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Every fifth day for seven New England summers, Pedro Martinez was the man to watch.
With an unreal ownership of the inside part of the plate, and a virtually unhittable changeup, Martinez captivated all of a then-long-suffering Boston Red Sox fanbase every single time he took the mound.
In a game juiced to the max, with hitters looking way more like the MonStars from Space Jam than anything out of this realm of reality, the 5-foot-11 righty was straight-up vicious. In 1999, Pedro went a downright absurd 23-4, striking out 313 batters and posting a 2.07 ERA. Leading the league in all three of those categories that season, Martinez won his second of three career Cy Young awards (two came with Boston), and began to etch out a Red Sox legacy that yielded a ridiculous 117-37 record with the Red Sox, and a World Series win in 2004. This run ultimately ended with Pedro’s enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame (with a Sox cap!) and subsequent No. 45 retired at Fenway Park last week.
Spending my formative years in Boston, a 15-minute train ride from the Fens, there wasn’t a player I admired more than Martinez. No matter how bad the Red Sox were -- and believe me, they were really bad some of those years -- you watched to see what Pedro would do. He was an artist, and a true one of a kind talent. And you just knew that you were watching somebody special. He became iconic, even as an active player, and there probably won’t be another Martinez, at least for this era’s Red Sox squads.
He was a true once in a lifetime type of talent.
A week removed from his Hall of Fame speech, I couldn’t help but wonder… does this era of Boston Bruins hockey, which I would consider from the start of the 21st century (or after the first lockout of the century if you wanna get real fancy), have a guy that could compare to Pedro’s impact?
The sports are obviously different, as pitchers can obviously control more than one skater can on your average night in the National Hockey League, but I found it to be an interesting question. The Bruins had their Pedro in Bobby Orr, yeah, but the Red Sox had that in Yaz or Ted Williams. It’s about finding somebody from this
era that could equate to the impact that Martinez had in his prime.
I think the qualifications have to be changed a bit, as hockey players tend to play everyday and not every five days like a starting pitcher, but the overall theme remains the same. They had to be a dominant figure at their position, pile up some personal accolades, and yes, even win a championship.
The first person that comes to mind, at least in that regard, is Tim Thomas
For a four-year stretch there, it seemed like Thomas was on top of the Hub’s hockey world. (Well, every year except for a disastrous 2009-10 season that saw Thomas booed off the ice on numerous occasions.) In 2009, he led the league with a .933 save percentage and 2.10 goals against average, and took home his first Vezina Trophy and Jennings Trophy from a B’s club that finished second in the NHL.
But it was a seriously superhuman effort in 2010-11 that’s forever put Thomas in Boston sports lore.
The Flint, Mich. native won 35 of 55 regular-season starts, and once again led the entire league in save percentage (a .938 this time around, the highest single-season mark in league history) and goals against average (2.00). It was a regular season that earned him yet another All-Star appearance, and left him finishing fifth in the voting for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player. And that was just the beginning of Thomas’ run. In the 2011 playoffs, Thomas was untouchable.
Through four rounds, Thomas shut down shooter after shooter, and saved his best for last in a seven-game war with the Vancouver Canucks. In a series that the Black and Gold should have really had no business winning when you compared the rosters (at least in my opinion, looking back on it), Thomas stopped all but eight of the 246 shots the Canucks threw at him in the series, posting a .967 save percentage over that stretch, headlined by a 37-save shutout in Game 7.
To this day, that regular season and subsequent four-round run remains the single greatest run I’ve ever covered, lived, witnessed, whatever. And I’ll be honest, it’s going to take one mammoth effort to jostle it from the top, too. For me, that was Pedro’s 1999 in hockey terms. It was a player that was at his absolute peak (and then some) from start to finish, and it was seriously incredible.
Thomas was like Martinez too in the sense that negativity fueled him. Thomas, like Pedro, was always considered too small or too erratic to be successful at the game's highest level. And he lived for proving people wrong and showing the people that believed in him that they were right.
But with the bluecollar Thomas' story is a bit different than Pedro’s, as well.
Martinez was on top of his game at a consistent level for almost five years. Thomas was a bit of a hit-or-miss type of talent whose game didn’t truly take off until Claude Julien
arrived in town. You can’t hold that against him to the point of completely discrediting everything he did during his tenure with the Black and Gold (his 196 wins in the B’s crease rank fourth among Boston goaltenders all time), but it was not always
So maybe that shifts us towards the 6-foot-9 captain since 2006, Zdeno Chara
The greatest free agent signing in NHL history, Chara was a downright nasty force for the Bruins during their peak runs to championship contention. He shut down generational talents Sidney Crosby
and Alexander Ovechkin
with ease, and restored the Bruins to credibility in the league.
Chara is like Martinez in the sense that your eyes shift to him when he’s out there, too. You just can’t look away. His stature has always played a major factor in that -- seriously, how many 6-foot-9 players are there that are actually, you know, good? -- but there’s an allure to Chara from fans of all teams. When you first see this guy out there, even at 38 years old, you can’t help but marvel at what he does.
And his resume speaks for itself. In nine years with Boston, Chara has lifted the Stanley Cup, been named to the All-Star Team five teams, and has taken home one Norris Trophy (that’s sort of insane to think about). He’s finished in the Top 5 for Norris voting in all but three of those nine years, too.
Chara, like Martinez (though they’re separated by almost a foot in height), struck fear into his opponents. Like Martinez’s willingness to come inside with a fastball near 100 miles per hour, Chara did it with his record-breaking slapshot that’s been clocked at nearly 110 MPH.
They both had an intimidation factor that’s tough to find.
Perhaps Chara is more like a Randy Johnson, who was also inducted in the 2015 class at the Baseball Hall of Fame, whereas Thomas speaks more towards the underdog status of a guy like Pedro Martinez.
Whether you think it’s Chara, Thomas, or somebody else, there’s an icon in this era of Bruins hockey, I think that much is obvious. And while comparing guys to guys in other sports is a maddening experiment more often than not, a week of realizing that you were fortunate enough to witness absolute greatness in Martinez felt great, and should come back around when you look back on the Bruins teams that have restored the Black and Gold to leaguewide notoriety over the past decade plus.
(But one thing’s for sure: There was only one Pedro Martinez.)
Ty Anderson has been covering the Boston Bruins for HockeyBuzz.com since 2010, is a member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association's Boston Chapter, and can be contacted on Twitter, or emailed at Ty.AndersonHB[at]gmail.com