Expos will be represented well at Hall of Fame

Pedro Martinez as a member of the Montreal Expos. (Marcos Townsend/AP)

Pedro Martinez has a lot on his plate as he looks over the final draft of his acceptance speech for Sunday’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown.

Where does he go, as one of baseball’s truly transcendent personalities? What topics does he cover, as he joins fellow inductees Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio on stage?

Being Pedro means he can tell funny stories about being part of the Boston Red Sox team that finally ended the Curse of the Bambino, or maybe re-visit all those battles with the New York Yankees. Don Zimmer … maybe he’ll mention Don Zimmer. Or he can take it deeper, and talk about how his acquisition by then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette was a franchise-altering move that signified a gradual opening of the franchise to a pronounced Latino presence – a fact acknowledged by none other than Theo Epstein, general manager of the World Champions.


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He can, of course, play the Montreal card: arguably one of the most beloved and charitable Expos players of all time, his trade to the Red Sox after his 1997 Cy Young Award was a nail in the franchise’s coffin – and he is no stranger even now to that city; it wouldn’t surprise if Martinez uses his induction ceremony as a stage to support the return of Major League Baseball to Montreal.

And then there’s the Dominican Republic angle. Martinez is only the second native of the island nation to be voted in to the hall, joining Juan Marichal – I know, that seems odd – and given the fall-out from Thursday’s suggestion by ESPN personality Colin Cowherd that baseball can’t be as difficult as people make it out to be because it’s played by so many players from the Dominican Republic, which enraged people around a game that is smart enough to remain sensitive to suggestions of institutional racism, I wonder if Martinez will feel moved to comment. His countrymen would, I imagine, expect it.

Martinez will do the right thing. Few players I’ve covered – and I was lucky enough to see most of Martinez’s starts for the Expos, including those in his 1997 National League Cy Young season – had the knack of reading and managing local sensibilities as Martinez. Whether it was dealing with fans or media or teammates (as his Cy Young candidacy became apparent in 1997, he asked me one day to make sure I introduced him to “influential” visiting reporters), Martinez had the gift of the right word or right action at the right time. He could be a hard-ass to deal with if he felt aggrieved; but he was, equally, unfailingly fair.

My guess is Expos nation will be represented well in Cooperstown, because in addition to Martinez, another figure of significance to that franchise – albeit in a different, perhaps more benign manner — is also being inducted.

Johnson is a central figure in Expos history as well, but for a different reason. He was in Triple-A in 1989 along with Gene Harris when they and another pitcher, Brian Holman, were traded to the Seattle Mariners for free-agent-eligible pitcher Mark Langston.

At the time, few realized that Expos owner Charles Bronfman had quietly started to think about divesting himself of the franchise. This was one more shot at glory that eluded the Expos in 1981, and for a while it seemed the deal worked: Langston fit in nicely in a rotation of Dennis Martinez, Pascual Perez, Kevin Gross and Bryn Smith.

The Expos, who were 23-23 when the trade was made, had a 3 ½-game lead atop the National League East on July 26 and a 10-game make-or-break road trip to Pittsburgh, New York and Chicago got off to a resounding start with three consecutive wins over the Pirates.

But a week later, the Expos had lost seven in a row and finished the trip three games out, and after the last game of the road trip it was Smith, a right-hander with a sharp tongue, who stunned the Montreal media, his teammates and ownership when he criticized general manager David Dombrowski for making a trade that put too much pressure on the team to win.

The Expos finished 12 games out and Langston signed as a free agent with the California Angels. The Expos’ thoughts of re-signing Langston, a low-key, blond, Californian, had quickly been snuffed out when it became obvious his wife Michelle didn’t like Montreal. His heart broken, Bronfman decided to sell the Expos … and we all know where that ended up.

Johnson, truth be told, wasn’t the focal point of the deal; rather, it was the flame-throwing Harris. Johnson was the big, goofy guy nicknamed ‘The Big Unit’ who feuded with coaches, punched dugout walls and was the original Nuke LaLoosh. At six-foot-10, there were a lot of moving parts and they didn’t always work in synch.

Johnson continued to be a work in progress, and Holman – who would turn out to be a life-long friend and who is in Cooperstown this weekend for Johnson’s induction – remembers the death of Johnson’s father as being something of a marker at which point the boy became a man, and, along with Roger Clemens, the most feared pitcher of his generation.

And so this giant left-hander and the one-time spindly right-hander are joined in an odd, Montreal sort of way. If Johnson needed to go to Seattle to reach his potential, so, too, was a change of scenery a boon to Martinez.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, particularly manager Tommy Lasorda, didn’t know what to make of the 160-pound Martinez. Suspecting he didn’t have the stamina to start, they saw him as a so-so swingman and jumped when Duquette, then GM of the Expos, offered second baseman Delino DeShields. Expos manager Felipe Alou saw Martinez a starter, and regularly did battle with opposing managers and media members and umpires while Martinez learned to pitch inside – something that would become his stock in trade, along with an unfathomable change-up.

Alou was a godsend for Martinez; a fellow native of the Dominican Republic with an eye and an ear for both explicit and implicit biases. They’ve been gone for a while, but it’s funny how so many things keep coming up Expos, isn’t it?

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