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Genius at Play: Pedro Martinez and Billy Martin

Two baseball books not to be missed: the rise of Pedro Martinez, one of the greatest players in the world, and the life of Billy Martin, a genius of a coach.

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The most famous mango tree in sports is in Manoguayabo in the Dominican Republic. Here the most famous Pedro in baseball grew up to become winner of three Cy Young Awards, member of eight All-Star teams, and, as of this year, elected to the Hall of Fame. Pedro Martinez will be commemorated in Cooperstown wearing the uniform of the Boston Red Sox, for whom he pitched for seven seasons, the last of which was the wondrous year 2004.

Pedro by Martinez and Michael Silverman chronicles the rise of this great player from “the mango tree to the top of the world” and is filled with inside dope, personal reflection, and at least one shocker: Martinez’s cheerful admission that he was always willing to drill a batter.

Born to poor parents who split up when he was nine, Martinez followed his brother Ramon to Campos Las Palmas, the academy of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Dominican Republic, where his small size seemed to doom his prospects in the opinion of some instructors and a number of naysayers afterwards. When he did reach the Dodgers where his brother was a star, he was used chiefly for relief.

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Though withering on the vine as “Ramon’s little brother,” he was dismayed when he was traded to the Montreal Expos, an act for which he has never forgiven the Dodgers. (“They turned their back on me, which is why, to this day, my back is turned on them.”) Be that as it may, it was his salvation, for here he found his rightful place as a starter; and in his fourth year with the team won the first of his Cy Young Awards with a puny 1.90 ERA. That, however, made him a more expensive commodity than the impecunious Expos could afford; and so to Boston and into the hearts and minds of New Englanders.

Staring down batters “with the cold eyes of an assassin,” as he puts it, Martinez was physically aggressive on the mound, earning the sobriquet Señor Plunk for his willingness to hit batters; but he was also canny, playing a cerebral as well as an athletic game. The book is full of strategic and practical information: on owning the inside six inches of the plate, on how Sandy Koufax taught him to hook the rubber with his back foot, and on Don Drysdale showing him how to shield his pitches. (It was Drysdale’s last gift to baseball, as he died that same night of a heart attack.)

We learn, too, the inside – and horrendous – story of Red Sox manager Grady Little not relieving Martinez after the seventh inning of the seventh game of the 2003 ALCS against the (hated) New York Yankees. He also writes of what he calls his one and only regret: the pas de deux, as it might be called, with the 72-year-old Yankees coach, Don Zimmer, earlier in the series. This affair, which TV announcer Tim McCarver characterized, with typical sanctimoniousness, as an assault on an old man, was more a matter of Martinez helping the stumbling Zimmer to “fall faster,” as he put it. Zimmer agreed, though it led to death threats against Martinez.

The book also includes quite a catalog of grievances, including against the Boston’s pestiferous press and Theo Epstein’s dilly-dallying which led to Martinez’s departure from Boston. Martinez distributes some entertainingly uncomplimentary remarks against a few players (Will Clarke: a “whiner and a yapper”), notes the expanding steroid-fed bulk of the batters he faced, and confesses to loving flowers. All in all, "Pedro," is a more revealing and far more entertaining player autobiography than is the usual fare.

By his own account, Martinez expressed his wrath on occasion by flipping over tables and, as it happens, so did Billy Martin. We learn this not entirely surprising fact from Bill Pennington’s excellent biography of the volcanic second baseman and manager: Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius.

Christened Alfred and soon after called Billy, Martin was born to a spitfire mother in a poor neighborhood in San Francisco. His father left when he was an infant and the young Martin found his happiest hours playing sandlot baseball.

After a few years in the minors, he was brought up to the Yankees in 1950 at the behest of Casey Stengel, who had managed him for a year for the Oakland Oaks, tutoring him in his own crafty brand of baseball and encouraging the younger man’s natural gift for driving the opposing team nuts. In a respectable seven years of play as a second baseman, Martin’s stellar year was 1953, when he was voted MVP of the World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

While with the Yankees, Martin also developed his aptitude for carousing, chiefly with teammates Joe DiMaggio (until he retired), Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle. Martin was traded to the Kansas City Royals in 1957, a dismal blow which he later said made him feel “like a little kid whose father told him not to come in the house anymore.” He retired as a player four years and five teams later.

Martin’s renown does not rest on his playing career, however, but on his brilliance as a manager and the freebooting tactics he employed, as well as on his appallingly self-destructive boozing, fighting, and womanizing. (“Lois,” Martin reported of his first wife, “kept telling me how depressed she was with me away from home playing ball, and all that same baloney you always hear.”)

And then there is his danse macabre with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who hired and fired him five times between 1975 and 1988. The two  – meddlesome tyrant and turbulent rogue – might have continued this routine had not Martin died on Christmas, 1989, after a day’s drinking, when his pickup truck crashed, driven, it now seems clear, by a friend.

Pennington shows in lurid detail how Martin’s tenures with the Yankees were derailed by Steinbrenner’s interference, a toxic relationship with Reggie Jackson and his overweening ego, and Martin’s own barroom brawling. In fact, his management of the Yankees was not as impressive as his success with hopeless or underachieving teams.

Pennington’s accounts of Martin inculcating his brand of aggressive, knavish play into the Minnesota Twins, Triple-A Denver Bears, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers, and Oakland Athletics is absolutely thrilling. Martin showed those demoralized teams how to get runs on the board by “seeing the field,” finding and creating opportunities for double and triple steals, hit and run, and suicide squeezes. He encouraged players to get hit by pitches, barrel into infielders, and generally intimidate the other side. As for defense, he taught the hidden ball trick, how to steal signs, throw at the head of an oncoming runner, and doctor the ball. He favored buzzing batters inside, constant razzing from the dugout, and impromptu counterintuitive strategies. This was Billy Ball.

The man himself drank too much, fought too often, and perhaps had too many women, both wives (4) and supernumeraries (∞). Be that as it may, the game he caused to be played is as exciting to read about here as it was to watch.

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