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The fruit seller at the haymarket greets a regular: "Pedro goes tonight." On a break at a downtown construction site, workers open their tabloid Boston Heralds from the back, where the sports are. Out in Wellesley, lawn sprinklers kick on, and investment managers for Fidelity pad sleepily up wide driveways, flipping through sections of the self-serious Boston Globe, past Nation, Business and Arts to the baseball coverage.

The pennant pandemic hits a handful of cities every autumn, but no place goes nuts in the spring like Boston does whenever the Red Sox get off to a good start. It's all about maybe. Maybe this year they can win the World Series for the first time since 1918. Throw in an early win over the profoundly reviled Yankees--or three early wins--and the city is all asweat.

This year more so, for there is reason to believe. The Sox have what may be the best team in the game. In a golden age of shortstops, they have one of the finest in Nomar Garciaparra, the defending American League batting champ who was hitting .387 as of Saturday. They have a new hero in center fielder Carl Everett, picked up in the off-season and now hitting .329, with 22 homers and 63 runs batted in. They have budding stars in right fielder Trot Nixon and catcher Jason Varitek and a dominating ninth-inning pitcher in Derek Lowe, who has saved 16 games.

And they have Pedro.

In Pedro Martinez, 28, the Red Sox have--with due respect to Arizona's Randy Johnson--the best pitcher in baseball. After winning 23 games and losing only four in 1999, then performing postseason heroics against Cleveland and New York, Martinez has won nine games this year and lost two--with an average of 12 strikeouts for every nine innings he pitches. What's most impressive about Martinez is his earned-run average: the number of runs that opposing teams score against him, without help from errors, for every nine innings that he pitches. In this ERA of a lively baseball, when an era of 4 a game is considered good, Pedro's ERA is an astonishing 0.99. The modern-day full-season record is Bob Gibson's 1.12, posted in 1968 and considered untouchable--until now.

The Red Sox's Bret Saberhagen, who has been around for 17 seasons, a couple of them as the finest pitcher of his day, says flatly, "That little man's the best I've ever seen. In my era, you've got Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux--but as far as I'm concerned, Pedro's the best."

At 5 ft. 11 in. and 170 lbs., Martinez is indeed, by the standards of major league pitchers, a little man. He is the smallest ever to strike out more than 300 batters in a season, a milestone he reached in 1997 and again last year. How does he do it? The Boston faithful say he's a miracle. Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette calls Martinez "a gift from God."

But some grizzled baseball types who don't believe in miracles say the answer can be found in Martinez's extraordinary fingers--long and slender like those of a pianist. They allow him to grip the ball longer and spin it fiercely, making it sing and dance. From the same arm motion, Pedro can deliver four very different pitches. He has a straight fast ball that approaches 100 m.p.h., a cut fast ball that moves in on left-handed hitters, a curve that suddenly dives for the plate and the game's best change-up, which often has a red-faced hitter completing his swing before the ball arrives.

Montreal Expos general manager Jim Beattie, who had Martinez for four seasons but couldn't pay him as much as Boston, says, "Pedro is also the smartest pitcher in the game. Hitters never know what to expect because he has such control of all his pitches, and he'll throw any of them in any situation." Martinez studies batters from the mound, staring in at them deadeyed. If he sees fear, he comes high and inside. Behind in the count, when most pitchers would throw a fast ball, he'll risk a breaking pitch. Martinez in the clubhouse is a sweet soul with a clownish side that at one point last year prompted teammates to tape his mouth shut and tie him to a pole in the dugout. But on the mound, he has a keen sense of machismo. He feels that a man on base is an affront. Opponents are batting just .056 against him when their team has runners in scoring position.

Martinez is a fanatic for self-improvement. He trains rigorously and studies hitters' tendencies diligently. Born and reared in the Dominican Republic, he has made himself fluent in English and even speaks a little French from his years in Montreal. He is a sensitive man who tends a flower garden--a pastime handed down by his mother--and readily accepts his responsibility as a role model. He's single, but he doesn't run with a bar-hopping pack. During the season, he lives west of Boston, drives himself to the ballpark and is unfailingly courteous to fans and free with autographs. During the winter, he's home in the Dominican Republic, working out four hours a day or busy with another project at the church-and-school complex he built for his impoverished hometown, Manoguayabo. "I like to be better," he says, and he means in all things.

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