Sunday, September 02, 2007

Anticipated Return Must Be More Than Nostalgia Trip

By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
Sports of The Times
September 3, 2007

Atlanta

There comes a time in every athlete’s career when the individual’s greatness is tested, even called into question. There comes a defining moment when the public demands to know whether the gifts that propelled an individual to stardom are being propped up by memories and warm recollections.

For 35-year-old Pedro Martínez, the day of reckoning comes today in Cincinnati, where he will be making his first start for the Mets since September 2006.

He made his last start here in Atlanta. Martínez lasted two and two-thirds innings, allowing eight hits and seven runs as Atlanta walloped the Mets, 13-1. That’s not the way he wants to be remembered.

A month after he made that start, Martínez had rotator cuff surgery. After an agonizing 11-month rehabilitation, he takes the mound against a tough Reds lineup anchored by Ken Griffey Jr.

For all of the speculation by Mets fans on Pedro’s impact on the reeling Mets, today’s start in Cincinnati is not about his leading the Mets to the promised land. They’ve actually done quite well in his absence. Today’s start is largely about Martínez’s securing his legacy. It’s also about the heart of a pitcher who was brought in to resuscitate a franchise and, indirectly, about a young team that has matured to the point where it can now flourish without its leader.

After yesterday’s game, Martínez conceded that personal pride, while not at the core of his comeback, is certainly part of the discussion. “I want to be the Pedro that people are used to seeing,” he said.

At the same time, Martínez knows that that Pedro is long gone. Some fans are looking for signs of a miraculous recovery that may have him looking like the Pedro of 2004 and 2005. Those days are gone as well. He will be 36 next month, and his body has taken a beating: his toe, his hip, his calf and finally, his shoulder.

“I’ve taken some hits on the way to where I am, and I understand what’s going on with my body and the way things are,” he said. “I’m just trying to make adjustments and help the team as much as I can with what I have.”

Truth is, the Mets don’t need Pedro Martínez the way they needed him in 2005, when he was the centerpiece of Omar Minaya’s rebuilding campaign. The Mets — Minaya — wanted to send a message to their fans and to prospective free agents that the Mets were serious about building a winner.

In this respect, if Martínez never wins another game, he has already run a great race for the Mets, above and beyond victories and strikeouts. Martínez was the magnet. As Minaya said yesterday from his home in New Jersey: “When we signed Pedro Martínez, that was the start. If it wasn’t for Pedro, there would be no Carlos Beltrán, no Carlos Delgado, no Billy Wagner.”

Martínez started what Minaya calls the Mets’ rejuvenation.

The Mets signed Tom Glavine in December 2002, after he enjoyed a great career in Atlanta. Even with Glavine, the Mets stumbled through a 66-95 season in 2003 and a 71-91 finish in 2004. The next season, Pedro’s first with the Mets, the team finished 83-79; last season, they were 97-65.

The Mets are infinitely stronger than they were before Martínez was signed in December 2004. The Mets have fought through oceans of injuries, Martínez among them, and somehow managed to cobble their way through.

“We know we can win and win without him,” Glavine said yesterday. “But there’s no question that if he comes back and pitches well, we’re a better team with him.”

The Mets have matured beyond the original purpose of bringing Martínez to New York.

But Mets fans continue to sell their team short. After a disaster in Philadelphia, there was the general — and typical — losing-streak hysteria. There was general agreement that the three-game series with Atlanta would deepen the Mets’ funk. Atlanta would be the Mets’ Waterloo, turn them into a team gasping for air.

Instead, the Mets stormed into Atlanta and swept a three-game series.

That’s character. With the sweep, the Mets have the National League’s best record (76-60) and lead Philadelphia by four games in the East.

Last season, the Mets built a huge lead and coasted into the playoffs. This season, the Mets, with Philadelphia nipping at their heels, have played on the edge.

Where does Pedro Martínez fit into this Mets team that he indirectly helped build? We’ll find out beginning today.

The Mets began this season anticipating that they would have to win without Martínez.

“Obviously we’d love to have him,” Manager Willie Randolph said. “He adds another dimension to this team. But this team has learned to win without Pedro.”

The Mets have learned to win. The question is whether they can win big without Martínez.

E-mail: wcr@nytimes.com

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