On a Leash

Fans put up a banner for Phillies' Pedro Martinez during the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series in the Bronx. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Over the last 24 hours, the bulk of the spotlight has centered on the shoulders of Pedro Martinez, and deservedly so. It is difficult to imagine another athlete who, over the course of his career, has displayed such an intriguing ability to both dominate on the playing field and cultivate his legend off of it.

In my admittedly-young career, Pedro Martinez is the most street smart professional athlete I have covered, and it isn't even close. Just like his pitches, the loquacious righthander is well aware of the impact of each one of his comments, the purpose and plan behind each evident only after your walk back toward the dugout has begun.

If you think Martinez did not know what he was doing when he labelled the Yankees his daddy, when he contemplated drilling the Bambino in his kiester, you are missing the true brilliance that exists inside his mind.

Even now, five years after his legendary daliances with the Yankees as a member of the Red Sox, many media members and fans chuckle as if the joke is on him. They chuckled last week when Martinez labelled himself the most influential person to ever play at Yankee Stadium. They chuckled this morning when they saw the cover of the New York Post featuring Martinez's head superimposed on a diaper-clad baby, seated above a headline that reads "Daddy to whup Pedro tonight."

But last week, as he walked off the mound at Yankee Stadium in the seventh inning of Game 2 serenaded by chants of "Who's Your Daddy?," it was Martinez who was smiling, slowing his pace as he neared the lip of the visitor's dugout and looking mischievously into the rabid stands. It was not a happy grin. It was a sly grin, the grin of an uncle who had just finished toying with a clueless nephew at Thanksgiving Dinner.

Once again, he had forced them to prove him right, the attention of 50,000 New Yorkers resting squarely on the shoulders of a once-poor kid from the Dominican.

At yesterday's press conference at Yankee Stadium, Martinez staged a typical Pedro performance, charming the local and national media who filled rows of plastic chairs in a conference room with his unique blend of humor, philosophy and hyperbole. He is just at home behind a microphone as he is on top of a mound, toying with reporters the same way he does hitters, setting them up with off-speed stuff that make his fastballs seem more potent.

The media looks at these sessions as can't-miss opportunities to make Pedro be Pedro, to coax the righthander into making his next crazy quote. Two of the first six questions referenced two of his legendary quotes, one of them the "Yankees are my daddy" reference he made years ago after a loss, and the other about his vow to drill Babe Ruth in the buttocks should he ever get the chance.

But with deft subtlety, Martinez turned the onus on the questioner, first declining to discuss the Daddy chants with a "I'm not going to answer that question. . .And I'm sorry for that," and later unleashing perhaps his most revelaing monologue yet.

"In some ways I give that to you guys because it took me a while to realize that anything I say, everything I do has a meaning to you," Martinez told reporters. "I hope that when I need you for the community work and other things that I'm going to need, I'm going to need help to help people, that you guys actually bring the message across because that will give me help for all those things that I have in mind for after I retire."

A quick Google search reveals that no New York or Philadelphia newspapers published Martinez's words that were quoted above. Instead, they focused on the headline-ready portions of the news conference, the money quotes that sell newspapers and build public personas, the moments when Martinez:

1) Labelled himself a Montrealer and a New Yorker and a Bostonian
2) Expressed confidence that Red Sox fans would root for him because, hey, "they don't like the Yankees to win, not even in Nintendo games.
3) Directly contradicted William Shakespeare's contention that the good men do is oft-interred with their bones, saying "Normally when you die, people tend to actually give you props about the good things. But that's after you die. (Laughter). So I'm hoping to get it before I die. I don't want to die and then hear everybody say, "Oh, there goes one of the best players ever." If you're going to give me props, just give them to me right now."

But after it was over, after Martinez spent the last part of his press conference answering questions from the Spanish-speaking reporters in attendance, he slid from behind the table at the front of the room with a smile and crossed paths with Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, who was scheduled to follow him on the dais.

"I knocked them dead," Martinez, still grinning, told Manuel.

It was the same grin that had crossed his face when he left the mound at Yankee Stadium four days earlier, it's message matching the one he had spent the previous 20 minutes delivering to a mostly unwitting audience:

Everything I do has a meaning to you.


As much focus as will be on Martinez tonight, Game 6 could come down to how Manuel deals with his legendary starter. In Martinez's first two starts of the postseason, Manuel has been labasted for his use of the righthander. In Game 2 of the NLCS, many fans and media felt he had pulled Martinez far too early, given the 87 pitches he had thrown in seven scoreless innings against the Dodgers. In Game 2 of the World Series, those same second-guessers said he had left Martinez in the game too long, given the 99 pitches he had thrown after six innings and the run he would go on to allow in the seventh.

He is a difficult pitcher to judge. On Sept. 13, Manuel allowed him to throw 130 pitches in eight scoreless innings against the Mets, and the move resulted in a 1-0 win. But in six of Martinez's 11 starts with the Phillies in the regular season and postseason, he has allowed at least one run in his last inning of work. The problem lies in identifying what that last inning should be, and taking him out before it starts.

Against the Bravesin the regular season, the last inning was the third, when he allowed two runs after straining his neck in an at-bat. Against the Astros, it was the fourth, when he allowed a solo home run. Against the Cubs, it was the fifth, when he allowed two runs. Against the Yankees in Game 2, it was the seventh, when he allowed one run. Or perhaps it should have been the sixth, when he allowed a solo home run after holding the Yankees scoreless in the first five frames.

The difficulty in handling Martinez is that has at times has taken an inning to get into a groove -- Six of the 18 runs he has allowed this season have come in the first inning. But he also shows few signs of slipping from that groove until it is too late -- Seven of his 18 runs have come in his last inning of work.

Manuel said yesterday that righthander Joe Blanton, who pitched in Game 4, could be available for an inning or two out of the bullpen. Chan Ho Park can throw multiple innings, as can Chad Durbin. Throughout this season, the notable exception being Game 2 of the NLCS, Manuel has displayed a willingness to push his starters to the max, hoping to avoid putting too much pressure on an inconsistent bullpen. Yesterday, Manuel said he felt like Martinez was back to the physical condition he displayed in that eight-scoreless-inning effort against the Mets in mid-September.

What if Martinez has thrown six scoreless on 90 pitches in a game the Phillies lead 2-0? Is it Chan Ho Park time? Or is it a game for Martinez to win or lose?