Stuck during the Covid lockdown, I became increasingly obsessed with “real human life” stock footage, so I searched the internet for any video I could find of Pedro Martinez, my favorite baseball player, in action. Watching him throw was like accessing memories she had forgotten or never had. Fortunately, the most illustrious game of his career, which took place on September 10, 1999, when his team, the Boston Red Sox, played against the Yankees, in New York, in the midst of that year’s playoff race, is now widely available online. Contemporary viewers can see what I would say is not simply a baseball game, but a novel, an opera, a lyrical masterpiece. Watching it feels a bit like watching Virginia Woolf write “Mrs. Dalloway”, in real time, right in front of you.
Inevitably, my television habit came to influence my own work. “This is how it feels to write lately,” I wrote in my journal. “It is about the sequence of tones, about the variation of sentences. You have to move the reader through the paragraph. Fastball, curveball, changeup. Normal sentence, long sentence, short sentence. Direct declarative sentence, periodic sentence, sentence fragment. Keep them on their toes, keep throwing the ball past them.” I am always thinking about the role that rhythm and movement play in my own prose and in the prose of my favorite writers; I love the way language can jump from my mind and onto my fingers, like a curveball coming out of the hand of an All-Star pitcher. I studied Martínez, first as a baseball player and then eventually as an artist; I read it carefully as you would a modernist author. I came to learn that he is an excellent writing instructor, as wild as that sounds. His signature games are a master class on how to change registers, how to strategize, how to create shapes, patterns and leitmotifs. From Martinez, you can learn to act on the page.
The Yankees’ game begins strangely: In the bottom of the first inning, Martinez hits leadoff hitter Chuck Knoblauch’s jersey with an inside fastball, putting him on base. Many of my favorite masterpieces also start with a bit of fantasy. For example: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Woolf wrote. What kind of pitch is that? It’s a declarative and confident opening sentence, and it stakes the claim of hers: perhaps a brushback fastball itself. “Because Lucy had a lot of work ahead of her.” At first glance, here’s another fastball, but the initial “for” puts a twist on it, turning a declarative sentence into a Nosentence or an addition to the above: curveball at the outside corner. After Knoblauch is tagged for stealing, Martinez retires the next four batters before throwing an unusually flat fastball to Yankees slugger Chili Davis, who homers to the right-field stands, making it 1-0 for the Yankees after two innings.
Given the awkwardness of the first two frames, it can be easy to miss what’s going on. In fact, several of Martinez’s best performances seem to be catalyzed by a restraint of his own making, by the raising of a showman’s stakes. (Consider the game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in August 2000 when he incited a scramble to clear the bench after drilling leadoff hitter Gerald Williams before pitching a no-hitter for eight full innings). It’s as if his pitching potential—the “stuff” of him, as baseball scouts call it—is a powerful, unwieldy beam of light that you have to hone and pinpoint as the game progresses.