Worth Every Penny

When the Mets signed Pedro Martinez to a $53 million contract this past offseason, I have to admit that I was one of the skeptics. <P> A four-year commitment to a pitcher who has a history of arm problems and held a dicey relationship with the media in Boston? On the surface, something sure smelled a little fishy at Shea Stadium that winter afternoon, even amidst the glitz and glamour of a bona-fide superstar – arguably the best pitcher available in Major League Baseball - joining the Mets.

With Martinez coming off of a 217-inning season (his highest total since 2000) and having endured whispers of a partially torn labrum and other maladies, it was a slam-dunk question to ask GM Omar Minaya if he really believed Martinez might still be making starts for the Mets in 2008.

So, I did.

"Today is also about the kid we don't know about yet," Minaya responded, raising eyebrows throughout Shea's Diamond Club. "That Pedro Martinez that you don't know about and that I don't know about that might be in the marketplace down in the Dominican Republic or in Venezuela. That kid knows what he wants to be today. He wants to be a Met.

"That's the value of Pedro Martinez. … Someday, there will be a young pitcher pitching for the Mets who will say he wanted to pitch for the Mets because of this signing."

Maybe. But the Mets overpaid for Martinez, cynics declared. He's moody, friends from Boston warned. The definition of a diva, they said.

Judging from the early returns on what we've seen of Martinez so far as a New York Met, the critics couldn't have been more wrong.

Not only has Pedro been a model citizen in the Mets' clubhouse – his chirpy theatrics have proved to be a welcome entertaining diversion for everyone from teammates to clubhouse boys to scribes – but he's proven to be just the drop-dead-serious gameday ace that Al Leiter hadn't been for a few seasons and that Tom Glavine probably couldn't be in a Mets uniform.

Martinez is nasty, and he made that fact felt with an exclamation point on April 4 at Cincinnati, bearing down and putting on the best Opening Day pitching performance ever by a Mets starter.

Looking splendid in a road-gray uniform amidst a sea of red seats, Pedro racked up 12 strikeouts in a six-inning effort that saw Cincinnati hit only one ball hard – a three-run homer by Adam Dunn, who'd later spoil most of the afternoon by cracking a two-run shot off of Braden Looper in the ninth.

One start later, with the Mets already digging themselves into a five-game hole to begin the year, Martinez summoned all of his strength to stop the losing with a complete game two-hitter over John Smoltz and the Atlanta Braves.

No bullpen needed on this day for Pedro, thanks very much.

When the Mets returned to Shea Stadium for their home opener the next day, it was Martinez who received the loudest ovation, a roaring greeting for the Savior of Shea.

"Anyone would feel special getting that type of ovation without doing much for this team," said Martinez. "I hope I can find some way to pay these people back. This early, I still have a lot to prove to them. I came here with a purpose."

Indeed, on a game day, Martinez is the steeliest set of eyes you'd ever want to encounter, especially from 60 feet and six inches. The other four days, Martinez can be a delightfully engaging and intelligent conversationalist, or – if he feels like it – the best source of amusement going.

At the Mets' home opener, the center-field advertising panel stuck for 14 minutes on an image of Martinez firing a pitch, and when the fans began to chant, "Pedro! Pedro! Pedro!", Martinez hopped up to the top step of the dugout and began clowning around, chanting along with the sellout crowd and dancing from side to side.

A couple of days earlier in Atlanta, Martinez had snatched a glove from a fan seeking an autograph and used it to have a catch in the outfield with reliever Manny Aybar.

No wonder, then, that it appears New York is finally falling in love with Pedro, who once bathed in a sea of "Who's Your Daddy?" chants and considered himself Public Enemy No. 1 within the city limits.

"I don't think I've earned it, but I'm enjoying it," Martinez said.

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