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A Good Time in the Big City

The new face of the franchise, Pedro Martinez, is making the Mets matter again in New York, and he's having fun doing it

High up barely passable roads in the mountains of the Dominican Republic is the only mine in the world that produces larimar, a turquoiselike gem regarded as a healing stone that is said to relieve tension. A more accessible version of the Dominican gem, at least when New York City's Grand Central Parkway is not choked with increasingly heavy game-day traffic, can be found at Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets showcase the gel-curled talisman that is Pedro Martinez. ¶ You want relief from tension? Already this year Martinez has strutted around the clubhouse in a garish orange two-piece suit before every game of a three-game winning streak, run childlike through the spray of infield sprinklers that interrupted one of his starts, worn a trash can atop his head to salute a game-winning hit by large-noggined backup catcher Ramon Castro, made his signature double point-and-thrust gesture the new lambada, and helped fill cavernous, charmless Shea with satisfied customers (attendance is up 23%), some of whom pay homage to the great gelled one by wearing long, curly, shiny black wigs. ¶ The stress level around Queens has also been reduced by the artful pitching of Martinez, who at week's end was 12-3, had a league-leading 147 strikeouts and was the most important reason why the Mets were exciting and relevant for the first time in five years. They ended last week with a 6-1 run that brought them within 3 1/2 games of the National League East lead. The Mets were scoring 4.9 runs per game when Martinez pitched, 4.4 when he didn't; they'd allowed only one unearned run in his 142 innings and one every 27 innings behind everyone else; they were 13-7 when he started, 38-40 when he didn't; and they were 6-1 when he started after a loss, 18-22 when someone else did. ¶ Last Saturday, for instance, the day after New York had lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-5, the Mets rallied for a 7-5 win immediately after Martinez was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh. ¶ "Carlos Beltran, Cliff Floyd, Jose Reyes ... they all play better when I pitch," Martinez crowed after the game. "Maybe it's my tempo out there. Maybe they just like me and like playing behind me. But our team seems to be doing better when I pitch." ¶ New York is a different ball club--more so, a different franchise--since it signed Martinez last December to a four-year, $53 million free-agent contract. The Metaphysicals believe in the power of Pedro. Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson alternately compares him to Bruce Springsteen ("the gift to touch hearts and souls") and Muhammad Ali ("he can beat you with the rope-a-dope, the jab, or if he has to, he can slug it out"). General manager Omar Minaya simply regards him as incomparable. "He transcends wins and losses," Minaya said last Friday. "Attendance, the visibility of the franchise, everything. The best way I can describe it is that he affects your brand--Pedro makes the brand. I don't think there is any other guy in baseball who can do that. There is not another guy with that kind of brand value. Roger Clemens has brand value in Texas, but not all over, including Latin America, like Pedro."

While Minaya spoke, Jesus Fernando Martinez, a 16-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic, took batting practice with the Mets, smashing one pitch over the wall in dead centerfield. The free-agent outfielder had signed a $1.4 million contract with New York 11 days earlier. "I know there were other teams that offered more money," Minaya said. "We got him because of how much he admired Pedro."

Says Mets special assistant Sandy Johnson, who helped sign Jesus Martinez, "You can't overestimate what Pedro means in Latin America. When he pitches, everywhere you go people are watching the game."

The Mets' enthrallment with Martinez is matched only by his glee over being a Met. "It's the happiest I've been," he says, "since the day I signed my first professional contract. I got $6,500."

Last year Martinez helped pitch the Boston Red Sox to their first world championship in 86 years. But in doing so the righthander worked a career-high 244 innings (postseason included) while wondering if the club wanted to retain him after he fulfilled his seven-year, $90 million contract in October. "When I was on the field, no season was more fun than that," he says of 2004. "As far as not knowing where I was going to be, it did have an effect on me. Now I have peace of mind. Now I know where the end of my career is going to be. The next four years are going to be fun."

Asked if he will retire at the end of this contract, Martinez, 33, says, "Most likely. But it's not up to me if the time comes, say, two years down the road. I'll let God make the decision. I have the peace of mind in knowing that I already won the World Series, and these four years I can devote to trying to make it to the World Series again and add to the legacy I created in baseball."

No pitcher in major league history with at least 200 decisions has a better winning percentage than Martinez (.711, 194-79), who is as tough to beat as ever, even without the wicked high-90s fastball he wielded in the late 1990s. Consider his last three starts through Sunday, all wins: He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 6-1 on July 10, primarily with low-90s fastballs; beat the Atlanta Braves 8-1 on July 17 with only 61 pitches in six innings, none of them harder than 86 mph; and subdued the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday with a phenomenal display of changing speeds. With his 109 pitches, Martinez hit all 21 numbers on the radar gun from 70 to 90 mph. For instance, he threw his increasingly important cut fastball at 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85 and 86 mph to both sides of the plate. Not even John Nash could add and subtract like that.

"You can tell a Picasso by looking at it, same with a Rembrandt," Peterson says. "There is a definitive style. With Pedro, though, he can be whatever he needs to be. Nobody else does that."

His superior pitching intellect and intuition serve Martinez well in his self-described end phase. For instance, though he hadn't pitched in the National League for seven years before this season, Martinez often does not bother reviewing scouting reports or videotape on hitters. "On the bench between starts, he misses nothing," manager Willie Randolph says. "He's a master at reading hitters' body language."

Says catcher Mike Piazza, "It's amazing what he picks up just from watching hitters--the way they react to pitches, the adjustments they might make with their feet, everything. It's not like we go out there with a script. A lot of it is him improvising."

Asked about how he so efficiently dispatched the Braves, who sent four rookies to the plate, Martinez explained that the harder they tried to hit him, the softer he threw. "I saw a bunch of kids hacking and hacking and hacking and hacking," he said. "And I had all three [off-speed] pitches [cutter, curve, changeup] working down in the strike zone. When that happens, it's an easy day at the office. I don't worry about blowing the ball by anybody. I'll take a ground ball on one pitch over a strikeout any day."

Indeed, the move out of the heavy-artillery American League suits Martinez well at this stage of his career. Though on pace to throw 235 innings in the regular season, he's been getting through an average inning easier than at any point in his career (13.8 pitches). The bottom third of the thinner NL lineups essentially gives Martinez two or three low-stress innings in his typical seven-inning start. The 7-8-9 hitters were batting .106 against him in 161 at bats with no home runs, two doubles, one walk and six RBIs.

Martinez's own club typifies the forgiveness of NL lineups. The Mets ranked 24th among the 30 major league teams in batting (.259) and 26th in on-base percentage (.322). They did, however, percolate a bit last week, scoring 48 runs in their seven-game tear with a spark from dynamic if inconsistent leadoff hitter Reyes. The fleet shortstop has an anemic .295 OBP, but thanks to his league-leading 10 triples and 34 stolen bases, he scores almost half the time he does reach base (61 of 130).

The Mets haven't had a winning season since 2001 and have turned over virtually their entire roster since then. Only Piazza and righthander Steve Trachsel, who is recuperating from back surgery, remain among the 44 players who suited up for New York four years ago. To contend for the postseason, which they haven't seen since their 2000 World Series loss to the Yankees, the Mets will need Reyes on base more often, more production from the first base position--with Doug Mientkiewicz getting the bulk of the work, Mets first basemen ranked last in the majors in batting average (.215) and OBP (.295)--and a better second half from centerfielder Beltran, whose first-half anxiousness at the plate typified the break-in period that stars usually require in New York.

Martinez, however, needed no such adjustment. He has been reliable from the moment he struck out 12 batters on Opening Day. He was at his entertaining best on June 2, when he danced through the unexpected sprinkler shower in the first inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks and threw eight dominant innings in which he allowed one run and no walks while striking out nine. "After the game," Peterson says, "I was in the dugout and saw that most of the fans were still there, doing the Pedro point-and-thrust. It was like they didn't want to leave. It was like a concert. I told him, 'You've got a gift. You're not just a great pitcher, but the way people naturally respond to you is special.'"

Of course, Peterson was not thinking of the way New Yorkers--more specifically, Yankees fans--responded to Martinez in his previous seven years with Boston. "There were many nights I would be leaving Yankee Stadium, and the fans would be cursing me and wanting to fight me," Martinez says. "I would think, You're so confused. I'm just a fearless competitor who will always try to do my best. I'm not a fighter. I'm not a bad guy.

"Now I think New York is getting to know me for the first time. And I feel the energy from the fans. It's becoming very noticeable. I don't know what really brings it out, what makes people get so excited when I pitch."

After his win on Saturday, Martinez lingered for 30 minutes giving interviews in equally erudite English and Spanish in the same room where Joe Namath--another populist Shea icon--used to dress. Two female reporters, one speaking each language, hugged and kissed him. Then Martinez, dressed in fashionable blue jeans and an orange polo shirt, walked toward his car through the drab corridor of the old edifice. As he did, a few of the friends, security officers and stadium workers still around reached out to shake his hand or pat his back, as if to touch a healing stone.

Hits and Misses

The Mets have $282 million invested in free-agent signees on the current roster--Carlos Beltran, Mike Cameron, Cliff Floyd, Tom Glavine, Braden Looper, Pedro Martinez, Kaz Matsui and Steve Trachsel--an aggressive strategy for a team with a mixed history in that market. Excluding those players, here are the notable signees in club history.


METS DEBUT: 2002  

CONTRACT: one year, $5 million

12-11 with 4.79 ERA in '02; missed most of '03 after shoulder surgery



Defensive liability still on Mets payroll; recently released by Cardinals



CONTRACT:four years, $42 million

11-10 in '01, then traded to Angels for bigger bust--Mo Vaughn



CONTRACT: three years, $18 million

Clubbed 22 homers for '00 pennant winner; slipped to 10 in '01



CONTRACT: four years, $32 million

Finished sixth in NL MVP voting in '99 with 32 homers, 120 RBIs


METS: 1996

DEBUT CONTRACT: two years, $5.8 million

Led league with 227 hits, 21 triples in '96; traded to Cubs in '97


METS: 1992

DEBUT CONTRACT: five years, $29 million

Tumultuous 3 1/2-year stay ended with trade in best season as a Met


METS: 1992

DEBUT CONTRACT: two years, $7.5 million

Hall of Famer led Mets in RBIs both years with the team


METS: 1991

DEBUT CONTRACT: four years, $11.95 million

Failed to play more than 92 games in any of three Mets seasons

"Pedro transcends wins and losses," Minaya says. "He MAKES THE BRAND. I don't think there is any other guy in baseball who can do that."


Photograph by John Iacono


Martinez lacks the high-90s fastball of his youth, but he compensates with guile.




Pedro's signature salute has become a Shea staple.




An unexpected sprinkling during a June 2 win over the Diamondbacks did little to dampen the spirits of Martinez.