Pedro's back! And he ain't afraid of no ghosts

BY foxsports • November 9, 2009

A city seethes in anticipation. Outside Yankee Stadium, workmen wielding power washers crisscross the walkways on a crisp autumn afternoon, dutifully cleaning each and every groove between thousands of concrete squares. Inside, groundskeepers wielding rakes push pebbles back and forth, smoothing the dirt around home plate. Everyone in town, it seems, wants the place to look perfect for the return of Pedro Martinez. "This is the kind of stage that I deserve," Martinez said, "and in a stadium like this, the most legendary of all places." It will be nothing short of a miracle if the Yankees' new baseball palace remains anchored to its moorings when Martinez walks out to the mound Wednesday night in a Phillies uniform for Game 6 of the World Series. The last time the level of psychokinetic energy in New York pushed the needle this far off the meter, the "Ghostbusters" were called in to save the city. Pedro ain't afraid of no ghosts, either, even though he brings a history to the Bronx like almost no other. When Martinez last showed his face here - in the interview room after losing Game 2, despite a strong effort - he was wearing a striped jacket that looked like it had been stolen from the set of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Yet it was while wearing the red socks of hated rival Boston a half-dozen years ago that Martinez was rendered a villain in these parts forever. In Game 3 of the ALCS, he was at the center of a tit-for-tat, purpose-pitch skirmish that erupted into a bench-clearing brawl. Don Zimmer, then a 72-year-old bulldog of a bench coach with the Yankees, rushed from the Yankees dugout straight for Martinez, who threw him to the ground. New York didn't have to wait long for its revenge. In the eighth inning of Game 7, Red Sox manager Grady Little left a tiring Martinez in to clean up the jam he'd gotten himself into. Bad idea: four straight hits erased Boston's 5-2 advantage, leading to a dramatic extra-inning, series-ending victory for the Yankees. But Martinez's lowest moment in New York was still almost a year off. The following September, after yet another tough loss, the defiant right-hander who once famously growled, "Wake up the Bambino, I'll drill him in the ass," was disconsolate and said he never wanted to face New York again. "What can I say?" Martinez said then. "I tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy." He's been reminded of that comment on every visit since. Taunts of "Who's your daddy?" echoed again across the Bronx throughout Game 2, supplemented by gestures that can't be described here. Martinez left the field smiling but later that night practically begged Yankee fans to tone down the abuse, if not for his sake, then at least for the kids within earshot. It was not an act. Say what you will about the once-flamboyant character; at 38, both his personality and competitive nature have been leavened by a nearly two-year absence from the game, when Martinez wondered whether his arm was shot and his career over. Philadelphia took a flyer on him, wondering how much magic Martinez could still conjure up. He has learned to be grateful for every opportunity. "Two months back I was sitting at home not doing anything, none of you were thinking of me whatsoever," Martinez said. "None of you were asking me questions, and today I am here, probably pitching one of the biggest games ever in the World Series, two great teams with a whole bunch of legendary players that are going to be. "I know when you mention Derek Jeter, you mention Alex Rodriguez, (Mark) Teixeira. I see those guys as probably the future of the game, the next Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron." Back in the day, Martinez rarely bothered to learn the names of the hitters he faced; he simply blew them away. Today, he studies each hitter and every one of their tendencies, probing for the tiniest of edges. His fastball rarely tops 90 mph on the radar gun, so he relies more on a vintage circle change-up, an array of curves and cutters, varying his speeds and location. The kid who broke into the big leagues at "154 (pounds) soaking wet with a good arm" is now the consummate craftsman, getting by on nothing more than guts and guile. There is something almost poetic about the biggest game of the season resting on his slim shoulders one final time, and in New York, no less. On the ride back up from the interview room to the press box at Yankee Stadium, the elevator operator asked: What can you say about Martinez that hasn't been said? The answer is only what Martinez said about himself. "Everybody that grows up in the Dominican (Republic) and didn't have a rich life is a survivor. That's what we call it in the Dominican, survival. "And in baseball I am a survivor. I'm someone that wasn't meant to be. And here I am," he said, finally, "on one big stage." --- Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)