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The Return of Pedro

Pedro Martinez came back late this summer. He’d spent the last twelve months rebuilding a shoulder shredded by a lifetime of throwing a baseball better than anyone born in the last forty years.It’s not easy to explain what his return as a junkballing magician meant to people my age. When we’re kids, athletes seem different to us. It’s not that they’re incapable of stupidity or meanness — they screw up plenty. But the players are still older than us, and mythical in a way they seldom are now, as peers.

Pedro joined the Red Sox in 1998. I was a junior in college, still able to sit in Fenway Park and scream for three hours and actually mean it, when the rookies didn’t look like kids. He was the best pitcher in baseball. High-90s fastball with tailspin, curveball that rolled off a slide, slider somewhere between, changeup on a yoyo. He could hit butterflies with any pitch, on any count count.

But Pedro was more than an arm. He was fearless, cocky, supremely confident. He took the mound with his hat pulled low, mouth taut, eyes blazing. And inside him still was a sensitive boy from a small Dominican town who climbed trees and cried when his parents fought; a skinny teen told by Tommy Lasorda that he’d never be tough enough to start; a man who found greatness in his exile to Montreal.

In his fourth season as an Expo, Pedro struck out 305 batters in just 244 innings, threw 13 complete games, and had a 1.90 ERA. His numbers were inconceivable in an era of juiced balls, juiced batters and hitters’ parks. So began a seven-year stretch of unparalleled dominance. His numbers surpassed those of his peers more completely than any other pitcher in history.

“He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Jim Palmer, himself one of the game’s great pitchers. “We’re not talking about a mere mortal here. We’re not talking about a normal guy.”

Pedro stood on the mound with one foot in another world. “If the Lord were a pitcher, he’d pitch like Pedro,” said David Segui. He threw eight shutout innings in his first start at Fenway Park. At the All-Star Game in 1999, he struck out five batters in two innings: Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Jeff Bagwell — every one of them a Hall of Famer, every one reduced to bafflement.

In September, in Yankee Stadium, he struck out the side in the fifth, seventh and ninth innings, fanning seventeen altogether. Game after game, he mowed down batters.And then came Game Five of the division series.

To be continued….

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