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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 2)

It wasn't great at first. Martinez had to fill a very big pair of cleats, those of the workman first baseman and Yankees captain Don Mattingly. "I got booed quite a bit," Martinez says of his early days in pinstripes. "They loved Mattingly. They didn't want Mattingly to retire, so it was a combination of a lot of things. They booed me, but I knew that if I just kept going, and relaxed, and the team played well enough, and I played good enough, things would work out. I didn't panic, but it was a frustrating beginning."

The frustration ebbed as Martinez went on to bat .292 with 25 home runs in 1996, his first Yankees season, and the Bronx Bombers made it to the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. It was a classic -- the Yankees won four straight after dropping the first two games at home -- but for Martinez it was bittersweet. He batted an anemic .091 and was benched for much of the Series, replaced by another cigar-smoking Yankee, big Cecil Fielder.

The following season, Martinez soared. The lefty batter (he throws right-handed) slammed 44 home runs, knocked in 141 runs and hit .296 in 1997, the best year of his career. In 1998, his home runs dipped to 28 (he's not approached 40 again), but he shined when the Yankees returned to the World Series, hitting a Game 1 grand slam to punctuate a blowout victory. The Yanks went on to win in a sweep, their first of three consecutive World Series victories.

When the Yankees poured onto the field to celebrate the 1998 championship, Martinez walked to the mound with his wife, Marie, and a cigar. "I definitely enjoy them when we win the World Series," he says. "I love smoking cigars; I love the smell as well."

Martinez was about 15 when he tried his first cigar, and he smoked them here and there in high school. His father would share a puff at home on occasion while the family watched TV, but it wasn't a regular thing, even if it was the family business. "In high school, who's going to drive around smoking a cigar?" Martinez says with an easy laugh. "I wasn't going to sit at home and smoke a cigar in the backyard."

His grandfather, who still works at Villazon, keeps him stocked with his favorites, which include Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur, but the pressures of staying in baseball shape limit his smoking. He puffs after big wins, and his quartet of World Series rings have each been celebrated by hearty smoke rings. It was a fairly smoker-friendly clubhouse, and the manager was one of the biggest aficionados.

"There are nights when Joe Torre would give me a cigar, or Grandpa would send me a box of cigars from Tampa," says Martinez. "You'd be on the road somewhere, go to a nice restaurant, a nice steak house, and some guy would start passing out cigars. Everybody would be smoking cigars. Chili Davis played with the Yankees for a while, and he always had cigars with him. So after dinner, wherever we were at, we would always pass cigars out. That happened quite a bit."

Martinez was a vacuum cleaner at first base, scraping, stretching and straining to grab all manner of throws, making him an All-Star in 1995 and 1997. He did a heroic job of bailing out his infielders, particularly the Yankees' troubled second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who developed a chronic case of the yips and turned routine ground balls into occasions for Martinez to stretch his hamstrings to the breaking point. In terms of errors, Martinez's worst season as a pro was in 1998, when he stumbled all of 10 times in the field. He averaged just seven miscues a year with the Yankees and erred only five times last year with St. Louis, giving him a career fielding percentage of .995 going into the 2003 season.

A lifetime .273 hitter, with 1,077 runs batted in and 284 home runs, Martinez is better with the bat in the clutch. In 2001, his last year as a Yankee, he batted .266 with the bases empty, but .400 with the bases loaded. He was a machine in two World Series wins, batting .385 and .364 in the '98 and '00 championships.

As good as Martinez was in New York, owner George Steinbrenner wanted better. After the Yankees fell in seven games to the Diamondbacks (and Martinez's buddy Gonzalez), Steinbrenner went after Oakland's stud bull, Jason Giambi. The younger and bigger Giambi had a hotter bat than Martinez (he hit .342 in his last year with the Oakland A's, with 41 bombs), but he was a step down defensively.

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