Pedro Martinez was, from 1997 through 2003, the greatest pitcher in major league history. Other pitchers had better careers — longer careers — but nobody was better for a sustained period of time than Martinez was in those years.
But who was the greatest Pedro Martinez in Pedro Martinez history — in other words, when specifically did Pedro Martinez reach his ultimate peak? The answer might be 20 years ago today. He was three years into that seven-year run, he was wrapping up a season with by far the best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in modern baseball history, and he was smack in the middle of an eight-game stretch in which he would strike out 107 batters, walk eight and allow a 1.16 ERA. His start on Sept. 10, 1999, was the best of the eight.
A friend told me once that Martinez’s start that night was The Pedro Game. I was confused. I already knew what The Pedro Game was, and it didn’t happen 20 years ago tonight. Then a different friend told me that, no, The Pedro Game was actually a different game still. And then I asked a big group of friends and was startled to realize just how many iconic, unique, capital-letter Pedro Days there were that Pedro Martinez threw in his career. There are seven, at least.
The whole point of naming something is to give it an identity, to cure confusion. If we’re all talking about different days, under the same name, we’re doing it all wrong. It’s time to solve this riddle.
The Canadian Pedro Game: June 3, 1995
The pitching line: 9 IP / 1 H / 0 R / 0 ER / 0 BB / 9 SO
What happened: Martinez became the second pitcher in history to take a perfect game into extra innings. Harvey Haddix lost his in the 13th inning, and would lose the game. Martinez won the game but lost his to the leadoff batter in the 10th.
But, look, it was every bit the equal of any other perfect game, right? Twenty-seven up, 27 down. At the time, there had been only 12 perfect games in major league history, plus Haddix’s. That it didn’t count alongside the 12 “official” perfect games was entirely arbitrary, owing not to anything having to do with Pedro, or Pedro’s pitching, or general logic, but merely his Expos’ inability to score a run. “I was disgusted with myself,” said Darrin Fletcher, the Expos catcher, after flying out in the ninth inning with a man on. It was the offense’s fault Pedro’s start went into the 10th. It wasn’t Pedro’s.
In 1995, a lot of opposing ballplayers didn’t like Martinez. He’d been in his first brawl a year earlier, and his second right after that, when the Padres’ Derek Bell charged him after a strikeout. Martinez wasn’t even looking when Bell came running at him, and according to Martinez another Padre — Bip Roberts — launched into him from behind, too. Pedro pledged to Roberts he’d remember — “I’ll get your ass.”
But Roberts was the man who broke up the perfect game, on his fourth try. Pedro threw him a changeup and Roberts lined a double into right field. Pedro left immediately after the hit, despite having thrown only 96 pitches. He ended up with the win — the Expos had scored in the top of the 10th — but, alas, Roberts won the “get your ass” contest.
It wasn’t The Pedro Game.
Why it’s not The Pedro Game: Because he wasn’t really The Pedro yet. He was known at the time for flashes of brilliance, some wildness and the controversial style of pitching inside. He didn’t yet have command of his great curveball, and he was still throwing his two-seamer instead of his better, easier-to-command four-seamer. It was another year (or perhaps three) before he really put everything together and became the greatest pitcher who ever lived.
Can you watch it? No. You can see him lose the perfect game — and then run to dutifully back up second base — but you can’t see the good stuff.
The Five-Baseball-Games-A-Year Fan’s Pedro Game: Oct. 11, 2003
The pitching line: 7/6/4/4/1/6
What happened: A “beet-faced, roly-poly old man” — Pedro’s words, in his 2015 autobiography — charged at Pedro in the middle of a benches-cleared scrum, Pedro redirected him to the ground, and we all spent the next week debating whether Pedro Martinez is a villain or just a complicated hero.
Pedro’s “tackle” of Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer had enough ambiguity to it that it’s hard to know what to make of it: Pedro looks almost entirely confused/defensive, but his hands, right at the end, do look forceful and mean. Hard to say! But in New York, there was no ambiguity, and Pedro started to get death threats. Credible threats, he writes, enough that he says he had police surveillance for his family and extra security at his hotel. “I didn’t go out once,” he writes of checking into his Manhattan hotel for the rest of the 2003 American League Championship Series. “Nothing but room service, and I had to be careful that the food was okay before I ate any of it. I felt vulnerable. My cocoon was threadbare and flimsy. I had never pitched a game under more pressure [than his next start, in New York]. I’ve always said that pressure is a lack of confidence in the things that you can do, but on that day forces that had nothing to do with baseball closed in on me. I felt physically threatened. The vise began to squeeze.”
The through-line of Pedro’s career — even more than “good pitcher,” because he wasn’t always a good pitcher — is that he worked fearlessly inside and the league fought to get him to stop. Figuratively, they fought by trying to shame him, by slandering him as a headhunter who didn’t respect the game. But they also literally fought him, constantly: Reggie Sanders once charged Pedro after Pedro hit him with a pitch in the eighth inning of a perfect game. Pitchers threw at Pedro in retaliation, and after a few of those he became one of the few pitchers you’ll see charging the mound back.
And so this is perhaps the ultimate culmination of that career-long fight: Don Zimmer, baseball’s final boss, charged and got rolled to the ground, but, ultimately, he got closer than anybody else to forcing Pedro Martinez to second-guess his actions. “I made a wrong decision,” Martinez would write.
But it’s not The Pedro Game.
Why it’s not The Pedro Game: He didn’t pitch very well. (Twenty-six other starting pitchers have had the same 7/6/4/4/1/6 line, and only eight of their teams won.) There was the potential for it to become The Pedro Game because after the brawl Pedro retired the next nine straight. If it had been, say, 15 straight, and the Red Sox had come back and won the game, there’d be a case. But as it is, we should agree Pedro Martinez needs to pitch well for a game to be The Pedro Game.
Can you watch it? Yes you can!
The Hipster Pedro Game: May 6, 2000 and/or Aug. 29, 2000
The pitching line(s): 9/6/1/1/1/17 and 9/1/0/0/0/13
What happened: This is, obviously, two games, and we’re supposed to be talking about only one. Each of these is worthy of career-highlight status, but they bleed into each other.
Both were against the Rays. In the first, he matched a career-high 17 strikeouts and got a career-high 37 swinging strikes, which, near as I can tell, is the second-most by any starter since 1988. (The Kerry Wood Game, to put this into perspective, had 24 swinging strikes.) “I would like to have that stuff for just one inning,” his pitching coach, Joe Kerrigan said afterward. “Just give me one batter.” But on an eighth-inning run the Red Sox lost 1-0 to Steve Trachsel, who had led the majors in losses the year before. Pedro lowered his ERA for the season to 1.22, but he lost his 13-game winning streak. “One can only guess what we’d be saying and writing today if Pedro had actually won the game,” The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy wrote that day.
Fast-forward to August, the Rays again. Gerald Williams led off the game, took a fastball on his hand, and charged the mound. He landed a clean punch before a pile formed on him and Pedro, and when it was all settled — 12 minutes later — Williams was ejected. Pedro was not. There would be a total of five scrums in the game — Brian Daubach had to go to the hospital, Lou Merloni was hospitalized with a concussion, Trot Nixon maybe threw his bat at the pitcher, eight Rays were ejected, and a group of Rays tried to get into the Red Sox clubhouse after the game to keep the fight going — but Martinez managed to keep his head down and stay in. He retired the next 24 batters before finally losing his no-hitter in the top of the ninth. “John Flaherty, a guy who couldn’t hit himself, took a 97 mph fastball away and dropped it into right center,” Pedro writes. “Go figure. If Flaherty could ruin my no-hitter in 2000 and Bip Roberts could spoil my perfect game five years earlier, there was no reason to be upset with never having one of those on my resume. It just wasn’t meant to happen.”
As the Boston Herald’s Michael Silverman would write in 2015, “If one game could capture what made Martinez so dominating and infuriating for opponents, this was it.” Indeed, it captures the subtext of Pedro, which even he seemed to underestimate. While he insisted that his pitch to Gerald Williams was unintentional, and that he had no history with Williams, Williams (and everybody else) had history with him, because of that subtext. Consider how, after the May start, a reporter had actually asked Williams whether he had expected any pitches high and tight from Pedro — a seemingly out-of-nowhere question for a batter who hadn’t gotten any pitches high and tight. But sure, makes sense as a question: It’s Pedro! After the August start — and the fastball to his hand — Williams struggled to hold his tongue: “I want to remain professional. Sometimes, it becomes increasingly difficult when you’re given a guy’s background. That’s all I want to say about it.”
By Game Score, the August game was tied for the best start of Pedro’s career. By swinging strikes, the start in May might well have been his most dominant. Neither was The Pedro Game.
Why neither is The Pedro Game: While these would easily sit atop the highlights for a normal ace, two masterpieces against a pitiful Rays team can’t quite contend against Pedro’s larger body of work. Besides, hardly anybody saw those games, or can see those games, and thus hardly anybody can remember those games with the appropriate sense of awe.
Can you watch them: Not entirely, but you can watch the brawl in the August game and you can watch 55 seconds of third strikes in the May game:
55 Seconds of Pedro Martinez’s Filth (17K Game against the Devil Rays). Complete with Pedro side-eyeing batters after Ks, as he walked off the field. pic.twitter.com/79ccz2ByFc
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 24, 2017
The Pedro Game Most Likely To Be Remembered in the Year 2119: Oct. 16, 2003
The Pitching line: 7.1/10/5/5/1/8
What happened: This was the start after the Don Zimmer game, after the death threats and the extra security, and here’s what Pedro writes that was like:
“Just before I took the long, exposed walk out to the outfield to begin my long toss, I asked our resident security agent to walk beside me. Pitchers do not get police escorts on a baseball field. That night I did, for the first and last time. Before I could think about facing Alfonso Soriano, I had to stop thinking, literally, about meeting the same fate as John F. Kennedy.”
He was so, so good. When the eighth inning began, with Pedro still pitching, Joe Buck read a promo for Master and Commander, “The year’s most anticipated motion picture, starring Russell Crowe.” Nineteen seconds later, Tim McCarver chimed in: “Master and Commander has starred Pedro Martinez tonight.” Yesss.
But there’s another thing Buck said that inning: “Some [people were] saying Pedro Martinez still had to have that one game — that highlight game in his career.” That’s incredible, considering that all the other games we’ve talked about or are about to talk about had already happened, but the stakes and the performance might have justified it. Buck was suggesting, at roughly 11 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2003, that this was actually the greatest game of Pedro Martinez’s career, that this was the game he’d be remembered for: Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, against the Yankees, to send Boston to the World Series, with the franchise still waiting for its first title in almost a century.
And then, incredibly, this start became exponentially more memorable, immeasurably more historic: Grady Little leaving Martinez out for one, and then two, three, four, five batters too long, long enough for Martinez to lose the lead, so that Aaron Boone could eventually hit the walk-off homer in the 11th inning. It might be the most famous baseball game of the 21st century.
But it’s not The Pedro Game.
Why it’s not The Pedro Game: It’s the Grady Little Game. It might be the game most likely to be remembered 100 years from now, and Pedro was on the screen more than any other player, but this ultimately wasn’t a movie about him. It was really a psychological thriller, with Little the protagonist.
Can you watch it? You can. In fact, if it’s not the most-viewed full game on MLB’s YouTube channel, it’s very close:
The Not-A-Real-Game Pedro Game: July 13, 1999
The pitching line: 2/0/0/0/0/5
What happened: This was the 1999 All-Star Game, in Boston. Martinez had actually refused to pitch in the previous year’s All-Star Game, after he felt snubbed when another pitcher was given the starting assignment. (Publicly, he claimed to be sore.) But the 1999 game was in Fenway Park, and by this point Martinez was a half-season into the greatest multi-year peak of any pitcher in history. He got the start.
“Joe Torre and his brother-in-law were in [Red Sox manager Jimy Williams’] office at Fenway before the game,” Pedro writes in his book. “Joe was listening to his brother-in-law go on and on about the power in the NL lineup and how many home runs were going to be hit. ‘Pedro will strike everyone out,’ Joe told him. ‘What? You realize who they’ve got?’ ‘Yeah, and I don’t care — he’ll strike everyone out.'”
The six batters he faced were Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Matt Williams and Jeff Bagwell. He struck all but Williams out. Williams hit a first-pitch curveball weakly to second base.
Now, every baseball kid grows up hearing about the time Carl Hubbell struck out five Hall of Famers in a row, and there’s no doubt Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx — three of those Hall of Famers — loom larger in the public record than Barry Larkin and Larry Walker. But Pedro’s five-out-of-six strikeout victims had exactly the OPS Hubbell’s five had, at the time:
Pedro’s five, first half 1999: .311/.414/.609
Hubbell’s five, first half 1934: .331/.428/.595
Larry Walker was hitting .382 at that point. Sosa and McGwire that year were both on their way to once again hitting more than 61 home runs. Larkin and Bagwell are each in the Hall of Fame.
“I was amped up at a level I had seldom reached,” Pedro writes. It took him 28 pitches to get through his two innings. He threw six curveballs, and three caused batters to buckle: Two to Sosa, one to McGwire. He threw six changeups, four of them for swinging strikes. He threw 15 fastballs, up to 98 mph, and none were put into play. The five strikeout pitches are all GIF-able, but some of the best stuff was actually buried earlier in counts.
Those two innings are, to many, The Pedro Game, but they also cost the world an even better greatest pitching season of all time. “My shoulder was sore with what I thought was normal soreness after that game, but I was unable to work it out of my system before I went back into the rotation five days later. I only lasted 3 2/3 innings in my first start back, against the Marlins, because my shoulder was too sore to go. I had to go on the DL … My ERA ballooned, relatively, from 2.10 at the ASB to 2.52 by the middle of August before my shoulder settled down.” He had starts of 79 pitches, 77 pitches and 64 pitches in the weeks after. But in his final eight starts after it “settled down,” he struck out 15, 11, 15, 17, 14, 12 and 12. If we take that timeline at face value, then this is what Pedro’s season looks like without the All-Star Game:
First half: 15-3, 2.10 ERA, 184 Ks in 133 innings
Aug. 24 on: 6-0, 0.80 ERA, 97 Ks in 56 innings
Combined: 21-3, 1.72 ERA, 13.4 Ks/9
That 1.72 ERA would have come in a season in which the second-best ERA in the league was 3.44, and the league-average ERA was 4.86. (Bob Gibson’s record 1.12 ERA came in a season when the league-average ERA was 2.99.) His FIP on the season — 1.39 — is already the lowest since the Deadball era, but without the sore-shoulder starts, it would have been 1.24. It is just wild to think that the second-shortest start of Pedro’s career (by pitches), in a game that didn’t even count, would have bitten so much out of such a historical season.
As it is, though, the shoulder at least settled down enough to make possible the top two contenders for The Pedro Game. The All-Star Game is not quite The Pedro Game.
Why it’s not The Pedro Game: Too short, didn’t count.
Can you watch it? You actually must watch it:
The Scriptwriter’s Pedro Game: Oct. 11, 1999
Pitching line: 6/0/0/0/3/8 (in relief)
What happened: Pedro had started Game 1 of the ALDS, throwing four scoreless innings before he had to be removed for “something between a pinch and a pull,” in his words. The Red Sox lost the game, and for the next week weren’t sure if they’d lost Pedro. When the series reached Game 5, they still didn’t know if he’d be available, and when he threw in the outfield before the game he didn’t quite feel right.
Jimy Williams hoped to use Pedro for the final inning, maybe two, if the game turned out to be close. “The doctors examined the strained muscle running from his right shoulder down his back and said Martinez might be able to throw 40 pitches, absolute max,” Tom Verducci wrote the following spring.
But when starter Bret Saberhagen and reliever Derek Lowe each got knocked out early, and the Red Sox trailed 8-7 through three, Pedro walked over to Jimy in the dugout.
“Jimy, I’m sorry, but I’m going to go to the bullpen and try and see what I can do.”
“No Pedro, if you can go, you’re supposed to go at the end, and that’s only for one inning, maybe two, and 18, 20 pitches.”
“Jimy, this is the time. I’m sorry. But I’m going to see what I can do and if I can do it, I’m going in.”
“Goddammit, Pedro, I can’t let you do that.”
“No, Jimy, I’m going now.”
He went to the bullpen and threw. (Rod Beck, the Red Sox closer, also warmed up. It was the third inning!) The Red Sox tied the game, and in the bottom of the fourth Martinez entered the game, barely able to top 90 mph. His first two pitches were balls, and the Cleveland crowd erupted, perhaps convinced they’d actually just been given a gift — a hurt pitcher, about to get rocked. “With every pitch Martinez felt a stabbing sensation behind his shoulder,” Verducci wrote.
And still he was Pedro, just different. He threw about twice as many changeups as he typically would, and more curveballs, too, including a changeup-curve-change-curve-change-curve sequence to Roberto Alomar in the fifth. He couldn’t get his arm up to its regular three-quarters slot and was throwing almost sidearm, which gave his fastballs a bit of manic, unpredictable movement. As the strike zone expanded off the edges later in the game, he painted those extra inches of the plate, throwing mostly fastballs in the final two innings. When it ended, Pedro had thrown 97 pitches, six innings, hitless — against the only 1,000-run offense since 1950. The Red Sox won.
It’s probably his greatest performance, all things considered. Even if he weren’t hurt, it would have been an all-timer, but the lingering injury made it like “Kirk Gibson limping off the bench to hit his home run — and doing it five more times,” in Verducci’s words. In Pedro’s: “You think about being a hero in baseball, the Kirk Gibson winning homer against [Dennis] Eckersley [in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series]. Fans think of that, but players do too. For me in my life I have never known when those things are going to happen, when that moment, that opportunity, is going to come. But in my heart, I wanted them so much.” The great Red Sox beat writer Chad Finn says it was “to that point the most fulfilling experience I’d had in a lifetime as a Red Sox fan. I couldn’t even tell you what would have ranked second.”
And add onto that what Martinez was, he says now, risking: “I risked my career that day,” he told Jonah Keri. “I did it out of pure guts and adrenaline. I went out there and I did it, I risked my career. From the 84-86 mph that I was probably throwing in the first inning, I went all the way up to 94 again, but at the end of the game I was dying. I’ve never been in more pain than I was that day.”
I do not see how this cannot be The Pedro Game, but I’ve become convinced it’s not.
Why it’s not The Pedro Game: What made it incredible was that it wasn’t quite Pedro. He’d been Freaky Friday’d into another pitcher’s body, and his brilliant soul adapted and took advantage of the Indians’ expectations. Somehow, he equaled himself. But it was an anomalous Pedro, not The Pedro. In that game, we saw something incredible happen, but Pedro as a pitcher could be more incredible than that.
Can you watch it? Here you go:
The Pedro Game: Sept. 10, 1999
The pitching line: 9/1/1/1/0/17, the only instance of that pitching line in major league history.
What happened: Pedro started against the Yankees, in the final month of a pennant race, in Yankee Stadium. In the second inning, he threw a truly terrible pitch and Chili Davis hit a solo home run, and you could reasonably argue he never threw another bad pitch. He retired the next 22 batters, 15 of them by strikeout. None of the final 11 batters hit a ball fair.
Buster Olney wrote the game story for The New York Times: “Hitters gossip on the Yankees’ bench during games, sharing information about the opposing pitcher’s flaws. But there was no free-flowing exchange of thought last night, no tips, no insight. They said nothing in the dugout because there was nothing to say. Boston’s Pedro Martinez humbled the Yankees in their home park in a manner never seen before.” Indeed, during the ninth inning the television broadcast cut from one Yankee face to another, maybe a dozen in all, each equally stunned and speechless. The impression was one of isolation, as though Pedro had put each batter into his own personal prison cell.
“Jimy Williams, the Boston manager, said it was the best pitching effort he had ever seen,” Olney wrote. “David Cone agreed, less than two months removed from throwing a perfect game.”
The stakes were not as high as they were in the LDS relief appearance, or in later playoff games Pedro started. But this was, says Brian MacPherson, formerly of the Providence Journal, “the most characteristic start. He was more memorably dominant in the 1999 All-Star Game, and he was more consequential in the 1999 ALDS — though, the fact that the Red Sox meekly bowed out in the ALCS takes some oomph out of that. But 1999-2000 Pedro was defined by the fact that he took the ball to start a game and just completely outclassed whatever lineup he faced, often in overpowering fashion. In the same way that 20 strikeouts is more difficult to attain than a perfect game, there was something quintessentially Pedro about the fact that he strode into Yankee Stadium and struck out Yankee after Yankee after Yankee after Yankee — a year after those Yankees had won 114 games, in a year they’d go on to win another World Series — and that dominance isn’t something that one random Chili Davis home run in the second inning could diminish.”
The style, too, was quintessentially Pedro. He made eight different hitters move their feet with inside pitches. He found the extra couple inches the umpire was giving on the outside corner and carved that sliver repeatedly, forcing batters to then chase unhittable curves. He wouldn’t give in on any count, preferring to set up a batter with a 2-1 off-speed pitch than groove anything. He mixed his arm slots, and, in the words of Chili Davis, “It’s like he invented pitches out there.” His curveballs drew ludicrously weak swings from Joe Girardi, then buckled Chuck Knoblauch’s knees. Darryl Strawberry, pinch hitting in the ninth, would later say he walked to the plate with no plan whatsoever. Yet all Pedro did was throw him four straight fastballs, and Strawberry swung like he’d left his eyes in the dugout.
Derek Jeter was hitting .353 coming into the game. Bernie Williams was hitting .344. These were the Yankees. But it didn’t matter whether it was the Yankees in September or a simulated game on a spring training backfield. The game was 100 percent under Pedro’s control.
When Pedro struck out 17 Rays the next year, it was this game he compared his stuff to. (He said his stuff was better in the Yankees game.) When we said earlier that those 17 Ks tied a career high, it was tied with this game. When we said another game matched his career-best Game Score, it was this one it matched. Other games were more dramatic (though not by much!), but this game alone was Pedro as he was, and at his best.
Can you watch it? With a Spanish-language audio feed, you sure can. You should.
For what it’s worth, Pedro wouldn’t name a Pedro Game. Speaking of the final three mentioned here — the All-Star Game, the LDS relief appearance and Yankee Stadium — he said, “[Fans] enjoyed those three games. So did I. But a favorite? I’ll keep them all.”
Here’s another thing he said, after the Rays’ John Flaherty broke up his no-hitter in August 2000: “I don’t really care. A no-hitter is not what’s going to dictate what kind of pitcher I am. I think my career is more interesting than one game.” Strongly agree.