Baseball’s Picasso: The Brilliance and Beauty of Pedro Martínez

Juan Marichal is about to have company in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – his compatriota Pedro Martínez.

The two Dominicans were once-in-a-generation talents. Maestros who commanded the game from the pitcher’s mound with their blazing fastballs, pinpoint control, and insistence on respect from opposing team’s hitters. Although they came from different generations, they were both driven by a basic set of maxims that guide Dominican youths with big league dreams.

Juan Marichal
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One maxim informs hitters: You can’t walk off the island. In other words, a good eye for drawing walks is not what convinces teams to offer a Dominican teenaged prospect a big signing bonus.

A parallel maxim for pitchers: you must command respect from the mound, not be intimidated by any hitter, and always remind them who is in charge.

Pedro Martínez embodied the pitcher’s maxim. Unafraid of brushing a batter back or hitting them, he made sure hitters never felt comfortable in the batter’s box.

Pedro Martínez had a purposeful wildness; one of baseball’s most intimidating pitchers.

Performing at his peak in 2000, Martínez walked a paltry 32 batters and struck out 284 batters in 217 innings pitched. Yet he hit 14 batters that season (one behind the American League leader). He had a purposeful wildness; it showed batters he was control.

Dominican Giants

To understand why Pedro Martínez pitched like he did, how he developed the drive to be better than his big brother Ramón, and how he developed into one of baseball’s most intimidating pitchers, one needs to understand the Dominican giants who came before him.

Unsurprisingly, Juan Marichal was an idol to Pedro Martínez. The first Dominican to star in Major League Baseball (MLB), Marichal set a lofty example of how to command respect from the mound.

Signed by the New York Giants in 1958, Marichal entered the minor leagues as part of the wave of players liberated by Jackie Robinson’s 1947 breaking of Major League Baseball’s odious color line. Viewed as nonwhite, if not outright black, Dominicanos who had ventured to play professionally in the United States prior to Robinson had performed in the Negro Leagues. The first Dominican to make that journey was Pedro Alejandro San, who played with the New York-based Cuban Stars from 1926 to 1928. A handful of Dominicans followed over the next two decades performing primarily with the New York Cubans and headlined by outfielder Juan “Tetelo” Vargas and shortstop Horacio Martínez.

Ozzie Virgil
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Dominican fans finally got to see one of their own in MLB in 1956 when Ozzie Virgil made his debut with the New York Giants. Virgil was the first of many Dominican Giants as Marichal, Felipe Alou and his brothers Jesús and Mateo (Matty), and others followed. A Dominican talent pipeline that ran from Hispaniola to the Giants was no accident. The engineers of that pipeline were Alex Pompez (owner of Cuban Stars/Cubans team) and Horacio Martínez, both of whom worked as scouts for the Giants after collapse of the eastern-based Negro National League.

Hitters couldn’t outsmart him; if they tried, he was liable to knock them down.

Pedro Martínez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz, along with well over 500 Dominicans who have played in MLB, benefitted from what pioneering Dominicans accomplished in the Negro Leagues and in the Majors.

Those pioneros dealt with Jim Crow laws in southern towns that hosted Negro League and minor league games. As desegregation unfolded in baseball after 1947, Latinos and African Americans still dealt with lingering segregationist practices of MLB organizations: teams continued to hold spring training in segregated towns in Florida and Arizona; they stayed at hotels that did not welcome blacks or Latinos who were deemed too racially ambiguous; they resisted having white and black teammates share hotel rooms on the road.

Unfamiliarity with American culture made the experience of these pioneros different than African Americans. Their unfamiliarity as much as that of Americanos with Dominicanos made cultural adjustment to the United States all the more difficult. In the end, talent alone did not determine whether a Dominican prospect could ascend to las grandes ligas: He had to handle the cultural adjustment, possess the drive and personality to overcome the loneliness of being a foreigner in a strange place, learn what it took to be viewed as a “good” (Latino) teammate, and how to deal with the media.

The greatness of Pedro Martínez lies partly in how it seemed he effortlessly handled the beyond-the-playing-field challenges to become one of baseball’s all-time greats, a player whose achievements made him a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer.

Who’s Your Daddy?

Right-handed power pitchers under six feet tall who are strikeout artists are exceedingly rare. To that rare mix, Martínez added a mental make-up and intelligence that made him one of the more intimidating pitchers ever. Hitters couldn’t outsmart him; if they tried, he was liable to knock them down.

Martínez’s pitching dominance is all the more startling given the era in which performed. “Pedro dominated during baseball’s ‘roided up era, the greatest offensive era in the history of the game,” Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Bretón marveled.

Martínez’s pitching dominance is all the more startling given the era in which performed.

The Dominican pitcher’s entire career (1992-2009) took place during the era when oversized hitters like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and José Canseco, among others, were launching home runs after home runs. The single-season home run record and the all-time home run record both fell, multiple times.

Yet the slender-built Martínez, who measured 5’11” and weighed 170 pounds, dominated from the pitcher’s mound. He won 219 games and only lost 100 over eighteen seasons; his .687 winning percentage ranks second to only Whitey Ford for pitchers in the integrated era (1947+) with 1,000 innings pitched. An eight All-Star game selection, he won three Cy Young Awards as his league’s best pitcher.

Martínez’s uniqueness as a pitcher shined through for Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. “There have been dominant pitchers, but with a dominant fastball, or a knee-buckling breaking ball, but not like Pedro with the combination of what was in his arsenal of pitches: breaking balls, off-speed, and blazing fastball,” Winfield observed. “What I appreciate about Pedro,” he continued, “is just the way he played the game … His willingness to do whatever it took to make movement on his pitches to get a batter out.” Pedro’s demeanor stood out: “He was very serious on the mound, kind of like Bob Gibson. I don’t think it was wise to get into the batter box, get in a good toe-hold, and hold up the game with Pedro on the mound; just like Bob.”

Amazingly, Martínez didn’t walk hitters in the manner of most strikeout artists. This is evident in his strikeout-to-walk ratio, a leading indicator of control for a pitcher. Over the course of his career, he amassed 3,154 strike outs in 2,827 innings, averaging 10 strikeouts per 9 innings pitched. He was in his finest form as a power pitcher in 1999, striking out 313 batters over 213 innings, an average of 13.2 strikeouts per 9 innings. Almost half of the outs recorded in games he pitched came via strikeout—there are only 27 outs in a typical 9-inning game.

Martínez didn’t walk hitters in the manner of most strikeout artists.

Baseball fans and historians often recall the dominance of Dodgers left-handed pitcher Sandy Koufax who arguably had the greatest six-year stretch for a pitcher. Martínez’s peak seasons (1997-2002) rivaled Koufax (1961-66) for sheer pitching dominance.

During that span, Martínez achieved a .766 winning percentage in winning 104 games and only losing 32; Koufax compiled a .733 winning percentage, winning 129 and losing 47. The typical season for the Dominican ace was 17 wins and 5 losses with a 2.20 earned run average (ERA) along with 252 strikeouts and just 45 walks; by comparison, Koufax averaged 22 wins and 8 losses, a 2.19 ERA, 286 strikeouts and 69 walks. Pedro’s strikeout to walks ratio was an incredible 5.8 to 1; Koufax’s was 4.16:1. Traditional baseball stats and new sabermetric measures illustrate that whether one uses baseball’s old language or new, Martínez was simply one of the all-time greats.

Pedrito Becomes Pedro el Grande

To reach the heights that he did, Pedro had to literally step out of the shadow of his big brother Ramón—who stood 6’4” to Pedro’s 5’11” and was four years his senior.

Signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers at age 16 in June 1988, Pedrito joined the organization about two months before Ramón made his big league debut. Ramón quickly became a fixture in the Dodgers’ starting rotation; his little brother would not get the same chance.

“The Dodgers gave up on him; to their great regret,” Marcos Bretón reflected on the Dodgers trading the younger Martínez to the Montreal Expos,They perhaps didn’t think he would measure up to Ramon, who was already an all-star.”

For Martínez, the trade worked out brilliantly. He thrived in Montreal, eclipsing his big brother’s success. It was one of the worst trades in Dodgers’ history.

“There was a huge comfort level for Pedro in Montreal,” Bretón noted. Under the tutelage of Montreal’s Dominican manager Felipe Alou, he evolved into “a real superstar in every sense of the word, a pitcher who created a buzz.” He soon joined that select group of starting pitchers who could spike up attendance, at home and on the road.

Martínez flourished into a team leader in Montreal, gaining command of English and becoming a spokesman at various points for his teammates, Dominicans, Latinos, or all players in general. This was a dimension of his evolution Marcos Bretón truly appreciated: “I admired how Pedro was able to dominate the English language and express himself in ways that Sammy Sosa, Juan González, and others of his contemporaries did not.”

Pedro earned the admiration of his fellow Latinos through his willingness to speak on their behalf. When an Associated Press (AP) wire story quoted Sammy Sosa phonetically following his 2003 corked bat incident, Martínez vehemently protested the racism in the media’s portrayal of Sosa. Martínez rallied his fellow Latino players’ support and made sure the Major League Players Association confronted the AP and demanded an apology; otherwise Latino players would not speak with AP writers.

Pedro earned the admiration of his fellow Latinos through his willingness to speak on their behalf.

Pedro’s iconic status was cemented after a 1998 trade to the Boston Red Sox. In his time with Boston (1998-2004), Pedro proved a transformative figure, altering the perception and the culture of a franchise long seen as one of baseball’s worse on racial matters. It was not the first time a darker-skinned Latino mesmerized the Boston faithful and won over the clubhouse. Two decades earlier Cuban ace Luis Tiant won the hearts of Red Sox fans with his whirling and twirling pitching style that bedeviled opposing hitters. But the cigar-smoking hurler became a lone black Latino on a team still dealing with the legacy of owner Tom Yawkey’s recalcitrance on racial integration. But Pedro’s time in Boston was different.

Through his pitching performance as well as his unrelenting pride in being a Dominican and Latino, Pedro led a Latinization of Red Sox nation.

Along with Manny Ramirez and David “Big Papi” Ortiz, Pedro gave Boston, the team and the town, a Latino rhythm and sensibility. Dominicanos, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos as well as African Americans and Cape Verdeans became proud, cap-wearing members of Red Sox nation who wildly cheered Pedro’s pitching brilliance and the hitting prowess of Manny and Ortiz.

Latinos embraced the Red Sox because its stars were proud Latinos who were unafraid to look like them, all of them, not just lighter-skinned Latinos.

Manny grew dreads, openly wearing one of the telltale signs of blackness and the African Diaspora. Pedro rocked jheri curls—which he has requested be featured in his Hall of Fame plaque. They, along with Big Papi, exhibited the passion for baseball and life that is part of the culture of Caribbean Latinos.

Pedro rocked jheri curls—which he has requested be featured in his Hall of Fame plaque.

Pedro changed the culture of Red Sox fandom. His days as a starting pitcher granted Boston fans a safer passage into places they previously entered with trepidation. This realization struck Amy Bass, a historian of African American history and sports. “Pedro made it easier for me—someone raised on Luis Tiant as King—to be a Red Sox fan sitting in Yankee Stadium. On days Pedro was pitching, the bleachers weren’t cheering one team or the other: they were cheering Pedro, in Spanish, for the entire game.” “He made people who identified with him culturally, ethnically, all-around baseball fans, rather than fans rooting for a particular team,” Bass observed.

“Watching Pedro was an event,” noted Millery Polyné, a NYU professor who grew up a Red Sox fan in Mattapan. “Boston was electric. And to hear my friends, particularly working-class white friends, embrace Pedro and his artistry, meant something special to my Caribbean self.”

“The way his leg kicked out when a high, laser fastball seemed to sing ‘sit down’ to opposing batters on 1-2 or 3-2 pitches; and how he raised his arm high in the air, as if to God, but probably to adjust his shirt and sleeve, after each pitch was all part of a magnificent performance, a brilliant and beautiful ritual.”

A Well-Earned Place

The July 26 induction of Pedro Martínez into the Hall of Fame puts the Dominican pitcher in elite company, making him one of 310 players, executives, and umpires so honored. Pedro joins an even more elite group; he will be just the second Dominican enshrined in the Hall. However, as Hall of Famer Dave Winfield noted, Pedro is “first of many more Dominicans, and a great representative of baseball and of Dominicans in baseball.”

Surprisingly, given the long history of Latino participation in US professional baseball, Martínez will be only the twelfth Latino inducted. Just as surprising, he will be just the seventh Latino inducted while living—Roberto Clemente and all four Latinos inducted from the Negro Leagues were posthumously honored.

As a living Latino inductee, Pedro Martínez reminds me that there is a broader history of Latinos in baseball that he represents, of confronting barriers and exceeding expectations.

The story of Dominican shortstop Horacio Martínez is particularly apt here. After starring several seasons with the New York Cubans in the Negro Leagues, Martínez was scouted by the Washington Senators. Alas the Senators opted against signing him, deciding his ‘bad’ hair gave away his non-white racial status.

Yet, it was Horacio Martínez as the baseball coach at the University of Santo Domingo that laid eyes on a teenaged pitcher Juan Marichal. In his role as a Giants scout, Martínez excitedly relayed word to Alex Pompez, the Giants director of international scouting. The Giants would gain a star pitcher; the Dominican Republic, a sporting hero; Pedro Martínez, an idol to aspire to join among baseball’s greats.

Pedro is a historical fulfillment of those like Horacio Martínez whose big league dreams were deferred. He was an outspoken Latino like Roberto Clemente and Felipe Alou in defending his fellow Latinos. A pitcher who commanded respect like Juan Marichal and who was dominant like Sandy Koufax. His unceasing pride in being Dominican, his insistence on being Latino on his own terms while performing his mastery on the mound not only transformed Pedrito into Pedro el Grande, but enabled him to broaden the impact of Latinos in baseball. He transformed Red Sox nation, give it a new soul, a Latino soul. In so doing, Martínez earned his place amongst baseball’s immortals in Cooperstown.