For those of us who obsess over the minutia involved in the roads to rings – the failures, the successes, the detailed numbers, the athletic awe – it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it's a game. A game extremely important to those playing it and many of those watching it, but still a game.
Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez is as fierce a competitor as anyone else enshrined in Cooperstown, New York. But Sunday, when he was inducted for his extraordinary accomplishments on the mound, he reminded the world that his legendary status in the sports world was a long, tumultuous path from humble beginnings, a road he hopes to have cleared for others.
"I would like all of you to not look at me as numbers, as baseball, as achievements. I would like you to actually see me as a sign of hope for a third world country, for Latin America, someone that you can really look up to and feel comfortable enough to say, 'I'm proud of you,'" Pedro told a field, packed not just with fans of the teams for which he played, but to countless supporters proudly waving the flag of his native Dominican Republic.
The Dominican pride could be felt through the streets of the Upstate New York village throughout the weekend, but complete with massive cheering sections and even a conga line chanting "Pedro, Pedro, Pedro," the support he received during the induction was unlike anything I've ever seen.
The ceremony came just days after ESPN fired longtime host Colin Cowherd, who suggested that managing and playing baseball does not require much intelligence, citing that "a third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic."
"I'm sorry. He needs to get to my level to answer him," Pedro said, according to the New York Times. "I’m in the Hall of Fame."
Although the number of Dominicans currently in the majors is strong, not since Giants righty Juan Marichal was inducted in 1983 has a player from that country reached that landmark.
Delivering much of his speech in Spanish and adorned in a suit bearing the colors of his nation's flag, Pedro thanked his people about as prominently as his stateside fans, coaches, teammates and supporters.
"I would like to do something that will probably break the protocol, but I would like to give my people an opportunity that we don't get very often, and we had to wait 32 years for us to do," he said. "I would like to invite Mr. Juan Marichal to come forward and finally give the Dominican Republic a gift that they waited 32 years to get."
Unfurling a flag, Pedro brought Marichal up to hold it with him as he finished his speech to powerful applause.
The national pride for a man who had gone from "sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents to pay for a bus," to being on the short list of the best pitchers in the game's history, may have been more touching, but Red Sox Nation was certainly well-represented. Fans cheered raucously as he thanked the organization, its fanbase and former teammates like Jason Varitek, Kevin Millar, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.
"Boston, I have no words to say how much I love you," he said.
Boston is every bit as grateful – Pedro helped end the 86-year championship drought during his last year pitching for the team in 2004. But his historic seasons in 1999 and 2000 – surrounded by more great years – were arguably two of the best-pitched seasons in the live-ball era.
In a short video played before his speech, Varitek said of Pedro that he was a different person every fifth day – that he'd be a hilarious, good-natured, fun teammate when he wasn't starting, but a staunchly serious man with a thirst that could only be quenched by mowing down opposing batters on the days of his starts.
You can find more on the numbers that made him great here and here, but this may be my favorite – in 2000, at the peak of the steroid era, during a year in which 19 batters had an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) higher than 1.000, Pedro posted a WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) of 0.737.
Not accounting for the 14 batters he struck, that means Pedro allowed a baserunner in just 73.7 percent of the innings he pitched. By contrast, in 2011, John Lackey allowed earned runs at a similar clip. That season, Pedro had the best WHIP of all-time, better in that regard than any pitcher in the offense-starved dead ball era.
Among those cheering on were fans of the Mets, where Pedro spent four seasons after leaving Boston, and the Montreal Expos, who moved to Washington to become the Nationals after 2004. Pedro acknowledged the fans of Montreal after winning the World Series with the Red Sox, and again Sunday, when he expressed his hope that they have a team again one day.
In a class with Randy Johnson, who many would argue was as good as or better than Pedro, John Smoltz, who cemented the Braves rotation as the best in the game, if not its history, and Craig Biggio, a player whose plaque beginning with "gritty spark plug" reminds Boston of a best-case scenario for the rest of Dustin Pedroia's career – all of these players undoubtedly belong in the Hall of Fame and delivered phenomenal addresses of their own, by the way – Pedro stands out. He was the final speaker and the crowd's response was about as strong as it could have been.
It's his immense skill, his love for the game, his competitive nature, his unfiltered way of speaking and his undying care both for his supporters and for those with limited opportunities that make Pedro not just one of baseball's best players but also one of its best ambassadors.
Boston is lucky to have had Pedro. Pedro is lucky to have climbed so high from beneath the mango tree. But the people of the Dominican Republic are certainly lucky to have such a great man fighting their future in a sport that matters so much to their nation.