NEW YORK – Pedro Martinez is starting to feel old. He is 35 now, a bit thick in the midsection, finally beginning to accept that his body will never do things it used to. He understands, too, that while age gifts him wisdom and patience, it does so knowing he needs such virtues.
Paolino Jaime Abreu, Martinez's 77-year-old father, might be sick. In the past year, lymphoma had invaded his body, and doctors in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., thought they had eradicated it. Then the spots showed up last week, the same pocks on his skin that signaled cancer the first time.
"So we're going to bring him back to have him checked," Martinez said. "He was totally clean. They sent him home.
"Now we don't know."
Uncertainty is somewhat of a theme in Martinez's life, from his father's health to his status with the New York Mets. Yes, Martinez will receive a Richter-registering ovation when he makes his Shea Stadium season debut starting Sunday's series finale against the Houston Astros. Charisma and legacy are a winning combination when it comes to fans' affection, and Martinez, as he is wont to do, will comport himself with the playfulness of a golden retriever puppy, even if it belies his true feelings.
"Not taking anything away from this outing, but I'm already too old to be getting all excited," Martinez said. "It affects my heart."
Heavy as his heart may be, Martinez knows the importance of his last four or five starts. The Mets need to understand what they have, and Martinez needs to understand who he is. He was shaky in the first inning Monday of his first start coming off rotator-cuff surgery, then settled down to pitch four scoreless frames. His fastball topped out at 89 mph, which was passable, his changeup disturbed hitters' equilibrium, which was great, and his curveball flattened out, which was bad.
So, in all, he was average. And while in the past an average Pedro meant one run instead of none, now it constitutes the difference between a pitcher solidly in the Mets' playoff rotation and one who will cause manager Willie Randolph some very uncomfortable nights' sleep.
"Even though he's not the Pedro he was when he was in Boston, when he threw 97 and 98, he's still Pedro," Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran said. "That counts for a lot.
"Things are different when Pedro's out there. He keeps the clubhouse loose, jokes around, has fun. And when he takes the mound, he's still one of the best."
If so, he'll earn a spot in the Mets' playoff rotation. Over whom is the question. Tom Glavine, the veteran, is in. Orlando Hernandez, another playoff-tested pitcher, has been the Mets' most consistent starter this season. John Maine leads the team with 14 victories. And Oliver Perez is tops in strikeouts and has a 3.46 ERA.
So would the Mets dare go with Martinez out of the bullpen? Perhaps his most famous performance came in relief, when Martinez threw six no-hit innings to win Game 5 of the 1999 Division Series against Cleveland. Randolph won't address rookie outfielder Carlos Gomez's potential spot on the playoff roster, let alone his rotation, so speculation must suffice.
However great it sounds – a fresh Pedro, tromping out of the bullpen in the seventh inning to protect a one-run lead with the bases loaded – Beltran is right: He still is Pedro Martinez, the guy who helped start the Met revolution when he signed a four-year, $56 million deal before the 2005 season. Beltran joined up shortly thereafter, Jose Reyes and David Wright grew into superstars, pitching coach Rick Peterson worked his magic on Maine and Perez, and the Mets were reborn.
And anyway, while Hernandez has been the most consistent Mets pitcher this season, he played the swing role beautifully for the White Sox during their 2005 championship. Perez is too erratic for relief, Maine lacking El Duque's flexibility.
First comes today's start, when Martinez expects to jump his pitch count from 76 in his first outing to at least 85, maybe 90. He'd be content with that. Not excited. These days, that takes plenty more.
"Winning a World Series in a Mets uniform," Martinez said. "That would get me going, boy. You wouldn't see me stop for probably two weeks."
Martinez would paint New York before heading back to his native Dominican Republic. He hopes Paolino will have returned to Santo Domingo by then, the doctors deeming him cancer-free.
Paolino taught his boys, Ramon, Nelson, Pedro and Jesus, how to play baseball. Ramon, a solid starter with the Dodgers, and Pedro, one of his generation's greats, a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer, did what he couldn't.
"Back in those days, people didn't believe you could make a living playing baseball," Pedro said. "Grandma never saw anyone come out. So she sent him to the farm to work.
"My dad had a great arm."
Disappointment tinged Martinez's voice. His dad had played with Felipe Alou and Manny Mota. He was good. He might have made the major leagues.
Such stories sadden Martinez until he begins to remember what a complete and fulfilling life his father has lived. His wisdom reminds him that. His patience tells him that times of uncertainty pass with resolutions, ones with which he'll learn to live.
And then Martinez smiles, the big toothy kind that endears him to everyone he meets. This getting-old thing. Maybe it's not so bad after all.