Sports Nut

Inside Pedro’s Brain

The new Pedro Martinez memoir offers rare insight into the career of a pitching great.

Starting pitcher Pedro Martinez #45 of the Boston Red Sox.
Pedro Martinez throws a pitch against the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 26, 2004 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Michael Silverman is uniquely qualified among Boston sportswriters to assess Pedro Martinez’s fascinating life and career. Just two years into covering the Red Sox for the Boston Herald, Silverman contacted Martinez after he had been traded from the Expos in November 1997. Silverman, without the permission of his editors, wanted to visit that year’s Cy Young winner at his home in the Dominican Republic before the 1998 season. To Silverman’s surprise, the request was granted and the 26-year-old pitcher brought Silverman into his modest Santo Domingo apartment and opened up about his short but already impressive résumé. Thus began a nearly two-decade long reporter-subject relationship that resulted in the book Pedro, a rare example of a highly anticipated sports memoir that manages to deliver new insights into its subject, who in this case happens to be one of the most quotable and unlikely sports superstars of the last few decades.

Almost all athlete memoirs are co-written by a professional writer, which means almost every athlete’s memoir is a collaboration between two parties whose natural relationship can often be one of distrust and antagonism. We tend to only think about the relationships between athletes and the reporters who cover them when those relationships sour: When Russell Westbrook tells Berry Tramel that he doesn’t like him, when Dan Shaughnessy confronts David Ortiz about PEDs, or when Marshawn Lynch repeats a mantra on Super Bowl media day so as not to have his paychecks deducted.

The production of a co-written memoir is the opposite; it is usually the culmination of a functional athlete-reporter relationship and, as Pedro demonstrates, those relationships can produce the best look into a player’s personality that a fan can get. (For an example of a co-written memoir that didn’t come from an established relationship, look no further than Shooting Stars by Buzz Bissinger and Lebron James, which Bissinger called an “epic failure.”) As documented in Pedro, Martinez himself is one of a long line of Red Sox stars to have a complicated relationship with the Boston sports media. (Ted Williams derisively called the town’s reporters “knights of the keyboard.”) Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe called Martinez the “Dominican Diva” and Gerry Callahan of the Herald said he had “the heart of a lion and the ears of a rabbit,” a reference to his supposed oversensitivity to criticism.

“There was the good and happy Pedro and there was the sour Pedro,” Silverman told me. When Martinez started suffering from regular injuries after putting together arguably the greatest two-year run in pitching history in 1999 and 2000, the media began to turn on him, and Martinez’s once ebullient personality could swing toward taciturn. “Things soured for him in the last couple of years [with the Red Sox] and the relationship with the media grew more distant,” Silverman said. “I think he was feeling his mortality, or professional mortality.”

When Pedro was feeling talkative, though, he could fill up a sports section on his own. The man gave some of the best quotes in baseball history, most of which came in the context of the great Yankee-Red Sox battles of the late 1990s and early 2000s. When asked about the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2001, he responded with “Wake up the Bambino and have me face him, maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” When he got shelled by the Yankees in two consecutive starts in 2004, he humbly came up with perhaps the best-known of his many great quotations: “What can I say? I just tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.” Then there’s my personal favorite, in reference to the late George Steinbrenner’s call for MLB to investigate Martinez for pitching inside after hitting both Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter on the hand in a 2003 start: “Georgie Porgie, he may buy the whole league, but he doesn’t have the money to put fear in my heart.”

The process of writing the book—both men’s first—began early in 2013, but it had been gestating since at least 2000, when they agreed that if Martinez was ever to write a memoir, Silverman would be the co-author. Pedro, while it is in Martinez’s voice, is also the product of close to 70 interviews Silverman conducted with family members, former teammates, coaches, and general managers, as well as opposing players. Their quotes are sprinkled throughout the book, adding objective credibility to Martinez’s recollections. There’s catcher Jason Varitek talking about how umpires used to tell him how lucky they were calling Pedro’s games: “[H]e was going to work quick, he was going to throw strikes, and they were going to be back there for not a whole lot of time and see something special.” There is also Martinez’s celebration of Grady Little becoming his new manager, which consisted of a naked Pedro jumping on a chair and “wiggling my johnson in his honor.” (“I took it as a pretty respectful gesture to tell you the truth,” Little said).

It was two trips to the Dominican Republic that shaped both the structure of the book—Silverman decided to begin and end the narrative with scenes from Pedro’s finca—and the relationship between the two collaborators.

“I welcomed him into my family. I let him see things that I have never allowed the media to see with my family, my kids, my wife, my mother,” Martinez told me. “I had to show him exactly where I came from, the shack where I grew up.”

They also traveled to Campo Las Palmas, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dominican academy, where a 16-year-old Martinez would make the three-hour round trip on a bus after school each day to pitch to major league prospects as a small, skinny waif throwing an 82 mph fastball.

It was there that a young Martinez eavesdropped on coaches talking him down (“to be honest, there’s really nothing I like so much”) and also first heard the advice from pitching coach Eleodoro Arias that would define his career: “Never stop pitching inside.”

When Martinez made it to Dodgertown in Florida for extended spring training he was told by coach Chico Fernandez “you’re not going to make it here—you’re a pile of shit,” and that he would soon be back in the Dominican cutting sugar cane. Not long after, he was assigned to Great Falls, Montana to play rookie ball, where more than one seven-hour bus trip through the Rockies was spent with the 18-year-old staring out the window through tears of frustration brought on by clashes with coaches, failures on the mound, homesickness, and the struggle to learn the English language and American culture.

“There’s a lot of crying early in the book,” Silverman said. “Pedro in tears, or Pedro furious and snapping or losing his cool. He wanted to show that side of himself.”

“I thought it was important for me to relate to the next generation of players that there is going to be adversity,” Martinez said.

Becoming a big leaguer, first for the Dodgers where he was reunited with his brother Ramon, and then for the Montreal Expos, where he gained a reputation as a headhunter and won the first of his three Cy Young Awards, brought a new set of challenges. After the trade from the Expos, those included receiving racist death threats in the mail—slugger Mo Vaughn assured Martinez that he received similar correspondence from the team’s fans—and dealing with the famously intense Red Sox press. The relationship between Martinez and reporters got so bad that it prompted him to impose a media ban during a large part of the 2003 season, due to what he described as incessant questions about his contract negotiations.

“I think the media [in Boston] sometimes, because it’s such a small city … you have to come up with different things to fill up your papers,” Martinez told me. It was in this environment that Silverman’s work stood out. “Michael was really good at pinpointing what I wanted to really say, and didn’t exaggerate, didn’t add anything extra.”

Telling it straight, which seems like such a simple standard to follow, is the foundation for a successful reporter-subject relationship, the kind that can lead to a book like Pedro, which is revelatory for both its description of Martinez’s life away from the spotlight and the new background it brings to pivotal moments in baseball history.

“He’s a very good storyteller,” Silverman said in reference to his co-writer. Pretty good pitcher too.