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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

It's difficult to paint a more clichéd sports scenario: bottom of the ninth, two outs, a man on first and a World Series game on the line. The home team is trailing by two. A man with a boyish face and a pair of forearms like felled oaks steps to the plate wearing pinstripes. In the outfield, playing for the opposite team, is one of his boyhood friends. The batter focuses on the mound, ignoring the growing roar of the packed House that Ruth Built, and hammers pitch No. 1 into orbit, tying the game. The New York City crowd went crazy that October 2001 night when Tino Martinez hit his clutch home run against the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of many in a career of game-winning blasts for the seasoned first baseman, but his loudest cheers always hail from Tampa, Florida, where he was born and raised. Now playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in a major league career that has taken him to the Pacific Northwest, to the Northeast and now the Midwest, and earned him four thick World Series rings, Martinez still calls Tampa home. On a street in West Tampa where the smell of rich tobacco was never far away, he learned the art of hitting a baseball, and how to buckle down and work hard. More than a year later, Tino Gonzalez walks across a huge, empty room to a window. The 85-year-old has a shock of white hair and moves slowly, on wooden floorboards that once supported the weight of scores of cigar-making machines. The room is a relic of days gone by, earmarked as future warehouse space. Gonzalez points out the window to a modest house with a striking red tile roof, one block away. It's the closest home to the former cigar factory. "Tino was born in that house," he says with a smile.

He's not speaking of himself in the third person, but referring with pride to his 35-year-old grandson, Martinez, the major-league player who shares his first name, a shortened version of Constantino.

Tampa was once a fiercely pumping heart of cigar making in America. The city was built on the backs of cigarmakers, most of them of Cuban, Italian or, like the Martinez and Gonzalez families, Spanish descent.

By the late 1970s, the Cuban tobacco that once flowed into port in Tampa to be made into Clear Havanas had been replaced by leaf from Central America. Martinez's late father, Rene, a former corrections officer built like a bull, was the foreman of the Villazon & Co. factory, makers of Bances and other cigars. When bales of tobacco came into town, Rene called upon local, cheap and reliable workers to unload them: his three sons.

Rene was an early riser who began each day with a six- or seven-mile run before going to the office at the crack of dawn. At 6:30, maybe 7 a.m., he would call home. The kids dreaded the ring, but soon slumped to the factory to unload a truck brimming with tobacco bales. Most weighed 150 pounds, and the heaviest -- bales of dark Connecticut broadleaf packed in wood -- weighed 400.

"In the summertime, and also Christmas break, any time we were out of school, my dad made us work. And it just seemed like every day in the summer there was a truck," says Martinez, who was about 10 when he began doing the work. "It's 95, 100 degrees. We'd lose five pounds a day. You'd go through two or three shirts.

"We would unload all day long. That's all we'd do. It was just hard labor, heavy labor. But it was great, it was a great learning experience. My dad's whole philosophy was, you gotta go to school, get an education. You don't want to do this kind of job the rest of your life."

Martinez is dressed casually, in jeans and a cotton shirt. It's the Tuesday after his beloved Bucs won the Super Bowl, and last night he flew back to town with former Yankees teammate Derek Jeter before going to Raymond James Stadium to join in the raucous celebration welcoming the players home.

Out of uniform he looks like an ordinary Joe. His forearms are hidden beneath shirtsleeves. He's a little more than six feet tall and it's only when you notice his powerfully built lower body that you see the true marks of a professional athlete. His frame was built from a combination of baseball, weights and laboring in the cigar factory. The bales also strengthened his mind.

"It definitely made me stronger, mentally and physically," he says, speaking quickly, with energy and enthusiasm. "I wish the factory was still available, so I could send my son over here to work."

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