Commentary

Pedro talks; Phillies hope he produces

At 37, Martinez could be a hero or a flop for the NL East-leading Phillies

Originally Published: July 15, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- He sat there in his Phillies cap, making no promises, because he understands that a man who hasn't won a big league game in 293 days is in no position to promise anything.

But that didn't mean Pedro Martinez couldn't make his new team, and his new town, savor the possibilities.

And so, on his first day in Philadelphia as a member of the Phillies, Martinez looked out into the crowd at his meet-Pedro news conference Wednesday and uttered these words:

"I might surprise you."

Then he paused, as only he knows how, for just the proper amount of dramatic effect.

"[And] I might not," he said, finally.

[+] EnlargePedro Martinez
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonIn 2007 and 2008, his final two seasons with the Mets, Martinez won just eight games and had a 4.99 ERA in 25 starts.

And then he let those words hang in the sky for one more pregnant moment.

"But," Martinez said, when the moment felt right, "it's going to be fun to find out."

And that, friends, is the deal here. No one knows -- not the Phillies team that signed him Wednesday, not the Mets team that passed on him, not even Pedro himself -- what this man has left, at age 37.

But what anyone knows who has ever been around him is that baseball is more fun when Martinez is wearing a uniform -- or even just hanging around a ballpark, talking into a microphone.

He is one of the most charismatic figures ever to pass through his sport. And the electricity followed him to Philadelphia on Wednesday, packing a press room that wasn't quite this overcrowded when Rodrigo Lopez showed up.

Martinez may be just a take-a-flier fifth starter, working on a one-year contract that will pay him approximately $1 million for the rest of the season. He may turn out to be no better, in fact, than Lopez, or Antonio Bastardo, or any of the other where'd-he-come-from characters the Phillies have been spinning through their fifth-starter revolving door.

And his arrival clearly isn't going to cause the Phillies to call off the hunt for Roy Halladay.

But if the Phillies were going to take a risk on somebody, said GM Ruben Amaro Jr., they figured they might as well take it on "a player like this."

And, of course, there was no other "player like this" to be found. This was the only unemployed three-time Cy Young winner on the market. That's for sure. So when the Phillies decided a few weeks ago that there might not be any starting pitchers out there worth trading for, they changed their minds about Martinez, a guy they'd previously had no interest in.

And two simulated games later, here he is. Well, sort of. He's a Phillie, but he's not really a Phillie, because, in Pedro's own words, "I'm not yet ready to pitch."

And when will he be ready? Amaro suggested Wednesday that it could be as soon as a couple of weeks. Martinez, on the other hand, wasn't ready to pin any dates on his calendar.

But before we go on spinning this tale, let's clear up the most confusing part of Wednesday's announcement:

Martinez had to pass his physical to sign a contract. Yet the first thing the Phillies did after finalizing that contract was put him on the disabled list. Which seemed kind of, well, odd.

They called it a "mild shoulder sprain" -- a result, the Phillies said, of all the poking, prodding and injections he underwent during his rigorous physical this week. Pedro himself even cooked up a tale about meeting a needle that sounded as though it was about the size of City Hall, and how he was still sore from his giant-needle attack of green-dye-injection demons.

Well, not to dispute the medical experts, but that doesn't appear to be the main reason he's on that disabled list.

The big reason is that he didn't want to sign a minor league contract, even though he needs to go to the minor leagues and pitch a few times before joining the Phillies' rotation. So that giant needle came along at just the right time -- to allow him to sign a big league deal, head straight for the disabled list and then make some rehab starts when he's ready.

Got that picture? Great. Now let's move on.

Next, it's time to contemplate all the tremendous plot lines that erupt just because Martinez chose to sign with the Phillies -- as opposed to the Rangers or the Dodgers or the Brewers or the Angels.

It means that not too far over the horizon, we have ourselves a major NL East "Event" to look forward to -- when Pedro Martinez pitches for the first time against his old buddies, the Mets.

It was the Mets, he made clear Wednesday, who decided they wanted a divorce from him -- not the other way around. And he didn't try to pretend he took that well at first.

Pedro Martinez I think we'll have a lot of fun, because [Phillies fans] seem to be really wild -- and I'm a little out there, too.

-- Pedro Martinez

"But I understand the business part of baseball, as dirty as it is," the 37-year-old right-hander said. "And I respect it. … But I'm really glad I'm here."

Still, he resisted every chance he was offered to vent about his departure. He got downright sentimental when he ticked off all the people he missed in New York, right down to "Mama in the kitchen." And when he talked about Mets fans, he couldn't possibly have sounded more sincere when he swore: "I still love them."

"It wasn't my decision to not be in New York," he said again. "It was someone else's. They made their decision. And I made mine."

But if there's even a tiny sector of his brain or his heart that wants to show the Mets who made the right decision, he wasn't about to let any of that emotion seep out.

Asked if there wasn't a part of him somewhere that wouldn't really look forward to pitching a big game against the Mets, he shook his head sternly.

"I would love to tell you that," he answered. "But it's not [true]. I'm an honest man. And I'm telling you the truth. I can't hide love. And I have love for those people. …

"You guys [in the media], one time, almost kill me," he went on, "because I say that the Yankees are my daddy. But I just keep it honest. … So I have to say what I have to say. And I don't like to lie, either. I never lie. I say things the way they are."

So he reiterated his love for all things Mets-ish, from his old teammates to the entire Wilpon family. And he stuck with that stance no matter how the bait was dangled.

Later, he was tossed a follow-up question about the same topic. He was asked to imagine the drama, the theater on the night he faced the Mets. Wouldn't he at least be looking forward to that? But again, he zigzagged in the other direction.

"What if they're in last place on the time I face them?" he retorted. "That's not a big game. It becomes just a game."

No, he was told. If he is facing them, no matter who's doing what, it becomes an "event," not "just a game."

"No, it becomes an event for you guys," he countered. "It becomes an event for you to write. But if I didn't see anybody from the teams that I played on before, it would be a great joy. I don't want to get out my friends. I want to get out people that I don't know."

That isn't possible, though. And it will never be possible. So one of these days, one of these nights, in a ballpark on one end of the Jersey Turnpike or the other, he will be facing his friends. And it will be must-see baseball theater, whether he wants it to be or not.

But when that day arrives, Martinez vowed, the lovefest would be suspended, until further notice.

"Don't confuse that," he said. "It could be my mom standing up there with a bat. And if I have to knock her off the plate, I would. So don't confuse that."

In Philadelphia, of course, they aren't going to confuse anything. He should know that. And they aren't going to want to hear this talk.

His new fans, in his new town, are not going to share his love for the Mets, or Mets fans, or even Mr. Met. So he is going to have to prove he can put all his mushy feelings aside.

But Martinez seems to have no doubt that he is going to "fall in love" with these people, or that he can make them fall in love with him.

"I think we'll have a lot of fun," he said, "because they seem to be really wild -- and I'm a little out there, too."

But 2½ months from now, this signing won't be judged by how much fun they all have together. And it won't be judged by how honest, how eloquent or how charming he can be when the cameras are pointing in his direction.

This is all about wins and losses now -- his and his new team's. So if Pedro Martinez can help lead the Phillies to another fun October, he can be a hero. And if not … well, nobody in Philly will remember this signing by halfway through Thanksgiving dinner.

It's all up to Pedro. He's healthier than he's been in a long time, he said. He's as motivated as he's been in just as long a time. And this is the place he wanted to be -- badly enough to take less than half the guaranteed dollars he'd been asking for elsewhere.

So now it's time to stop yakking and analyzing and speculating. Now it's time for Pedro Martinez to do what he's done as well as any pitcher of his generation:

Pitch.

"I'm not going to say anything," he said Wednesday. "I'm just here to prove it, because talking doesn't win games. So I want to get out to the mound -- and see what I can do."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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