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From Cigars to the Big League

Born in the shadow of a cigar factory, baseball star Tino Martinez remains close to America's traditional capital of cigar making.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

(continued from page 1)

Bolstered by the labor, Martinez became a standout Little League player, bigger and stronger than most of his friends. (One of those pals, Luis Gonzalez, also made it to the big leagues; the two, who squared off in the 2001 World Series, are still close friends. Last season Gonzalez separated his left shoulder chasing down a fly ball hit by Martinez.) After practice, Martinez's brothers would chuck their mitts and watch TV, but Tino would head back outside and practice his swing, smacking a ball off a tee into a cyclone fence. He hit it so often (and, eventually, so hard) that he wore a hole in the fence.

His idols played for the Big Red Machine. Tampa didn't have a pro ball team at the time, but the Cincinnati Reds trained in town, across the street from what would later become Legends Field, the spring home of the Yankees. Martinez watched as many games as he could. One day, Johnny Bench visited the Villazon factory to pick up some cigars. Rene talked the legendary catcher into paying a visit to the house, where he posed for a photo with Tino and his brothers. "I still have that picture to this day," says Martinez.

Like many kids his age, Martinez longed to play in the big leagues. Unlike most, his proficiency with the bat caught the eye of scouts, who told him to keep practicing.

He ended up at first base because his high school coach was protecting his pair of star pitchers. "When one would pitch, the other would play first," says Martinez, who had played an array of positions, including pitcher. "And when I got there, the coach we had didn't want one of them getting hurt and ruining their careers by playing first, so he put me at first my freshman year. I've been there ever since."

It's a thankless position -- the defensive equivalent of the kicker slot in pro football, in that anything short of perfection is unacceptable. "Playing first base, you basically have to catch the ball and touch first. You make the routine plays. You don't want to give the other team an extra out by missing a ball or making a stupid play at first where you cost the pitcher an easy inning," says Martinez.

The Boston Red Sox tried to draft Martinez out of high school, but his father's repeated lessons about education destined him for college. Bigger schools beckoned, but hemmed and hawed on whether Martinez would get real playing time. Rene called Lou Piniella, a family friend and Tampa resident, who reassured them that attending the University of Tampa wouldn't hinder Tino's chances of making the majors. Martinez's performance -- a .398 batting average, 54 home runs and 222 RBI, all school records, selection as a three-time Division II All-American and an Academic All-American -- wouldn't hurt, either. He would leave school a few credits shy of graduation when he was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 1988. After a stint in the minors, he made their big-league team in 1990.

Rene Martinez died in January 1990 at the age of 48, only months before his son would suit up for the first time with Seattle. He had an aneurism at the base of the skull, says Tino Gonzalez.

Tino Martinez recalls his first days with the Mariners: "We didn't get a whole lot of fans early on." Things changed when pal Piniella became the Mariners' manager in 1993. The owner of three World Series rings (two as a Yankee, one as a coach for the 1990 Reds), Piniella brought a winning tradition to Seattle, which beat the pre-Torre Yankees in the 1995 playoffs. Seattle was powered in part by Martinez, who slugged .409 in the series, as well as by the deadly trio of Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. It was an amazing trove of talent, one that Seattle couldn't afford to keep.

"The payroll was really high at the time," says Martinez. "I had just hit 30-something home runs that year -- had a breakout year -- and I was basically in for a huge pay raise at that time. The Mariners had to get rid of a few of us."

His connection to Piniella paid off. "He asked me, where do I want to go, if I had the choice. And I said I would love to go play with the Yankees," says Martinez. "Lou did a great job. He could have sent me anywhere. And he worked out a deal with the Yankees, and I was grateful for that."

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