My unlikely writing teacher: Pedro Martinez

During the Covid lockdown, I’ve become increasingly obsessed with archival footage of “actual human life,” so I scoured the internet for any videos I could find of Pedro Martinez, my favorite baseball player, in action. Watching him perform was like accessing memories I had forgotten or never had. Fortunately, it was the most famous game of his career – which happened on September 10, 1999, when his team, Boston Red Sox, Yankees play, In New York, in the midst of that year’s playoff race – now widely available on the Internet. Modern viewers can see what I’m going to argue is not just a baseball game but a novel, an opera, and a lyrical masterpiece. Watching her is a bit like watching Virginia Woolf write “Mrs. Dalloway,” in real time, right in front of you.

Inevitably, my viewing habit affected my own work. “This is what writing feels like lately,” I wrote in my journal. “It’s all about pitch sequence, sentence variety. You have to move the reader through the paragraph. Fastball, curveball, changeup. Regular sentence, long sentence, short sentence. Straight declarative sentence, periodic sentence, part of the sentence. Keep them on their toes, carry on Throw the ball in front of them. I always think of the part rhythm and movement play in my own prose and in that of my two favorite writers; I love the way that language can leap out of my mind and then onto my fingers, like a curveball released from the hand of an All-Star pitcher. I studied Martinez first as a baseball player and eventually as an artist – I read him as closely as I would a fashionable writer. I’ve come to learn he’s an excellent writing teacher, as brutal as that sounds. His signature games are a master class on how to change records, how to strategize, and how to create paradigms, patterns, and leitmotifs. From Martinez, you can learn how to perform on the page.

The Yankees game starts out strangely: In the bottom of the first inning, Martinez clips hitter Chuck Knoblauch’s jersey up front with an inside fastball, putting him on base. Many of my favorite artworks also start with a little whimsy. For example: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. What kind of pitch is that?” It is a declarative and confident opening sentence, and supports her claim: perhaps a jab in itself. “Because Lucy had her work cut out for her.” At first glance, we have Here’s another fastball, but the initial “for” puts some in, turning the demonstrative sentence into nonclause or addition to the previous: curveball in the outer corner. After Knoblauch throws out the steal, Martinez retires the next four batters before throwing an uncharacteristically flat fastball to Yankee outfielder Chili Davis, who hit a home run into the right field bleachers, making it 1–0 Yankees after two innings.

Given the awkwardness of the first two frames, it can be easy to miss what’s going on. Indeed, many of Martinez’s greatest performances seem to have been motivated by limitations of his own making, by raising the stakes by the showman. (Consider the game vs Tampa Bay Devil Rays in August 2000 (When he instigated a bench-clearing scrimmage after drilling forehand Gerald Williams, before going on to pitch a batter for the full eight innings.) It’s as if his pitching capabilities—his “stuff,” as baseball scouts call it—is a hard, unwieldy beam of The light has to be set and set while the game continues.