WHEN PEDRO Martinez returned to his locker yesterday after the Red Sox clobbered the Orioles, 13-2, he smiled. Waiting for baseball's newest 20-game winner were three wilted helium balloons, a bottle of champagne on ice and a fruit basket.
"Let's eat fruit. It's a gift. It's a celebration," the Boston ace teased.
What made him most happy, however, was a little piece of yellow legal paper carrying a crooked, handwritten note from a veteran teammate.
"God never forgets his sons. May God bless you. Your form of work and positive attitude has given you this. I know now why you are the best. Your brother in Jesus Christ, Carlos Baerga."
Of course, it was in Spanish, since Martinez is Dominican and Baerga is from Puerto Rico. Martinez provided the English translation.
"I'm going to frame this," Martinez said. Across the room, Baerga gave the No. 1 reason why this season - perhaps of all the great ones the three-time Cy Young Award-winning Martinez has delivered in his Hall of Fame career - was the most satisfying.
"The way his arm felt, he never thought he'd go back the same way he was. He'd say, 'I don't feel it, Carlos. I don't feel it.' Now he wins 20 games," Baerga said.
Along with the genuine appreciation and affection for one of the game's most dominant pitchers, there was considerable spin going on inside the Red Sox clubhouse yesterday.
Of course, by securing his 20th win, Martinez affirms his eligibility for consideration in this year's Cy Young voting.
As a sentimental favorite, Martinez always has a chance. However, with the way Oakland's Barry Zito (22 wins; 11-2 since the All-Star break and four wins during the Athletics' 20-game streak) has propelled his team to the best record in the major leagues, Martinez may fall to second place.
That has not stopped Martinez from campaigning heavily for himself - a worthwhile cause considering that he has a $500,000 bonus riding on a Cy Young Award.
That he won 20 games, however, should be victory enough for Martinez, solely because of the way he has battled back from shoulder trouble. Last season, he was morose, on the disabled list for the heart of the season. He was limited to 18 starts and left to ponder the chance that his health and career were in trouble.
Now healthy, with 20 wins and the Red Sox on the verge of certain postseason elimination, Martinez adamantly asserted yesterday that he is shutting it down.
"I'm done. Right now. I'm done, I'm done, I'm done," he said.
"You guys don't know. I haven't had a vacation in two years. Unless we're in it, I'm not making my next start. I'm not going to take a chance getting hurt on the last outing."
And that's a shame.
It's completely understandable that Martinez is calling it a season. Still, that we have seen the last of Pedro Martinez this season is a bummer.
His personal satisfaction aside, it is no consolation to know that Martinez is not going to deliver some of those tailing fastball, mail-slot stingers into the mitt of Jason Varitek anymore this year.
October is going to bring us Arizona's Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling - the National League's 20-win, Cy Young duo.
But this is going to be an October without Martinez, which is just plain strange, considering that the Red Sox were 40-17 on June 6. Much of New England seemed ready to print up World Series tickets for those cool October nights at Fenway.
October will be missing something without the manic, cut-up, Martinez, who, as soon as the temperature dips below 50 degrees, cloaks himself in Michelin-men-like snow parkas and red leather ski mittens bigger than boxing gloves.
The TV cameras love to hover on Martinez, who last week pilfered a pair of size 40-waist pants from the Red Sox's laundry bin, jumped into them and cinched the waist up near his neck.
The man has an active imagination. And he loves his props.
"Yeah, I'm going to miss those gloves," Martinez said.
"But there's nothing we can do. The other teams were too good. We're going to finish, what? Twenty-three games over .500? We can't go back and change the results. Hopefully, I'll get another chance to win a ring."
In the brutal theater of baseball's unbalanced schedule, wasn't the AL West supposed to be so tough that the A's, Angels and Mariners all clubbed each other out of wild-card contention, leaving it to the Red Sox? It didn't work out that way.
The A's and Angels are a lock for postseason berths while the Red Sox finish the 2002 season as the best AL team not to make the playoffs - if you take into account that dominant starters are key in the playoffs.
Certainly the Red Sox, with Derek Lowe (21 wins) and Martinez, would have struck fear in the hearts of any postseason opponent, and we have not even begun to address the AL's second-leading hitter (Manny Ramirez) or the high-profile, hitting machine shortstop (Nomar Garciaparra).
It's tough to imagine that in the wild-card world of baseball, a team as star-studded and expensive as the Red Sox won't see the light of day - or those 8 p.m. TV starts - of postseason baseball.
On the 22nd day of September, with his team out of the hunt, Pedro Martinez, happy for his health and the chance that his career will continue, called it a season.
Some of us think October might have lost a little luster.