Big Apple ready for fierce rival's return

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NEW YORK --- A city seethes in anticipation.

Outside Yankee Stadium, workmen wielding power washers crisscross the walkways on a crisp autumn afternoon, dutifully cleaning each and every groove between thousands of concrete squares. Inside, groundskeepers wielding rakes push pebbles back and forth, smoothing the dirt around home plate. Everyone in town, it seems, wants the place to look perfect for the return of Pedro Martinez.

"This is the kind of stage that I deserve," Martinez said, "and in a stadium like this, the most legendary of all places."

It will be nothing short of a miracle if the Yankees' new baseball palace remains anchored to its moorings when Martinez walks out to the mound tonight in a Phillies uniform for Game 6 of the World Series. The last time the level of psychokinetic energy in New York pushed the needle this far off the meter, the Ghostbusters were called in to save the city.

Pedro ain't afraid of no ghosts, either, even though he brings a history to the Bronx like almost no other.

When Martinez last showed his face here -- in the interview room after losing Game 2, despite a strong effort -- he was wearing a striped jacket that looked like it had been stolen from the set of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat . Yet it was while wearing the red socks of hated rival Boston a half-dozen years ago that Martinez was rendered a villain in these parts forever.

Say what you will about the once-flamboyant character; at 38, both his personality and competitive nature have been leavened by a nearly two-year absence from the game, when Martinez wondered whether his arm was shot and his career over. Philadelphia took a flier on him, wondering how much magic Martinez could still conjure up. He has learned to be grateful for every opportunity.

Back in the day, Martinez rarely bothered to learn the names of the hitters he faced; he simply blew them away. Today, his fastball rarely tops 90 mph on the radar gun. The kid who broke into the big leagues at "154 (pounds) soaking wet with a good arm" is now the consummate craftsman, getting by on nothing more than guts and guile.

On the ride back up from the interview room to the press box at Yankee Stadium, the elevator operator asked: What can you say about Martinez that hasn't been said?

The answer is only what Martinez said about himself.

"Everybody that grows up in the Dominican (Republic) and didn't have a rich life is a survivor. That's what we call it in the Dominican, survival.

"And in baseball I am a survivor. I'm someone that wasn't meant to be. And here I am," he said, finally, "on one big stage."


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