When New York Mets ace Pedro Martinez came out of last night’s game in Pittsburgh after only three ineffective innings and 68 pitches, and with his team losing 4-0, he sat down at the end of the dugout bench and held his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking.
“Is he crying?” blurted out Mets announcer Keith Hernandez. Then, thinking better of it, Hernandez went silent.
It has been a rough season for the future Hall of Famer. The 34-year-old righthander was sidelined for much of spring training with a toe injury. Due to a strained right calf, he hadn’t started a game since August 14. And earlier, due to a freak hip injury, he had missed a month wrapped around the All-Star break. Thus his record was only 9-5 coming into last night’s game, in which the Mets had the opportunity to clinch the NL East Division title with a win or a Philadelphia loss.
But then, as a young player in the early 1990s’ Dodgers organization, Martinez’ frail little body (5’10” and maybe 160 lbs.) was considered inadequate to the rigors of being a big league starting pitcher — which it was — and thus the Dodgers used him as reliever, before unloading him to the Montreal Expos. You might say that Pedro Martinez has been defying nature ever since.
The hip injury came during a game in which Martinez donned a long sleeve shirt under his jersey. The home plate umpire decided the shirt was too long, and ordered Martinez to go into the clubhouse and cut the sleeves. While following the ump’s orders, Martinez slipped on the clubhouse floor. Thereafter, he pitched a few ineffective starts, before being sat down, and getting treatment for the hip.
Note that “freak” injuries and aging pitchers (see also: aging quarterbacks) go together. And Pedro is an old 34. In other words, those “freak” injuries aren’t freaky, but rather signs of a body that is breaking down after over 2600 innings on the mound. After the game, Mets announcer Gary Cohen observed, “It’s been one thing after another this year for Pedro: The toe, the hip, the calf.”
One of the Mets announcers had just observed that Martinez had “the weight of the franchise on his shoulders.” Mets skipper Willie Randolph had just announced that Martinez would be the Game 1 starter in the playoffs.
After watching the scene on the bench, Gary Cohen asked if Martinez was just unhappy with his performance. His partner, Keith Hernandez, responded, “Unhappy with your performance to the point of tears? You’re a professional. Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Later in the game, Mets reporter Chris Cotter informed fans, “He just reached his pitch count … some pretty high-level sources said there was no indication” that the calf strain had been aggravated. [A pitch count of 68? Gimme a break, Chris.]
After the game, which the Mets lost, 5-3, for Martinez’ sixth loss, SportsNet NY again showed the image after Martinez came out of the game, of Mets skipper Willie Randolph with his arm around his shoulder, talking to him, and patting him on the back, followed by Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson. Then the two men left Martinez, and the shoulder-shaking began. [In SNY’s sports round-up following the postgame show, that part of the tape was cut; viewers only saw Martinez heading for the showers.]
After the game, Keith Hernandez opined, “If it’s just from a bad game, it’s an overreaction …,” while Gary Cohen observed, “It’s unusual to see elite athletes react in this way.”
After the game, speaking from SNY’s Manhattan studio, postgame show host Matt Yaloff said, “The champagne is on ice, as is Pedro Martinez’ right calf.”
So much for those “high-level sources.” (As Ron Darling would later note, “The Mets play everything close to the vest.”)
Continuing, Yaloff recalled that we’d seen Pedro get creamed before, and even lose in the playoffs. “We’ve never seen THAT.”
Yaloff cautioned Mets fans against becoming hysterical, although as both hosts observed, the team’s postseason chances depend to a large degree on Martinez’ health.
Yaloff’s studio co-host, former Mets pitching great Ron Darling, said of Martinez, “Seeing that scene in the dugout lets me know that he is not in the place he wants to be on September 15.”
“He’s the only guy in the Mets rotation that has a cape, like Superman, when he’s good. Tonight, he wasn’t.”
Yaloff spoke to the irony of the Mets being one game away from clinching the divisional championship, while the player who had turned around the franchise in two short years was “hanging his head” in the Mets dugout.
In Mets manager Willie Randolph’s routine post-game meeting with the press, Randolph repeated the company line: “He’s fine.”
When asked if Martinez would be making his next start, Randolph said, “Yes, he is.” Randolph responded to a rephrased version of the same question, “No, I said he’s fine.”
Randolph also tried to deflect attention from Martinez’ reaction, saying that players often become emotional in the heat of battle (“he’s a warrior”), citing the recent case of Mets rookie pitcher Brian Bannister.
“Like I said, he’s a competitor, a warrior. I see that all the time. Guys can’t do anything on the bench, without it being reported.”
From the studio, Ron Darling reacted with, “We report that as the truth. But the fact is that he couldn’t get the Pirates out over three innings … and that’s a sign — not the sign — that he’s not ready yet.” [The Pirates are the second-worst team in the league; only the Cubs are worse.]
Then the show returned to Pittsburgh, where Pedro Martinez answered questions from reporters.
The first question was about the condition of his calf.
“No, no, I’m fine, I’m fine. I was just a little frustrated, and I was about to snap, and Willie [Randolph] had to … ”
[Martinez would later contradict himself to a different reporter, admitting that he could not push off from the calf, and that since in pitching, everything starts with the legs, he could not command his pitches; thus did pitching at all become a risky matter.]
Reporter [each following question came from a different reporter]: You’ve pitched badly before [unclear] — why tonight?
“Because I worked my ass off, and I didn’t see the results that I was expecting. And only I know what I go through everyday, working, and I tried to get back on track, and now, you know, I [unclear] an opportunity to show my teammates and show the team that I’m going to be back, and it wasn’t quite as high as I was expecting, and my physical body didn’t feel quite as well as I was expecting, you know, for the time being, and the performance also was a little bit off from what I was expecting….”
“I was expecting to have a little better command, have better breaking balls, and have more command of my pitches, and I didn’t have any of them.”
With only two weeks left in the regular season, a reporter asked Martinez if he is concerned as to whether he can be ready in time for the playoffs.
“I’ll have to say I still have plenty of time to do it. It’s just that when you come off so many days without throwing the ball, you want to make a statement. You know, you want to look better for your teammates. Today was a special day – is a special day for us, and I wanted to do a little bit better.”
Reporter: Were you actually crying?
“I was about to, I was about to snap, and later on [unclear], thank God, Willie was there, and told me, ‘It’s going to be o.k.’ I was just about to snap, … and actually, I felt like crying at that time, out of frustration, but I kept my composure….”
A reporter asked a question about players crying.
“You just don’t see [players crying]. Normally we do it in the locker room….”
Reporter: You know, a lot of people have been waiting for you to get back, a lot of Mets fans, waiting for that division, they see this game, and there’s probably going to be some, “Oh, no”s. What is your response?
“‘Oh, no’? Well, they need to be patient, because, three innings in what, thirty days? Isn’t it enough … They’d be impertinent to ask for that. [A reporter laughs.] My first three innings, I’m trying to get back, and I’m going to be back. If they want to throw the white towel now on me? It’s up to them. I’m not throwing it yet.”
I hope that Martinez’ proud, defiant attitude pulls him through. I don’t recall him weeping after either of his defeats in league championship games at the hands of the Yankees in 2003 and 2004. But an elite athlete may exhibit the “unusual” reaction of which Gary Cohen spoke, if his body betrays him in such a way as to cause him to fear that his time may be up. After all, since the 2004 postseason, Pedro Martinez has been pitching very well on little more than personal pride and a defiance of nature.