended.
By the opening of the 2000 season I was watching the Sox religiously, and my childhood fandom was eclipsed by a new die-hard love. Petey was truly amazing to watch that season, which he finished with an incredible 1.74 ERA and 0.74 WHIP, oh, and his second Cy Young award. Any game he started was almost guaranteed to be a win, and you could feel the excited buzz on Pedro Days even way out in the ‘burbs where I lived.
It’s hard to explain the thrill I’d experience as Petey got in The Zone on the mound. He’d get locked in and throw strike after strike, zooming the game along… there was something almost electric about it and it made baseball fun to watch again. Even my mom, who hated baseball, started watching Sox games with me when Petey was pitching.
It wasn’t just Petey’s prowess on the mound that was fun to watch; his goofiness on days he didn’t start endeared him to fans as well. You never knew what he’d be up to when the cameras would zoom over to the dugout… would he be wearing a Yoda mask again? Would his teammates be taping him to a post in an effort to tame his antics for a few minutes? While his pitching made him seem superhuman, his silliness off the mound made him loveable.
The way Petey dealt with Boston’s rival New York Yankees also endeared him to Sox fans… “daddy” comment aside. I remember feeling so pumped when he said in 2001, “I don’t believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass….” Hell yeah, drill the Babe – and “The Curse” – in the ass! That’s what we wanted to hear!
During the glory years of 1999-2001 Petey seemed to have the Yankees in his back pocket, schooling them on multiple occasions and giving turncoat Roger Clemens a run for his money. In a more divisive moment, Petey literally threw down during the infamous 2003 ALCS brawl, when he introduced the Yankees’ bench coach Don Zimmer to the ground.
Fun fact: remember the Yankees-loving best friend I mentioned earlier? The 2003 brawl caused the longest fight we’ve ever had in our 20-year friendship. She didn’t appreciate that Pedro treated an elderly man with such violence; I was of the opinion that Zimmer got what he deserved. What was Zimmer doing, putting himself in that situation in the first place? If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t jump into a brawl and charge at the other team’s ace. Simple. (Petey later said that this incident is the only thing he regrets from his career.)
By 2004 Petey was no longer quite the magician he had once been. He was still an incredible pitcher, but I no longer enjoyed the cocky feeling that a Pedro start automatically equaled a win. I even remember curling into a ball on the couch as he ran out of the bullpen during Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS; I thought for sure that was the end of Boston’s Series drive. (As a Sox fan pre-2004, you got used to having your hopes and dreams dashed right when they were within grasping distance, and I was scared that Pedro would become our ’04 Buckner. I’m sorry for doubting you, Petey!)
As I’m sure you already know, Petey proved not to be a bad omen and the Sox didn’t implode that night. In fact, they went on to sweep St. Louis in the World Series for their first title since 1918. Petey had prevailed, and I was able to see his goofiness in person for the very first time during the victory parade. My photos came out terribly, otherwise I’d be sharing the one of Petey in a helmet and cape, bobbing off the back of a duck boat. It was wonderful.
I never had the chance to see Petey pitch in person at Fenway, a fact which still bums me out pretty bad. I did finally get to see him pitch in person, but by that time he was a New York Met and it just wasn’t the same… even though it was kind of cool to see him bat.
Sidenote: I had the chance to see Pedro pitch at Fenway in the early summer of 2004, and I still haven’t forgiven myself for passing up the opportunity. Kids, take it from me: when your uncle offers you a free box seat for a game when a living legend is pitching, under no circumstances turn him down. Even if you think you’re doing the right thing by not ditching a new friend for the game, you should know that this new friend will figuratively stab you in the back multiple times in the near future, you will soon loathe her, and your trip to Trident Booksellers on Newbury Street to bond over being book nerds is not worth missing a Pedro game for. You will regret it FOR. EVER.
Pedro left the Sox after the 2004 season, and my love for baseball waned once again. Despite my unbridled glee at the World Series win in ’04, it felt a little like my heart had been ripped out when Nomar Garciaparra was traded, and I never quite recovered. It got worse each time another of my favorite players left, and it was just too hard to watch a team without my beloved Dirt Dogs.
In the years since he retired from baseball in 2009, Petey has returned to Boston many times, and each time his impending arrival has sparked a buzz in the city. Anytime he was spotted, whether he was getting a haircut in Jamaica Plain or handing out free ice cream, you could always count on an outpouring of love and nostalgia for Petey when he was in town.
It wasn’t just Sox fans who recognized his awesomeness; after he left, no one on the Red Sox wore his number again. I remember asking my dad during the 2000 season if he thought the Sox would retire Pedro’s and Nomar’s numbers, and I remember him saying “Pedro’s for sure, someday.”
Clearly we weren’t the only ones who found Pedro Martinez to be deserving of the honor, and today it’s official: the 45 will hang in the spot of honor at Fenway, next to the numbers of Bobby Doerr (1), Joe Cronin (4), Johnny Pesky (6), Carl Yaztrzemski (8), Ted Williams (9), Jim Rice (14), Carlton Fisk (27), and Jackie Robinson (42).
Of all the Sox I got to see play, whether on the TV or live at Fenway, no one is more deserving of this honor than Petey. Reading all the nostalgia pieces that have come out about him since his Hall of Fame election was announced, I feel incredibly lucky that I witnessed him at his prime. Thanks for making baseball fun again, Pedro.