Pedro's Masterpiece Burns the Rocket

"Flags," says the Irish woman on the stairwell. "Get ya Dominican flags here."

She has a whole table of goods laid out four hours before game time, nearly an entire afternoon prior to the third game of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees. There are the silly Sox caps in many colors. There are the requisite YANKEES SUCK T-shirts. There is assorted paraphernalia referring to the alleged curse that descended on the Red Sox when they sold Babe Ruth south to the Yankees. The hottest item, though, is the flag of the Dominican Republic.

"Can't keep 'em on the table," the woman says.

This is a remarkable development, especially to those of us who grew up when the Red Sox specialized in clumsy, lead-footed power hitters who were big, brawny, and exclusively white. The last team in baseball to integrate— the Red Sox were still segregated five years after the Little Rock public schools were desegregated— Boston suffered far more from the Curse of Jackie Robinson than it ever did from the Curse of the Bambino. Now, as I walked up Boylston Street toward the old, crooked ballyard, I was surrounded by a jolly, liquid tide of big, brawny, and largely white humanity that was nonetheless alive with the bright colors of the Dominican Republic. To any long-time observer of the Boston Red Sox, this was tantamount to seeing Pat Buchanan in the barrio, dancing the hootchie-koo.

It turned out not to be the pitchers' duel that everyone expected. The blessed synchronicity of the respective pitching rotations had arranged for Roger Clemens to go up against Pedro Martinez in the ballpark that Clemens once dominated and that Martinez now owns. The matchup resonated deeply, and far beyond the simple circumstance that the Yankees led two games to none, and that the Red Sox needed to win the third game badly.

Throughout the 1980s— and particularly in the ultimately doomstruck season of 1986— Clemens was central to any success the Red Sox had. Moreover, he was the team's most vivid personality, given to ungainly and cluttered public pronouncements. (Most memorable among these was the television interview he once gave in mid December on the front lawn of his house. While Clemens ran through a litany of Boston complaints in a syntax just inches from actual English, an electric tin soldier kept blinking away bizarrely behind him.) Four years ago, he decamped for Toronto as a free agent, and thence to the Yankees. He was replaced in Boston by Pedro Martinez, who swiftly became the phenomenon that Clemens never was.

It is impossible to overestimate the season that Martinez has had: 23-4, with a 2.06 ERA and 313 strikeouts. More to the point, he's evinced a love for the spotlight, and for the big moment, that Clemens never has. His two most dominant performances came against the Yankees (17 strikeouts on September 10) and the Atlanta Braves (16 strikeouts on June 4), the two teams that ought to be playing in the World Series. He was golden in Fenway as the starter in the All-Star game, striking out the first four batters he faced. And, in the deciding fifth game of the playoff series against Cleveland, Martinez threw six innings of no-hit relief. Those hidebound journalistic bureaucrats disinclined to vote for Martinez as the American League's Most Valuable Player ought to have pondered exactly who in the hell they would trade him for. (Manny Ramirez? Please.)

Further, Martinez is central to the way that the Red Sox have built their current team. It can be argued that Boston general manager Dan Duquette is the first real genius of wild-card baseball. Consider: the Yankees have laid in talent the way that a survivalist lays in brown rice and prayerbooks. Meanwhile, Texas towers over mediocrity in the American League West and, in apparent perpetuity, Cleveland will preside over the hopeless landfill that is the league's Central Division. All the Red Sox have to do every season is be the fourth-best team in the American League— and, hell, unrewarded, they were able to do that for decades. However, having Pedro Martinez to throw every fourth day means that, now, the Red Sox make the playoffs, and that they are a very dangerous opponent in any short series.

The phenomenon— the absolute, balls-out, blazing event of him— was simply a bonus.

They rose for the first time when he got to strike two on Chuck Knoblauch, the first batter he faced. That Knoblauch went out on a medium flyball to right field ultimately was irrelevant. They would rise all day whenever Martinez got two strikes on any batter. When he got the third one— which he did 12 times in eight innings— there would be a sustained, undifferentiated roar and a great fluttering burst of the Dominican colors throughout the bleachers.

The disgraceful racist history of the Red Sox notwithstanding, the fervor with which Martinez is greeted at Fenway is not unprecedented. In the '70s, the great Luis Tiant was every bit as beloved as Pedro is today. However, Tiant never dominated the sport here the way that Martinez does. (The classic Tiant performance came in the fifth game of the 1975 World Series in which— whirling and juking and bobbing like a top— he threw a staggering 163 pitches in, at, and around the magnificent Cincinnati Reds.) Come the second inning on Saturday, Martinez erased Tino Martinez with a changeup, made Chili Davis look foolish on a curveball, and nearly broke Ricky Ledee into his component parts with a slider as sharp as the shadows in the ballpark.

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