COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Three dominated on the mound, the other excelled at three positions up the middle. Together, pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and multi-talented Craig Biggio left a remarkable imprint on baseball.
Playing through an era tainted by steroids and dominated by offense — compliments of bulked-up sluggers, a smaller strike zone and smaller ballparks — the trio of pitchers combined for 735 wins, 11,113 strikeouts and nine Cy Young Awards. And the indefatigable Biggio became the only player in major league history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs while being asked to play four positions in his 20-year career.
All four, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in January, will be inducted Sunday in Cooperstown.
“I don’t condone anybody doing anything bad as far as cheating the game,” said Martinez, who joins former Giants right-hander Juan Marichal (1983) as the only natives of the Dominican Republic elected to the hall. “How did I feel pitching in the juice era? I wouldn’t want it any other way. For me, there’s no crying. I mean, as far as the way I did compete, I know I did it right. I did it the right way.”
Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz were elected by big margins their first time on the ballot and represent the first trio of pitchers voted in together. Biggio made it on his third try.
The 6-foot-10 Johnson was an intimidating figure standing atop a pitching mound. During a 22-year career, spent mostly with the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, the dominant left-hander with the imposing fastball won 303 games and five Cy Young Awards, including four in a row from 1999 to 2002 with the Diamondbacks.
A 10-time All-Star, the native of Walnut Creek, California led his league in strikeouts nine times and had a career total of 4,875, second all-time only to Nolan Ryan. In 2001, Johnson was 3-0 in the World Series to help Arizona, in only its fourth year of existence, to the title. Small wonder he received 97.3 percent of the BBWAA vote, eighth-best all-time.
Still, it took time before everything clicked for the man known as “The Big Unit.”
“The 10 years that I spent in Seattle was really like my apprenticeship, if you will, on understanding how to pitch and then somewhat evolving into the pitcher that I was going to become,” said Johnson. “I was really coming into my own as a successful pitcher and being able to harness my fastball, and understanding what it took to pitch at this level.
“I didn’t know I was going to be half as good as I turned out to be,” added Johnson, who had three back surgeries, four knee surgeries and pitched his final season in 2009 with a torn rotator cuff.
Born on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, Martinez grew up with five brothers and sisters in a one-room home. Baseball became his escape. He signed with the Dodgers in 1988 and made his major league debut in September 1992 at age 20. The next season he was a regular in the bullpen, posting a 10-5 record in 65 games while striking out 119 in 107 innings, then was traded to Montreal after the season.
After a four-year stint with the Expos that culminated with his first Cy Young Award — he was 17-8 with a 1.90 ERA in 1997 — and with free agency looming, Montreal traded its ace to Boston and he wasn’t exactly happy.
“I wanted a team that would give me an opportunity to win, and Boston wasn’t a team that looked anywhere near that they were going to win it, so I didn’t think I was going to sign,” Martinez said.
Boston general manager Dan Duquette had other ideas. He had acquired Martinez from the Dodgers while serving in the same capacity with the Expos and convinced the rising Dominican star to sign with the Red Sox.
The first Red Sox pitcher to be enshrined, Martinez signed for seven seasons that would endear him forever to the Boston faithful. He won 117 games and two Cy Youngs in hitter-friendly Fenway Park and, most importantly, helped Boston snap an 86-year jinx in his final year with the team. His seven shutout innings in Game 3 of the 2004 World Series on the road in St. Louis staked the Sox to a commanding 3-0 series lead en route to a sweep and the team’s first title since 1918.
Martinez finished his 18-year career with a 219-100 record and 3,154 strikeouts.
Smoltz is the first player elected to the Hall of Fame with Tommy John arm surgery on his resume. He won 213 games and saved 154, the only pitcher with 200 wins and 150 saves and the last of only 16 to reach 3,000 strikeouts, registering 3,084. He also was 15-4 in the postseason during a 21-year career spent almost entirely with the Atlanta Braves after being drafted and then traded by his hometown Detroit Tigers.
Through five surgeries, the hard-throwing right-hander persevered — from starter to reliever to starter again — as the Braves and their amazing pitching staff, which also included Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, won an unprecedented 14 straight division titles.
“I had to just really reinvent myself many, many times, and find ways to overcome,” said Smoltz, who did not play in 2000 after undergoing ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) reconstruction on his right arm.
A native of Kings Park on New York’s Long Island, Biggio was a football star in high school poised to make his mark as a running back in college when he decided to accept a partial baseball scholarship at Seton Hall.
In three collegiate seasons, he batted .342, hit 27 homers, drove in 148 runs, stole 90 bases and led the Pirates to their first Big East title. A first-round pick by the Astros in 1987, Biggio played just 141 minor league games over parts of two seasons before getting called up. He took over as Houston’s regular catcher in 1989.
Two years later, he made his first All-Star team, then was asked to make the improbable transition to play second base in 1992 in an effort to lengthen his career. He appeared in all 162 games and made his second All-Star team.
Biggio, the first Astro elected to the Hall of Fame, said making the switch was by far the hardest thing he ever had to do in his career.
“We zipped up the catcher’s gear and didn’t look back,” Biggio said. “I believed in myself and we made it work. I mean, it was never ever done in the history of the game, and that was kind of fun to kind of prove them [the critics] wrong a little bit.”