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Pedro gladly passing ace baton

Pedro gladly passing ace baton

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The black Aston Martin convertible arrives a tad earlier these days, and it remains in the players' lot somewhat longer than any other mode of transportation that has brought Pedro Martinez to the Mets' Spring Training headquarters over the past three years. Comfort comes standard in the car with a "45" at the center of each wheel. And this spring, comfort comes as an option in the clubhouse, too.

Not that Martinez ever had felt out of place among his colleagues during his tenure with the Mets. On many days, in many ways, No. 45 was the center of the clubhouse -- when he chose to be. And Martinez seldom retreated from the limelight.

This year, he says, he opts not to be the focal point, not than he achieves any degree of anonymity. He is comfortable, he says, when the hundreds of clubhouse eyes -- players, media and bloggers -- focus elsewhere.

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"I even thought I could sneak by a little," Martinez said Wednesday morning. "I thought I could work at my own pace. I just wanted to come out of the bushes."

Martinez figured the commotion would happen two lockers to his right, where the other half of the Mets' dynamic duo dresses. He says he hoped it would. Therein lies the comfort he enjoys. Deferring to another member of the team -- another starting pitcher even -- is a pleasure. And deferring to Johan Santana is a particular joy.

"If I'm going to hand down my role as ace of the staff -- and that's what I have done -- he is the perfect guy," Martinez said. "He is welcome, more than welcome."

No one anywhere had questioned Santana's standing atop the Mets' rotation. Santana turns 29 next week, and by most indications -- his pitching, his record, his contract -- he is at the top of his game. Martinez had said all the politically correct words about his new teammate when camp opened last month. But a sense of the perfunctory existed. But on Wednesday morning, hours before Santana was to make his second exhibition start and on the eve of his own Spring Training, Martinez was in full deference mode.

"For the last five years, he's been at the ace level," Martinez said. "He has had to do what an ace does. And here he is, too. He is [the ace], very easily. Nobody can question that. I know that. Everyone knows that."

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And now it has been confirmed.

Deference becomes Martinez. He's handling the role of staff sage well. Other players have noticed an openness they say they hadn't seen so often previously. The phrase "more of a teammate to more of his teammates" applies.

"I like where I am," Martinez said.

He is comfortable with himself and free to be comfortable with others.

"It will be great to pitch beside [Santana] to get the opportunity to exchange our knowledge," Martinez said.

The relationship between him and Santana, conceived when each was in the American League and through Twins shortstop Cristian Guzman, has been nurtured in the three weeks they have been clubhouse neighbors and on-the-field chatters.

There has been no discussion of "Who's No. 1?" because no need for one existed.

"He knows he is," Martinez said. "He knows when and how to do it. He's been one. He's done it extremely well, better than anyone in the game. He understands what the responsibilities are when you are the ace.

"It has nothing to do with Cy Young Awards you've won. It's a matter of when they [the other pitchers] say you're the ace. I was an ace for a long, long time. I know. You see how the rest of the pack reacts to what you do. It's an important role. They will react positive to Johan."

Martinez gradually assumed the role of ace with the Expos, first by default and, by 1997, the year of his first Cy Young Award, by virtue of his talent, performance and willingness to do whatever was needed -- i.e., take the ball, win regularly, win the games that need to be won and, when necessary, move an opponent off the plate. He was averse to none of it.

"When I started with the Dodgers, it was old school," Martinez said. "I saw Orel [Hershiser]. He didn't hesitate to do what needed to be done. We had Orel and Bob Ojeda, Mike Morgan and Kevin Gross as a staff. Orel was the ace, every day."

Martinez retained and strengthened that distinction, of course, in his seven-season tour with the Red Sox. He and Tom Glavine shared the role with the Mets in 2005 and into 2006 before Martinez was betrayed by his body.

"It's not my time anymore," he said Wednesday. "I'm here, I'm still going to pitch and be successful, I think. But this is Johan's time. I'll enjoy watching him."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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