Every once in a while, an athlete comes along and makes an impact on your life outside of the workplace. It doesn't happen very often, especially for reporters, which is just another reason why Pedro Martinez may very well be the most special athlete to grace Boston with his presence, and one of the most special men I had the pleasure of covering.
Unless you saw it for yourself, you'd never truly know how Pedro Martinez single-handedly commanded the spotlight and captivated every set of eyes in Red Sox Nation on days he pitched. Fans counted every five days on the schedule before they purchased tickets, hoping to see Pedro electrify Fenway Park. They knew it would be worth the money. They knew it would be special.
Off the field, in the seven-plus years I was lucky enough to be around Martinez and get to know him as a person, he was nothing short of humble, respectful and courteous, at least to me. I was not only lucky enough to cover Martinez with the Red Sox, but also with the New York Mets in 2008. It was then when Pedro showed me a glimpse of his life outside of the ballpark. For five years, Pedro made me laugh on a regular basis. And then one day, Pedro made me cry... in a good way.
My father, Frank Royle, who I've mentioned before on this forum, is the reason why I am a baseball reporter. A graduate of Charlestown High School and a Bostonian in every sense of the word, my father instilled baseball in me at an early age. Frequent visits to Fenway Park during my childhood with my two brothers, Chris and Kevin, gave me memories to fulfill a lifetime, but more important, it gave me an understanding of the game and a respect for baseball traditions only the city of Boston could create.
My father was diagnosed with cancer in February of 2006, and after a brief and laborious fight, he ended his battle on July 23 of that same year. I recall my abrupt departure from Yankees spring training in Tampa, Florida so I could be home with my family in Boston, especially my mother. And from the 26th floor at Massachusetts General Hospital overlooking the Charles River where my father spent his childhood, and the infamous Citco sign across from Fenway Park where my father grew up his children, he eventually said goodbye... to everything.
In 2008 in the Mets clubhouse at Shea Stadium, Pedro Martinez opened up to me about his sick father, Paulino (Pablo) Jaime Martinez. What most people didn't know at the time, Pedro was torn between finishing the season with the Mets and returning home to the Dominican Republic to be with his father. Knowing his father was potentially dying 1,500 miles away from New York City, Pedro even began to question whether he had spent too much time away over the years.
I told him, "Pedro, I guarantee your father would not take back one minute you spent pitching in America. I guarantee you have made him proud from afar. Trust me, he didn't want you home in the DR. You fulfilled both your dream and his by being in the United States."
I knew from experience. When I took a leave of absence from work in May of 2006, my father frequently questioned what I was doing home. He didn't want to be a burden. He wanted me to live my life.
Little did he know the end was near, and being in New York with the Yankees was the last place I needed to be. And for Pedro, he questioned whether he should return home for the All-Star break. Possibly considering his father would make it to the offseason, I knew in my heart it was a risk he didn't want to take.
A week prior to the break, I told Pedro the last thing he wanted was regret. And I know first-hand, it's liberating to live without. In the end, Pedro took my advice and flew south.
Pedro returned about a week later and sought me out in the Mets clubhouse. He had a huge smile on his face. You all know that smile. It melts you a strange way because you know there is nothing but sincerity and truth behind it. He told me his father wasn't conscious during his time in the Dominican, but Pablo Martinez knew he was there.
"I leaned over my father," Pedro told me. "I grabbed his hand and whispered in his ear, ‘Dad, it's Pedro. I'm home. Do you want me to stay here in the Dominican with you?'"
"Dad, it's Pedro. Do you want me to stay in the Dominican with you?"
No response. He tried again.
"Dad, it's Pedro. Do you want me to go back to New York and play baseball?"
According to Pedro, Pablo Martinez squeezed his son's hand. And Pedro had closure.
Standing at Pedro's locker in the Mets clubhouse, I found myself in tears hearing his story. I was not only happy that Pedro was able to get the answer to something he had been questioning, but I felt somewhat responsible in a small way. My tears not only were shed for my own experiences with my own father, but they were tears of joy. I made the right decision in 2006 and Pedro followed suit in 2008.
I didn't say much, I let him speak, but coincidentally, this conversation took place on July 23, 2008, the two-year anniversary of my own father's death. When I informed Pedro of the date, we shared a hug.
Fast-forward three hours in the top of the seventh inning, Jay Horowitz from the Mets' Media Relations department made a sudden and unusual announcement over the press box PA system. Jay informed the media that Pedro had been taken out of the game and would be flying to the Dominican to mourn his father's death. A few things crossed my mind at this moment: One, how can this be? We were JUST talking about our dads. Second, Pablo Martinez and Frank Royle share an anniversary. And third, I'm so glad Pedro went home for the All-Star break.
Upon his return to Shea Stadium, after receiving sympathy from the majority of the New York media, Pedro took the time to thank me for my words of wisdom. Sitting front and center for his "Call the Yankees my daddy" and "under the mango tree" statements, witnessing the initial arrival of his little friend Nelson De LaRosa, and endless interviews, this moment took precedence. And from his time with the Red Sox, his short stint with the Mets and his even shorter time with the Phillies, along with the 1999 All-Star appearance at Fenway Park, that conversation became my favorite Pedro moment. And it had nothing to do with baseball.
We are taught as journalists that players aren't your friends. And while I agree with that notion, I do feel, however, we are all human beings with at times, the same human interests. It has always been my motto, if you can stay true to your work and not have a biased opinion, you can allow certain people into your life, not just into your notebook. I know how it felt to watch my father take his last breath and I know in my heart I did and said everything I needed to before he passed. Living with regret was not an option for me. It was for Pedro, and he chose wisely.
July 23, 2012 recently passed and my father's presence felt stronger than ever. As the year 2006 falls deeper into the past, each day becomes easier but six years feels like a century. I think about my father every day, and sometimes, for some strange reason, I think about Pedro's father, too. Maybe the two have met and are sharing a Cerveza in heaven as we speak. Unfortunately, we'll never know.
I always said, one never fully understands what it's like to lose a parent unless you've gone through it yourself. Pedro Martinez and I didn't have much in common, but we had that.
Jen Royle is a Columnist for SB Nation Boston. You can follow her @Jen_Royle on Twitter.