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How Pedro Martínez Became a Talking Head

The former Red Sox pitcher isn’t baseball’s version of Charles Barkley. He’s better.

An illustration of Pedro Martínez speaking on TV with an image of him pitching for the Red Sox in the background Michael Weinstein

One night this summer, I met Pedro Martínez at MLB Network headquarters in New Jersey. “Welcome to my office!” Martínez said.

I started laughing. The idea of Pedro Martínez working out of an office seems so … well, not Pedro Martínez, who always talks about going fishing and escaping to off-the-grid spots he calls “the boonies.” But an office is useful, Martínez said. It’s a place to store the tools of his trade, like matching brown and black Joseph Abboud shoes. See, Martínez has entered a new career phase. He is a talking head.

When I walked into his office, Martínez had his back turned and was signing a few dozen Topps cards. Bachata music played on a radio. Lenin Campusano, who is Martínez’s cousin and personal assistant, was leaning against the wall, wearing sunglasses.

At 46, Martínez has a slight belly. But he cuts a self-consciously dashing figure. “There’s no slummin’ it with Pedro,” said MLB Network host Greg Amsinger. Before changing into a suit for a three-hour jag on MLB Tonight, Martínez wore a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Calvin Klein joggers, and Ted Baker sneakers with two-color laces. Later, I asked Kevin Millar, Martínez’s MLB Network colleague and former Red Sox teammate, to describe the difference between how he and Martínez dress. “Checking accounts,” Millar said.

Television has a way of bringing out different qualities in ex-players. Recast as an announcer, Alex Rodriguez became likable. Paired with Joe Buck, John Smoltz became (even more) professorial. Martínez became a mensch. This is new, at least outside the Red Sox clubhouse. As a player, Martínez was driven by fear and pride and a protectiveness of his teammates that he compared to a “mother bear.” When he needed to work up the proper mental state to throw a strike, he’d often imagine a kidnapper holding a knife to his mother’s throat.

Martínez was wary of the media. “The Boston writers would frequently tell me I spoke better English than Roger Clemens,” he wrote in his memoir, “but I still felt that the meaning behind my English words was too blunt or too deep to be grasped.”

When Martínez became a studio analyst, a funny thing happened. His bluntness cut through. And when combined with his menschiness, it made him a totally original kind of announcer: Charles Barkley without the raging insecurity. In six years on the air, Martínez couldn’t remember a player getting mad at him. “I want every single player to do good,” he said, “to be even better than I was.”

On MLB Network, Martínez is inevitably announced as “the Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez.” But he talks like a rookie who just got to the show. At this year’s All-Star week, Martínez sat on a set next to the Angels’ Mike Trout. “I never thought he was going to be that big,” Martínez told me. “For a guy that’s so fast, so explosive … 230 [pounds]. I mean, lean, cut. Two-thirty. And he runs like a burner—like a guy who’s Billy Hamilton. Two-thirty. I couldn’t get past that.”

As the segment wrapped up, Martínez offered Trout a benediction: “May God bless you and keep you healthy because you’re fun to watch.”

In May, Martínez interviewed former Yankees manager Joe Girardi on MLB Network. When he was playing, Martínez found it awkward to ask an opponent too many prying questions. But as a talking head, he has a license to ask whatever he wants. He has begun to imagine a sideline conducting probing, Bob Costas–style interviews.

“I would love to sit down with Roger Clemens,” Martínez said. “I would love to sit down with Roger and just get him to talk to me. Like, you can trust me. You can talk to me about whatever.”

“Ichiro is really, really interesting,” Martínez continued, when I prodded him for more possible interview subjects. “I would love to interview Jeter.”

What would you want to know about Jeter? I asked.

“What was it like—what was it like in the clubhouse for him?” Martínez said. “How was the reception? Things that probably none of you know. I don’t think Jeter ever opened up that much. But I could get it out. He’s going to have to answer to me!”

When he retired from baseball in 2009, Martínez had no interest in TV. “Never crossed my mind,” he said. It was Millar, the cohost of MLB Network’s Intentional Talk, who urged him to give it a try. As Millar recalled: “I told him, ‘This is it, bro. Bottom line, you might be too rich for broadcasting—which is totally valid. But you’re going to love this. You’re going to want to do this.’”

In 2013, Martínez went to an audition at Turner Sports in Atlanta. Sportswriters were piling on Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig for his “antics,” and someone at Turner asked Martínez what he thought. Martínez said that Puig had only recently escaped from Cuba, and that what an American saw as immaturity might be Puig experiencing freedom in real time.

“They didn’t know I was going to be able to explain that in English,” Martínez said. Turner signed him to a contract and stuck him in the studio that postseason. Now, Martínez spends about a week per month with MLB Network during the season and then transfers to Turner for the American League playoffs.

Martínez is often compared to Barkley. It’s true that both men flash a moralizing streak—the night before I arrived, Martínez called Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez’s loafing “ugly for baseball.” Both men have a talent for shit talk. Amsinger told me: “Maikel Franco”—the Philadelphia Phillies third baseman—“is a young man Pedro knows well. He will say, ‘I tell you what. Good thing that kid can hit a baseball. Because, woo, he is not a good-looking young man. He is ug-ly.’

“We’re like, ‘Pedro, oh my goodness!’

“He’s like, ‘What? I would tell him that to his face.’”

Martínez departs from Barkley in two important ways. Barkley’s animating grudge comes from the rings he was denied as a player. Martínez, who restored Red Sox fans to their rightful place as the most insufferable people on the planet, talks like he wants to give replica World Series rings to everyone. “He felt the game was good to him,” said Dan Plesac, another MLB Network analyst. “He doesn’t need to be owed anything.”

Barkley is also an NBA declinist. The current game will always fail to measure up to its ’80s and ’90s prime. Martínez doesn’t see modern baseball that way at all. Last month, he tweeted: “Everytime I look at Khris Davis I feel like I’m looking at Manny Ramirez.”

If you’re looking for the best Martínez comp, it’s probably Tony Romo. Martínez is so wired into his sport that he has the mesmeric ability to predict the future. Sitting on the set of MLB Tonight, Martínez will try to guess what the pitcher will throw next, and he often turns out to be right. “One thing I always say about Pedro is that he’s Will Hunting,” said Turner’s Casey Stern.

“I still see situations in a game,” Martínez said, “where I want to go, Ahhhh, I want to be there! This is what he needs to do! Oh my god, it’s right there!

“Competing is like hearing one of the fishing poles just go off. Zzzzzeeeee. That adrenaline. Fish on! It’s the same thing.”

Martínez’s shift on MLB Tonight begins with a 7 p.m. editorial meeting. MLB Network is a much nerdier place than its backslapping NFL cousin. Analysts are expected to know the full rosters of all 30 Major League teams and suggest pitch-by-pitch “breakdown” segments they can deliver on the air.

That night, Martínez had the idea of showing how the Phillies’ Aaron Nola fared against the Dodgers’ right-handed hitters versus how he fared against their lefties. Martínez thought Nola’s changeup wasn’t good enough to get lefties out.

After the editorial meeting, Martínez was paired with an associate producer named Brynn Foley. “He’s good enough now that he can tell the editor what he wants,” said Rich Ciancimino, MLB Tonight’s coordinating producer. After a quick huddle, Foley assembled a highlight package that showed Nola mowing down righties and then struggling to punch out a lefty, Joc Pederson. An hour later, Martínez appeared in the editing suite to look over the results.

“This is the whole pitch sequence for Joc Pederson,” Foley said.

“Fastballs, fastballs, fastballs,” Martínez said, ticking off Nola’s pitches. “That changeup is not there.”

“That’s a double,” Foley said.

“Boom,” Martínez said.

“We can show this whole pitch sequence if you want,” said Foley.

“That’s perfect for what I want to describe,” Martínez said. He asked only that a green dot be put on the pitch locations so that viewers could see them. Then he turned on his heels. “All righty,” he said. “Thanks. Good job, good job. And, now, let’s go get makeup!”

With rare exceptions like José Mota, English-language TV has done a desultory job of hiring ex-baseball players who grew up speaking Spanish. It’s only recently that Martínez and Fox’s David Ortiz became national commentators and ambassadors to an undercovered segment of the sport. Last month, Martínez surprised Orioles reliever Miguel Castro, who grew up in the Dominican Republic idolizing Martínez, during an interview. “Castro, mi niño,” he exclaimed. “¡Sorpresa! ¿Cómo estás?” Castro looked like a nervous wreck.

Martínez speaks excellent English—an early tutor called him a “big computer”—but he told me he still fears committing a gaffe. “Anything could be misinterpreted,” he said, “and the entire network could be held accountable.”

During last year’s playoffs, the Turner crew got to making fun of each other’s wardrobes. Martínez told Casey Stern, “It must be nice to be a Jew.” (Stern, who wasn’t offended, said he can’t remember what joke Martínez was trying to make.)

On the night I visited, Martínez watched the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus hit a grand slam and said, “Papa John’s!” During a commercial break, Amsinger informed Martínez that MLB’s “Papa Slam” promotion had been discontinued after founder John Schnatter’s racist meltdown.

“You need to let me know this stuff,” Martínez said, looking stricken. “The network needs to send an email out or something.”

Martínez cares about being good on TV, but he hasn’t devoted his life to it. “Let’s put it this way,” he said. “I’d prefer to be fishing.” In his free time, he rarely answers email or texts. When he’s not watching baseball, he leans toward reality fare like Naked and Afraid, though he often gets frustrated with the contestants. “You don’t know that you could cover yourself with different plants and you can burn certain plants that … would be a repellent for mosquitoes?” Martínez said. “C’mon now!”

Is it strange to think of yourself a member of the media? I asked Martínez.

“I tell you what,” he said. “I do have a lot more respect for the media than I previously did. Because I didn’t know specifically what you guys did. I didn’t show the appreciation I have for the media. I thought you were just out there to haunt me …”

Haunt you?

“Yeah!” Martínez said. “Remember, I was in Boston. When you deal with [Dan] Shaughnessy and Jonny Miller for seven years, you feel like you’re haunted.”

When he played, Martínez couldn’t figure why the newspaper and internet columns he read didn’t match up with the reality of the clubhouse as he knew it. “I had a hard time living with it because it didn’t sound fair to me,” he said.

“Like Shaughnessy,” Martínez said, bringing him up again. “He’s a great writer. But he would write in a way that would nick me. … Evil Eyes, that’s what I called him. I thought he was a bad person.”

“He would say”—Martínez impersonated Shaughnessy’s toneless voice—“‘Pedro, this is just me writing. It’s not about you. It’s not personal.’ But now, I understand it better and I respect it more.”

It’s perhaps the most interesting quality TV has brought out of Pedro Martínez. He understands what it’s like to be a journalist, standing outside the clubhouse and talking confidently about what’s going on inside. “In the way people can perceive it, that’s Pedro’s opinion,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be the truth.”

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