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Day of hit and miss nonpareil

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2000

Even before John Flaherty's single, it wasn't really a no-hitter. Not at the Tuesday Night Fights. As his ninth-inning liner crashed Pedro Martinez's party, my boxscore/body count showed 17 left hooks, 12 uppercuts and a Tropload of ejected, dejected Devil Rays.

From the depth of ugliness there would come heavenly artistry. Martinez, with controversy flaming around him, was as unshakable as Gibraltar, continuing to lay on the great strokes until he had a masterpiece.

Almost a no-hitter. Not far from a perfect game, even if amid a repetitive gushing of imperfect attitudes. Pedro's portrait dripped with blood, drama, passion and achievement. Worthy of hanging in the Baseball Louvre.

Amazing to watch.

Martinez did an emotional, athletic, incomparable 360. Going from well-booed Boston beanball villain in the first inning to a Tropicana Field zero hero down the stretch, being radically cheered as though a Tampa Bay homey during the quest for no-no immortality.

Weird. Wacky. Wonderful.

How could only 17,450 show up? Martinez is baseball's best pitcher by an ERA landslide. Did my community not feel the magnetism? Obviously not. Tampa Bay homesteaders stayed away to a multitudinous degree.

No-shows missed a production that was like a lot of Luciano Pavarotti and a bashing load of Jerry Springer. Beauty and the beast. Nasty, overcooked macho nonsense blended with spectacular Martinez pitching, plus a triple haymaker from Carl Everett's bat.

When it came to the ninth inning, the D-Rays must've felt like outsiders instead of the home team. Being widely spurned in their own ballpark, with most of the 17,450 choosing to pull with all their hearts and energized lungs for a no-no by a Dominican dandy.

But then came a man called Flash, the gem-scratching Tampa Bay catcher. His single was as clean as any Pete Rose or Ty Cobb ever smacked. Many voices that had just been roaring on behalf of a Martinez no-hitter would immediate hurrah the Flaherty rap. A gent of character, Flash would say, "I'm not proud to stand here and say I was part of that game."

Three hours of smash theater.

Martinez had just begun to perspire when flesh-seeking pitches and jock snorting arose to tarnish. Martinez leads the American League in almost everything having to do with a mound, including hit batsmen. Gerald Williams, the home team's first batter, took a painful crack on his hand from a Pedro hummer.

Tampa Bay's centerfielder glared at Martinez, but that appeared to be the extent of Gerald's fury. Wrong! After a couple of steps toward first base, Williams went racing at Pedro. Mayhem on the mind.

There was a right-hand jab to Martinez's face. He went down, but not out. By then, benches had unloaded. Classic baseball melee. Twelve minutes worth. Longer than most Mike Tyson fights. Men acting like children, which in such situations has been tradition since Honus Wagner was playing teeball.

Who would've guessed that Gerald's fist would be the only solid blow against Martinez for the next eight innings, until the Flaherty poke led off the ninth?

Williams got the umpire heave. Mandatory. But so did Rays manager Larry Rothschild, who kept pointing at Martinez in uncomplimentary ways. Gerald was tough to get out of the house. Greg Vaughn, a notably strong teammate, kept blocking Williams from going back for more trouble in the heart of the diamond.

Raging at Pedro.

All the while, Martinez kept sucking oxygen. Keeping balance. Sharpness. Trying to not be squashed by the mess his Williams knockdown pitch triggered. Remarkably, after that conking, Martinez swallowed the next 24 hitters.

There came beanballs of retaliation from Rays pitchers. So predictable. Two guys from Boston wound up in a hospital. Brian Daubach asked for it, slamming blindly into the pile of raging humanity after the Williams blows.

You wondered as it progressed, with all the smoke and anger, if this would be a perfect game ruined by the opening act of exaggerated Pedro manhood? The plunking of Gerald. Martinez could ease that segment of his act.

Through it all, Tampa native Everett was offensively splattering the team from his home neighborhood. Two-run double by the gifted Red Sox centerfielder, followed by a homer to dead center, then a three-run launch to left.

Pedro needed just one run.

Sadly, the beanballs smudged the night. Spurning all the fighting. Unless, of course, you're more Springer and than Pavarotti. These fights at the Trop, they were anything but staged or fake. A mentality was fueled that is baseball tradition, an ancient belief that "if they do it to our guy, we must do it to their guy."

Their guy was phenomenal.

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