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THE BIG ONE THAT GOT AWAY

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget the money, if possible. Forget the awards.

Pedro Martinez sat at his spring locker in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse in late March, tapped a reporter on the knee and said he was driven by competition, ego and a lingering hunger--the memory of empty tables as a youngster growing up in the Dominican Republic.

“I believe I have earned the money, but that is not my motivation,” he said, having won the National League’s Cy Young Award in his breakthrough season with Montreal last year and then signed a record six-year, $75-million contract with the Red Sox after being traded in the Expos’ latest payroll purge.

“The way I look at it is that every time I pitch I have to bring the food to the table,” Martinez said. “I have to bring food to my people no matter how I feel or if I’m hurt that day. I could be making nothing and I’d still have the same motivation.

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“Of course,” he added, “I also hate to lose.”

Martinez has been delivering the goods, on and off the field--a benefactor in the Dominican and baby-faced assassin on the mound.

A control specialist who is unafraid to pitch inside. Unafraid and unapologetic for the sometimes volatile consequences.

“The guy looks like Tony Gwynn’s 14-year-old son out there and he’s throwing 100 miles an hour,” Jeff Bagwell of the Houston Astros said.

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More like mid-90s with a devastating curve and an industry-best change-up that left Oakland A’s second baseman Scott Spiezio shaking his head Wednesday night and saying, “you can swing at it three times and still miss it.”

Spiezio struck out twice as Martinez fanned 11 and gave up only three hits in his seven innings of a 2-0 opening night victory that marked his Red Sox and American League debut, and illustrated that he has picked up where he left off in his 17-8 season with Montreal--a season in which he led the majors with a 1.90 earned-run average, 13 complete games and a .184 average against him.

He also struck out 10 or more in 18 starts and 305 in 241 1/3 innings, becoming the first pitcher since Steve Carlton in 1972 to strike out more than 300 with an ERA below 2.00.

That power and off-speed combination, said Dennis Eckersley, translates to the “nastiest pitcher in the league with the nastiest change-up, and he’ll throw it on any count or in any situation.”

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Eckersley viewed Martinez from the St. Louis Cardinal bullpen and is now a Boston teammate.

The Angels get a look tonight, when Martinez makes his second start for the Red Sox at Edison Field.

They will see a 5-foot-11, 175-pound right-hander of whom former Montreal teammate Lee Smith said:

“It’s a crying shame that the best pitcher in the league has only two hairs on his chest.”

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Martinez may not look the part physically. He may not have the lean, long, uncoiling delivery of his older brother and idol, the 6-foot-4 Dodger, Ramon Martinez, but he generates velocity through arm speed and mechanics, enhances it with that change-up and curve, and “exudes an aura of confidence, pitching with a purpose no matter what the score is,” Manager Jimy Williams said.

Said Boston pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, the Expo pitching coach during Martinez’s first three years there: “It was like watching a kid grow up, developing composure and control. He’s absolutely electric on the mound now. I mean, Greg Maddux has outstanding movement and may manipulate the ball better than anyone I’ve ever seen, but Pedro can get you both ways--with power and finesse.”

Boston’s expensive gain, of course, is the Expos’ and Dodgers’ loss.

The Jody Reed Factor

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Dodger Vice President Ralph Avila and the staff at the club’s Dominican training facility first saw Martinez at 14, trying to tote Ramon’s equipment bag, following big brother’s every move. He was a malnourished wisp, but even then there were flashes of lightning in his arm.

“Pedro always had the desire, determination and aptitude, but the question was size, strength and physical condition,” Avila recalled.

Three years younger than Ramon (and three years older than brother Jesus, who would also sign with the Dodgers and is now in the Cincinnati Reds’ system), Pedro was 5-8 and 120 pounds when he signed at 16. He was also so confident of following Ramon to the U.S. and pitching in the big leagues that he would sit behind home plate and pretend he was broadcasting camp games in English, certain he would soon need to know the language.

Despite the confidence, however, those questions of size and stamina haunted Martinez during his early years in the system. Some thought he should start. Some thought he should relieve, lacking the strength to go nine innings.

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He would make 117 consecutive starts in Montreal, pitching through leg and thumb injuries en route to the Cy Young last year, but in 1993, when he was 10-5 with a 2.61 ERA with the Dodgers, 63 of his 65 appearances were out of the bullpen.

“I never really understood the Dodgers’ thinking,” Martinez said in reflection. “I was up and down, in and out of the bullpen. People said I was too small, didn’t have the stamina, but I proved I had the strength with those 65 appearances in ’93. You had to figure after that I could pitch 200 innings getting rest between starts, but that’s over now, behind me.”

In November 1993, Executive Vice President Fred Claire made the trade that will always be his albatross. He sent Martinez to Montreal for second baseman Delino DeShields, an all-star who never fulfilled his promise in Los Angeles and is now with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The pursuit of a second baseman became necessary when free agent Jody Reed, after batting .276 and providing reliable defense for the Dodgers in ’92, rejected a three-year, $6.6-million offer from Claire. It is unclear which was more stunning: the offer or Reed’s rejection.

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The decision haunted the second baseman financially. He moved on to a lesser series of contracts with the Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres and Detroit Tigers and is no longer on a major league roster.

Claire was left to pursue Robby Thompson, who ultimately resigned with the San Francisco Giants, forcing Claire to consider the trade for DeShields.

“We knew Pedro was a young man with exceptional talent and a heart that was evident from day one,” Claire said, looking back.

“You could look at his strikeout and walks ratio to innings pitched and accurately project him as a 200-inning starter.

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“We didn’t want to trade him, but we had a club with a very good chance to win and we were trying to get it to the next level. You could talk to 20 people and they would tell you that they thought we made a very good trade in acquiring a young all-star with a tremendous upside. It didn’t work out, but no one is happier for Pedro’s success. He’s a great pitcher and person.”

Martinez, 22 at the time, was stunned and bewildered. Concerned that he was going to a city he didn’t know, joining teammates he didn’t know, leaving his brother.

Ramon wrapped an arm around him and told him, “Don’t worry. You know how to play, you know how to pitch, the game is the same.”

Pedro Martinez, finding that to be true, looked back and said, “I was just a rookie and Delino was an all-star player. Everybody thought the Dodgers got the best part of it. Too bad it didn’t work out, but that’s the way it is. Life is a gamble. You win, you lose.”

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The Contract

Martinez didn’t leave the Dodgers empty-handed. He left with the change-up that mystifies hitters, having learned it from Guy Conti, whom he calls his “white daddy,” then the manager at his rookie team in Great Falls.

He would refine it, build on it, add to it in Montreal--under the patient tutelage of Kerrigan and Manager Felipe Alou, a fellow Dominican who enhanced his mental and cultural maturation.

Dan Duquette was the general manager who traded for him in Montreal, and who did it again as general manager of the Red Sox.

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Martinez knew it was coming this time because that’s what the Expos did with players who were climbing the salary ladder and a year away from free agency. He hoped to go to a contender like Cleveland. He dreamed of returning to the Dodgers, pitching again with Ramon.

“Either the Dodgers didn’t try hard enough or didn’t need me,” Martinez said. “As much as I would have liked to gone back and pitch with Ramon, they already have one of the best rotations, and Montreal was asking for a lot.”

Boston gave up pitching prospects Carl Pavano and Tony Armas Jr. The Expos talked to the Dodgers about Wilton Guerrero and Paul Konerko and third-base prospect Adrian Beltre, but there was more to it than young talent.

With Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi and Eric Young hammering on his door, Claire had to consider the payroll implications.

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“Anybody who thought we could trade for Pedro without a signed contract involved was not using common sense,” he said. “This isn’t rotisserie baseball. How many contracts of $10 million or more can you have on one team? Of course, nobody wants to hear that.”

Boston was a surprise and disappointment for Martinez--something of a non-contender with a cautious financial approach.

Then Duquette told him the Red Sox were headed in a new and aggressive direction, and he heard more about a city in which the fans are as passionate about baseball as they are about hockey in Montreal.

“It will be nice to pitch in a place where people care,” he said.

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Of course, Martinez hasn’t been on the Fenway Park mound yet with the dreaded left-field wall over his shoulder and hasn’t heard from the talk shows after a loss, those caring fans screaming that they expect more for $12.5 million a year.

Martinez knows it is coming, but he also knows that as soon as Piazza and maybe others sign he won’t be No. 1 in that category.

“My contract won’t be anything and they will start forgetting about me,” he said.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps.

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But no matter what, Martinez added, there is no need to apologize.

He made $3.5 million when arbitration eligible last year, but in the previous three years he went from $200,000 to only $315,000 while the Expos renewed his contract in each of those years.

“I made no money in four years there,” he said. “I was gambling with my career every pitch I threw. I think it’s fair to get the money I am now to secure my career. I mean, they’re not giving it to me because they think I’m handsome. I’ve proven myself. I’ve done things to earn it.

“People talk about the money, but I’ve never seen a million dollars throw the ball to the plate. It’s me, the pitcher. Think about that.”

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Duquette obviously had to before making the deal.

“This was a statement by our club that we’re back in business,” he said. “We wanted to show our fans that we felt we have a contending club and that we were willing to pay the price for the staff ace we needed. If you look at Pedro’s career path, it’s very similar to that of Greg Maddux a year before he went to the Braves.”

And the money?

“We’re confident he won’t be affected,” Duquette said. “I mean, I’m very familiar with his family, his work ethic, his age. First and foremost, he’s a baseball player. He grew up with it, lives it, works hard at it. He likes the attention, likes being around people and is highly motivated. One of his goals is to be the first pitcher to win the Cy Young in both leagues.

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“We took all of that into consideration before making the trade. We knew the kind of person he was, as well as the kind of pitcher he was. We knew what it would take to sign him and weren’t intimidated. We felt he was the building block we needed.”

Pitching In

The repertoire is one thing. The location is something else.

Many pitchers give lip service to pitching inside. Martinez delivers room service. He believes he owns the inside corner, a contention that many hitters have disputed, taking their argument to the mound.

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“I was worried about him a couple years ago because he’s not a very big guy and it seemed like everybody wanted to jump on him,” Ramon said.

“Players were coming up to me and saying, ‘Tell your brother to cut it out,’ or ‘Tell him to stop throwing at everybody.’ I told him one day, ‘Don’t ever stop pitching inside because you need to do that to be successful, but if you have to move somebody back from the plate, do it with a low pitch, do it at their knees.”’

Martinez hit 11 batters in each of his first two years in Montreal, three in 1996 and nine last year. He may be a throwback to a time when moving hitters off the plate was accepted, Alou said, but he is not a headhunter.

“I just think it was a matter of maturity and control,” Alou said. “He needed time to learn how to pitch.”

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Martinez agreed.

“I was 21 and weighed 150 pounds when I came to the big leagues,” he said. “I knew I had to pitch inside but didn’t know how and didn’t have the time to learn. I had to try and take advantage of every opportunity when the Dodgers put me in a game. All I thought about was blowing hitters away with my fastball.”

There were three fights and 12 ejections in Martinez’s 23 starts in 1994, his first year in Montreal. Kerrigan changed the grip on his fastball to provide better control, but umpires were so quick to issue warnings--even on curveballs at times--that Kerrigan, Martinez and then-General Manager Kevin Malone ultimately met with National League President Leonard Coleman to argue that the headhunting perception was out of hand and erroneous. They argued that Martinez pitched inside because of philosophy and that he sometimes hit batters because of a mechanical flaw.

“I just think a lot of people in baseball were doing a poor job of trying to understand a young pitcher who could be a real positive for the game,” said Alou.

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There have been fewer incidents in the last two years, although Martinez drew an eight-game suspension in September 1996--causing him to miss his first two starts in ’97--for charging the mound after Philadelphia’s Mike Williams threw two retaliatory pitches behind his head.

“I don’t throw at hitters and I don’t care what people think or say,” Martinez said. “I pitch outside as much as I pitch inside, but if I miss outside then I’m giving up a home run over the middle of the plate. If I miss inside, maybe it’s a single, maybe I hit someone. I have to pitch inside, but I can paint the outside too. You can’t be up there thinking one thing.”

Martinez’s reputation precedes him, which works to his advantage. Much of baseball is a mind game, and Boston first baseman Mo Vaughn, for one, is happy to have Martinez on his side--offering a little protection if need be.

“If someone drills one of our players, they are going to get drilled back,” Vaughn said. “It’s nice to have that going for you.”

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Remembering Home

The banners hanging over the boulevards in his Dominican neighborhood this winter read, “Bienvenido Pedro Martinez, Cy Young 1997.”

The announcement of the award ignited joyous celebrations.

Reform President Leonel Fernandez asked Martinez to intercede in a general strike that had gripped the country. He was suddenly bigger than Juan Marichal, though he had never forgotten his roots, the empty tables.

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He and Ramon grew up pitching rocks at mangoes, using bottle caps for balls, broomsticks for bats.

The Martinez brothers seldom return to the Dominican now without boxes of equipment for the local leagues.

Pedro had already built a church in his hometown of Manoguayabo, which opened just before he left for spring training.

He is proud of the new contract, but it only means he can provide more. He plans to build a gym, medical facility and schools.

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“He’s been outstanding,” Avila said. “He’s really taken good care of his family, friends and neighborhood.”

Martinez recently provided the air fare for many relatives and friends, along with a Dominican band, when he hosted a birthday party for Ramon in Vero Beach, surprising his brother with a Ferrari.

“Everything I am I learned from Ramon,” Martinez said with pride in the Boston clubhouse this spring.

Everything he is might be best illustrated by this: On the night that he left the Dominican for spring training, thunderstorms swept across Florida and grounded his flight from Miami to Fort Myers.

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Martinez could have chartered a jet or limo, but he was worried about the perception. He and a friend rented a car and made the three-hour drive through severe squalls, arriving at 2 a.m. on the morning of the first workout.

“I’ve never been late for spring training, and I wasn’t going to let some rain stop me this time,” he said--not with a new uniform to try on and that new contract in the pocket.

“I don’t know if I can get better, but I do know I expect success, I pitch with confidence and I’m still learning,” he said. “I’m kind of like a boxer. I’m here to keep my title.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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A BREAKOUT SEASON

FEWEST HITS PER 9 INNINGS PITCHED (SINCE 1950)

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Pitcher, Team Year Avg. Nolan Ryan, Angels 1972 5.26 Luis Tiant, Cleveland 1968 5.3 Nolan Ryan, Texas 1991 5.31 Sid Fernandez, New York Mets 1985 5.71 Dave McNally, Baltmore 1968 5.77 Sandy Koufax, Dodgers 1965 5.79 Hideo Nomo, Dodgers 1995 5.83 Al Downing, New York Yankees 1963 5.84 Herb Score, Cleveland 1956 5.85 Bob Gibson, St. Louis 1968 5.85 Sam McDowell, Cleveland 1965 5.87 Pedro Martinez, Montreal 1997 5.89

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*--*

STRIKEOUTS PER 9 INNINGS, 1997 (Min. 50 innings)

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Pitcher, Team Avg. Billy Wagner, Houston 14.4 Armando Benitez, Baltimore 13.1 Troy Percival, Angels 12.5 Randy Johnson, Seattle 12.3 Trevor Hoffman, San Diego 12.3 Russ Springer, Houston 12.0 Mark Wohlers, Atlanta 12.0 Ugueth Urbina, Montreal 11.8 Pedro Martinez, Montreal 11.4 Curt Schilling, Philadelphia 11.3

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*--*

*

TONIGHT’S GAME

BOSTON at ANGELS

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Time: 7 P.M.

TV: None

Radio: KRLA (1110)

Pitchers: Pedro Martinez (1-0) vs. Chuck Finley (1-0)

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