Thursday, March 24, 2005
Martinez hoping to relive the pinstripe magic
By Bob Klapisch
Special to ESPN.com
Tino Martinez still recalls the tug of war that consumed most of his winter, deciding whether to whip his hitting muscles into shape for one more season or else embark on a Plan B. The Marlins were calling, so were the Mets, everyone assuming baseball was still in Martinez's genes.
It was a safe leap of logic, since the first baseman had finished the 2004 season in Tampa Bay with 23 home runs, making it 322 for his career, to go along with a .272 average. But Martinez nevertheless inched closer to retirement, having celebrated his 37th birthday, with a major league to-do list that was practically complete.
After all, Martinez had four World Series rings, and his reputation was forever intact, especially in New York and his hometown of Tampa. Either the Yankees or Devil Rays would've welcomed Martinez into their front office. All he had to do was quit.
But there was a lingering temptation that eclipsed Plan B. The Yankees had indeed called not to discuss his post-retirement plans, but to lure him back into pinstripes.
With Jason Giambi trying to outrun his steroids demons, the possibilities of the Yankees' invitation were limitless. Instead of serving merely as a human time-tunnel to those late-'90s championships teams in the Bronx, Martinez could win the everyday job at first base.
So Martinez picked up the phone and politely told the Mets and Marlins thanks, but no thanks. Then he returned the Yankees' call. A month later, Martinez was in spring training, reliving some of the best times of his professional career.
"The Yankees were the only team for me," Martinez said recently. "I figured if I was going to motivate myself to work out all winter, it would only be for the Yankees. There was no point going somewhere else just to play a year or two to finish out my career. It was pretty much the Yankees or else retire."
A little more than a month into camp, Martinez insists he has no outward desire to force Giambi to the dugout as a DH, even if that's still the Yankees' intention. For now, the lineup is a work in progress, says manager Joe Torre, who's been pleasantly surprised by Giambi's progress which has coincided with Martinez's own sluggish start.
Martinez is batting .184 in 15 games, which partly explains why Giambi's average is 86 points higher through as many games. Not that exhibition games mean much to a veteran player or his manager, but had Martinez been an uncontainable force in March, Giambi might've felt pressured to keep pace.
But there's no denying Martinez is the superior defensive player, and Torre is still leaning toward keeping him in the field. If so, he'll bat in the seventh or eighth spot in the Yankees' lineup.
Meanwhile, using Giambi as the full-time DH would commit the Yankees to playing Bernie Williams in center field every day and would also keep Jorge Posada from getting periodic days off behind the plate. But the long-range ramifications of the Giambi-Martinez dynamic don't yet concern the Yankees' hierarchy.
Just having an old-school player in their midst is its own reward.
"I walked over to [Martinez] at the batting cage and I told him, 'There aren't many guys I can relate to, but you're one of them.'" Torre told reporters recently. "Guys like him, and Paul O'Neill, you can't reason with them, you can't tell them it's only spring training."
|Tino Martinez was a member of four world championship teams with the Yankees from 1996-2001.|
That's one reason Martinez remains a near-cult hero in New York. He's the link to a better time in Yankees history, despite three straight 100-win regular seasons since 2002. The Martinez-era Yankees weren't as gifted as the more recent editions, but they were the product of a different philosophy better chemistry instead of just the biggest payroll.
Even though Martinez says the 2005 Yankees are "totally loaded" with talent, his link is to O'Neill and David Cone and Scott Brosius and Andy Pettitte.
"Any of those guys would be welcomed back the same way I am," Martinez said. "I mean, [Scott] Brosius could do it. Or Pettitte he could come back tomorrow and people would still love him."
Yet Martinez is the only one of the former core group who was forced out. Brosius and O'Neill retired, as did Cone. Pettitte chose to sign with the Astros. Martinez would've stayed forever, had the Yankees not pursued Giambi after the 2001 World Series.
Instead, Martinez spent two years with the Cardinals, where he says he felt "out of place." And then he was relegated to AL East irrelevance with the Devil Rays last season, finishing 30½ games out of first place.
To this day, however, Martinez refuses to criticize the Bombers for being seduced by Giambi's star power.
"It was a great business decision," Martinez said. "I could never understand how some guys, when they leave their teams, there's always some complaint. It looks terrible in the papers and I can't stand that. I would never bash the Yankees for signing Jason. I understand why they did it."
Such loyalty will almost certainly land Martinez a job with the Bombers' front office in a year or so, although he's waiting to see how the summer treats him before opting for Plan B.
"I can still hit a fastball," Martinez says with a smile.
The Yankees would gladly take 20-something home runs this summer not to mention a nostalgia rush, too, back to the days when the Bombers spent less and won more.
||The Yankees were the only team for me. I figured if I was going to motivate myself to work out all winter, it would only be for the Yankees. There was no point going somewhere else just to play a year or two to finish out my career. It was pretty much the Yankees or else retire. ”
||— Tino Martinez, Yankees first baseman
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.