It’s sometimes hard to fill someone’s shoes, especially when the person before you was well-liked, well respected, and great at what they did.
Constantino “Tino” Martinez was a man called on to take the place of a beloved New York Yankee. Don Mattingly was one of the best first baseman of his era, and Martinez was the man to replace him.
But how he was received by the fans of New York, what he accomplished, how he conducted himself, and the impact he made is the real story behind Martinez’s success.
Starting Out and Seattle Mariners Years
Martinez was born on Dec. 7, 1967. A native of Tampa, Fla., Martinez always had a love for the game of baseball. He played Little League in West Tampa, and later went on to play first base and right field for Tampa Catholic High School in 1982.
The school won a state title with Martinez on the squad, and he later moved on to play for Jefferson High School in 1985. He helped Jefferson make it to the state finals, and eventually graduated and went on to play for The University of Tampa.
While playing College ball, it was the Seattle Mariners who first took notice of the budding star. Martinez was drafted in the first round by the Seattle Mariners in 1988. He was drafted in June, but spent the summer playing on the U.S.Olympic team.
With Martinez’s baseball expertise, team U.S.A. won a gold medal in Seoul, South Korea that summer. After that, he would spend three years in the minor leagues before finally getting the call in the summer of 1990.
Aug. 20, 1990 was the day Martinez made his Major League Baseball debut. In his first call of duty, he played in 23 games, and started 21 of them from the first base position. Although he hit no homers and only batted .221, he was on his way to becoming a solid player in the majors.
Martinez only got better as he progressed in Seattle, increasing his offensive numbers every year he played. From 1991-995, he averaged nearly 18 home runs per year, and averaged .256 at the plate. He also got his first taste of what was to come, playing in his first post season with the Mariners in 1995.
But the best of Martinez’s career was dead ahead of him.
Coming to New York
In the 1995 off-season, the Yankees had a void to fill. With Mattingly retiring due to back injuries, the Yanks needed to plug the hole at first base.
On his birthday in ’95, Martinez, along with Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir, were traded to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. Martinezwas set to replace a Yankee captain in Mattingly, and try his luck in New York.
His first season in Yankee pinstripes, Martinez fit in well. He smashed 25 home runs, knocked in 117 runs, averaged .292, and had a .466 slugging percentage. On top of all that, he helped lead the Yankees to the Promised Land, getting into the World Series for the first time since 1981.
Despite the Yankees’ World Series victory over the Atlanta Braves in six games, Martinez struggled tremendously in the ’96 fall classic. He only had one hit, he drew two walks, and he struck out five times. His average was .093.
Coming off the ’96 World Series title, Martinez clipped together his best career year. He hit 44 homers for the season, had 141 RBI, and averaged .296.
One of his more notable accomplishments came at the All-Star break in ‘97. Being selected to his second All-Star game, Martinez chose to partake in the Home Run Derby at Jacobs Field in Cleveland.
To everyone’s surprise, Martinez defeated the likes of Jim Thome, Mark McGwire, his former Seattle teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. and Chipper Jones among others to win the Home Run Derby. He clobbered a total of 16 home runs over the three-round tournament.
Although the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs by the Indians and did not return to the World Series to defend their crown in ‘97, Martinez came very close to a personal accolade. He was the runner-up in the 1997 American League Most Valuable Player voting, finishing second to Griffey, Jr.
Building the Yankee Dynasty
The Yankees re-vamped with off season acquisitions before the 1998 season. They added Scott Brosius to the mix, along with Chili Davis, Darryl Strawberry, and Chuck Knoblauch, among others. The Yankees set goals for themselves at the beginning of the year, but no one knew what was about to happen throughout the course of the 1998 campaign.
At first, it seemed the Yankees were doomed, starting off the season 1-4 over the first five games. But they didn’t panic, kept a cool, straight-laced attitude, and went on to go 17-6 in the month of April.
One of the more heated games of the season came on May 19 against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. Closer Armando Benitez was pitching against Martinez, and drilled him with a high fastball between his shoulder blades.
The benches cleared and a melee ensued. Yankee reliever Graeme Lloyd was so infuriated, he ran in from the bullpen to get a piece of Benitez.
It was during the fight Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams once said the ’98 Yankees really “banded together as brothers.”
The Yankees went on a year-long tear, winning an earth-shattering 114 regular season games. Martinez had a solid year, leading the Yankee team with 28 home runs. He hit .281 at the plate and drove in 123 runs. But after the once-in-a lifetime season, the pressure of winning in the playoffs was on.
In the American League Division Series, the Yanks made quick work of the Texas Rangers. But in order to get to the World Series, they would need to go through the team that eliminated them the previous year, the Indians. Martinez only hit .105 in the American League Championship series, but the Yankees squeaked by the Tribe and made it back to the fall classic in ’98.
The Yankees would meet the San Diego Padres in the World Series, and game one was a battle of warriors. With the Pads up 5-2 in the seventh inning, Knoblauch smashed a three-run homer to knot the game at five. Later in the inning, it was Martinez’s turn to exorcise his post season demons.
With the bases full of Yankees and a full, 3-2 count, Martinez clobbered a grand slam home run into the upper deck in right field, giving the Yankees a 9-5 lead they would not relinquish. With his grand slam, he was given the nickname “the Bam-Tino,” a play on Babe Ruth’s nickname “the Bambino.”
Martinez would average .385 with five hits in 13 at-bats for the series, as the Yankees went on to win their second title in three years with a sweep of the Padres. The 1998 Yankees were and still are looked at as one of the greatest single teams in the history of baseball.
The Yankees would keep the line moving in 1999, and so did Martinez. He matched his home run total from ’98 with 28 long balls, knocked in 105 runs, and batted .263 for the year. He also nearly matched his career-high runs scored total with 95, one shy of his career best 96 from the 1997 campaign.
With a 98-64 overall record in ‘99, the Yankees made the post season yet again. The Yankees once again met the Rangers in the ALDS, and swept them in three games. They later matched up with the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS, and beat them, four games to one. Martinezhit .263 in the ALCS with five hits, one home run, and three RBI.
The Yankees were once again flirting with fall classic victory, and met the Braves in a rematch of the 1996 World Series. Martinez would prove his worth yet again, collecting four hits in the series, one home run, and five RBI. The Yankees swept the Braves in four games, and Martinez captured his third World Series ring.
2000 was not Martinez’s best career year, but he still made it a point to try his hardest. He played solid defense, and nailed down a .994 fielding percentage. As for his offense contribution, he hit 16 homers, had 95 RBI, and hit .258.
The Yankees once again made the playoffs in 2000 on the strength of their 87-74 record. In a cross-town fall classic, the Yankees met their rivals from Queens, the New York Mets, in the World Series.
Martinez had a modest series, averaging .364 with eight hits, two RBI, and three runs scored. Being looked at as the obvious favorites, the Yankees finished off the Mets at Shea Stadium in five games, and captured their fourth title in five years with a “three-peat.”
The Yankees celebrated on the Mets’ soil on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2000. Some people see this as the last night of the Yankee dynasty.
Fall of the Dynasty and Moving On
2001 was a season of turbulence for the Yankees and America as a nation. With terrorists attacking the World Trade Centerand the Pentagon on Sep. 11th, baseball was just not as important as the tragedy the U.S.A. faced.
Martinez however kept his head up, and focused on putting together a good season. He smacked 34 homers, collected 113 RBI, and batted .280 in ‘01. The Yankees maintained a level head throughout the year, and once again found themselves in the fall classic.
With then-President George W. Bush visiting Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Bombers attempted to win the World Series over the Arizona Diamondbacks for the city of New York. Down two games to none going into game three, the Yankees rebounded and took the third game by a score of 2-1.
But Martinez’s moment would come in game four.
Down 2-0 in the bottom of the ninth inning, and looking a possible three games to one series deficit square in the eye, Martinez smashed a two-run, game-tying homer to right-center field off D’Backs closer Byung-Hyun Kim. Derek Jeter would later come to bat in the tenth inning and win the game for the Yankees with a walk-off, solo homer.
Despite hitting the big home run, Martinez and the Yankees fell in misery to the Diamondbacks in seven games. Although the Yankees’ dynasty was all but over, the ’01 World Series is still looked at as one of the best World Series ever played. And it was through the efforts of players like Martinez that made it one of the best fall classics of all-time.
After the 2001 World Series, it was time for Martinez to move on to another team. The Yankees were looking to bring in Jason Giambi to play first base for them, and the St. Louis Cardinals were looking for a first baseman.
Martinez was set to fill another pair of big shoes. McGwire, who was the Cards’ first baseman and who was adored by the Cardinals faithful, was retiring. Just as he came into Yankee territory to replace Mattingly, Martinez was all but ready to fill the first base void for St. Louis.
In 2002, Martinez hit 21 round-trippers, drove in 75 runs, and hit .262. He fit in well with St. Louis, and had another taste of post season play. The Cardinals made it to the National League Championship Series in ‘02. But Martinezwas not a force, only hitting .143 with two hits, one RBI, and one run scored for the series. The Cards eventually fell to the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS.
2003 would be another decent season for Martinez. He was pleasantly surprised when he saw the Cardinals’ schedule at the beginning of the year. In inter-league play, the Cardinals would travel to Yankee Stadium for a three-game weekend series with the Yankees in June.
On Friday, June 13, 2003, Martinez was received warmly by the Yankee fans when he came to bat in the Cathedral of Baseball for the first time since the 2001 World Series. But his warm reception was even warmer the next day, when he reminded the Yankees of his true gamesmanship.
The very next day, Martinez slammed a two-run homer off his former teammate Andy Pettitte. The Yankee crowd cheered as he rounded the bases, and Pettitte didn’t like it.
Martinez said about the cheers, “Andy didn’t like it one bit! But I had to tell him, ‘I can’t control what the fans do.’ I couldn’t believe they cheered an opposing player hitting a home run.”
But Martinez did not stop there. In the ninth inning, he drilled yet another two-run homer off Jason Anderson, and the Yankee crowd loved it. The Yankees would win that game 13-4 and sweep the Cardinals in that weekend set.
After 2003, Martinezwould look to yet again move on. Lou Pinella, who was the Devil Rays’ skipper at the time, lobbied to bring Martinez into Tampa Bay for the 2004 season. Being a native of Tampa, Martinez gladly accepted.
On Tuesday March 30, 2004, Martinez reached a career milestone. On the first game of the regular season, the Devils Rays met the Yankees in Tokyo, Japan. Martinez hit his 300thcareer homer off Yankee reliever Felix Heredia in the seventh inning. The Devil Rays toppled the Yankees in that game, 8-3.
2004 was a year that Martinez served as almost a player-coach. Along with hitting 23 home runs and knocking in 76 runs, he helped the younger players to develop and mature.
Devil Rays’ General Manager Chuck LaMar said about Martinez, “I think the word ‘professional’ is overused sometimes in sports, but he is the consummate professional. His work ethic, what he brings on and off the field is a tremendous example to our young players.”
Although it would be another four years before the Rays became a contender, Martinez’s expertise and wisdom was always appreciated by his fellow mates.
With a good 2004 season behind him, there was really only one place Martinez could go for his final lap.
Homecoming and Retirement
The Yankees were happy to bring Martinez back into the fold for the 2005 season. For Martinez it was a homecoming, and he was given a thunderous ovation by Yankee Universe when he came into the first game of the season against Boston at home as a defensive substitute.
Contrary to his role in his first stint with the Yanks, he was much more of a backup first baseman in his second tour of duty. But as unlikely as it was, he looked as good as he ever did in his second go-round.
From May 7 through May 11 in ‘05, he hit five homers in five games, which beat his previous record of consecutive homers from June 27 through July 1 of ’01. Teammate Alex Rodriguez paralleled Martinez’s resurgence to another former Yankee slugger.
“He was like Roger Maris,” Rodriguez exclaimed. “He was going deep every day, it seemed.”
Martinez finished 2005 with 17 homers, 49 RBI, and a .241 batting average. He would also know the thrill of once again playing autumn baseball in New York. But it was not meant to be, as the Bronx Bombers were forced to go home early by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, being eliminated in the ALDS.
It was now time for Martinez to hang up his spikes, as he retired following 2005. He ended his career with 339 home runs, 1,271 RBI, a career batting average of .271.
Continuing to contribute to baseball, Martinez now serves as a special instructor to the Yankees to aid their first basemen with their defensive skills. He also spent time as an analyst for ESPN’s "Baseball Tonight" program.
He may not have been the flashiest player on the field. He never hit .300. He never won a gold glove or an MVP.
But he did win four World Series titles. He hit big time home runs in clutch situations. He was a timely hitter. He filled the shoes of the likes of Don Mattingly and Mark McGwire.
He was Tino Martinez: A true-grit, world class athlete. A special Yankee.
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