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.
| By David Savona | From 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By the late 1970s, the Cuban tobacco that once flowed into port in Tampa to be made into Clear Havanas had been replaced by leaf from Central America.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."

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."

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.

Martinez felt slighted by his team. Like Mattingly before him, he wasn't ready to hang up the pinstripes. "It was tough, because we'd had so much success there as a team and I thought I'd played well there; I thought I did a good job there, and I deserved to stay at the time. But then, on the other hand, I also understood that it's a business. So I can't tell George Steinbrenner or anybody where to spend their money or who to give it to."

Martinez, a free agent, signed with the Cardinals, succeeding another legend, the aching giant Mark McGwire. The shoes were easier to fill than Mattingly's. "McGwire had been hurt the last couple of years and he had back problems and he wasn't playing up to his potential, and he just felt it was time for him to retire. And I think the fans understood that," says Martinez.

Playing for the Cardinals last year was similar in ways to Martinez's Bronx days. The team was a powerhouse, winning the Central Division despite the heartbreaking sudden death from heart failure of pitcher Darryl Kile. The shell-shocked team regained its composure to go deep into the post-season, falling to the Giants in the National League Championship Series. Martinez showed the strain of moving to the National League. His average dropped 22 points, to .262, but he truly struggled in the post-season, going 2-for-25. "It was an adjustment, bigger than I thought," he says. "There are so many guys I hadn't faced, and it took some time to get used to."

Martinez has two years left on his St. Louis contract. He says he'll be reluctant to sign another multiyear deal. "I'm going to play those two years, and then see what happens. If I'm still playing well, and the right situation is out there to keep playing, I'll keep playing," he says. "If not, I'll be glad to retire and figure out what I want to do after that."

Whenever he does hang up his cleats for good, his grandfather will increase his cigar shipments from Tampa. "I'm definitely going to enjoy them more when I'm retired from baseball," he says. Odds are that Grandpa won't have to send the cigars very far, because Martinez will be smoking them right there in Tampa.

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