Socked in during Covid lockdown, I became increasingly obsessed with archival footage of “actual human life,” so I scoured the internet for any videos I could find of Pedro Martinez, my favorite baseball player, in action. Watching him pitch was like gaining access to memories I’d forgotten or never quite had. Fortunately, the most illustrious game of his career — which took place on Sept. 10, 1999, when his team, the Boston Red Sox, played the Yankees, in New York, amid that year’s playoff race — is now widely available online. Contemporary viewers can see what I would argue is not merely a baseball game but a novel, an opera, a lyric masterpiece. Watching it feels a bit like witnessing Virginia Woolf write “Mrs. Dalloway,” in real time, right in front of you.

Inevitably, my viewing habit came to influence my own work. “This is what writing feels like lately,” I wrote in my journal. “It’s all about pitch sequencing, about sentence variation. You have to move the reader through the paragraph. Fastball, curveball, changeup. Normal sentence, long sentence, short sentence. Straight declarative sentence, periodic sentence, sentence fragment. Keep them on their toes, keep throwing the ball past them.” I’m 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 that language can leap from my mind and then to my fingers, much like a curveball arcing out of the hand of an All-Star pitcher. I studied Martinez, first as a baseball player and then, eventually, as an artist — I close-read him 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 in how to shift registers, how to strategize, how to create forms and patterns and leitmotifs. From Martinez, you can learn how to perform on the page.

The Yankee game begins strangely: In the bottom of the first inning, Martinez clips the leadoff batter Chuck Knoblauch’s jersey with an inside fastball, putting him on base. Many of my favorite masterworks, too, begin with a bit of whimsy. For instance: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” Woolf wrote. What sort of pitch is that? It is a declarative and confident opening sentence, and it stakes its claim: maybe a brushback fastball itself. “For Lucy had her work cut out for her.” At first glance here we have another fastball, but the initial “for” puts some spin on it, turning a declarative sentence into a nonsentence or an addendum to the one before: curveball on the outside corner. After Knoblauch is thrown out stealing, Martinez retires the next four batters before throwing an uncharacteristically flat fastball to the Yankee slugger Chili Davis, who smacks a home run into the right-field bleachers, making the score 1-0 Yankees after two innings.

Given the awkwardness of the first two frames, it might be easy to miss what is transpiring. In fact, several of Martinez’s greatest performances seem to be catalyzed by a constraint of his own making, by a showman’s raising of stakes. (Consider the game versus the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in August 2000 when he incited a bench-clearing brawl after drilling the leadoff batter, Gerald Williams, before going on to throw a no-hitter for eight complete innings.) It’s as if his pitching potential — his “stuff,” as baseball scouts call it — is a powerful and unwieldy beam of light that he must fine-tune and pinpoint as the game goes on.


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