Chris Martin's remarkable journey from warehouses to MLB bullpens
He didn't pick up a baseball. He didn't even want to watch baseball. He worked as a UPS delivery man and as a warehouse stockboy. As ballplayers he played against in college were moving up, from one minor league stop to the next, he bounced around for from one odd job to another, from Lowe's to UPS to Bass Pro Shops to Texas Appliance to a pool supply store. And still there was always something burning inside Chris Martin: Deep down he always believed he could make it to the Show -- it just didn't seem like the odds were in his favor when he was making 10 bucks an hour as a forklift operator, barely scraping by.
It's a story that could be a rags-to-riches, macho weepie Disney baseball movie someday. It is the most improbable story of the baseball season, the tale of the Rockies' 27-year-old rookie pitcher who was once as big of a longshot to stick with a major league organization as a couple of former javelin throwers from rural India were to sign pro contracts.
One morning four years ago at Texas Appliance, a retail dealership off Interstate 20 in Arlington, Texas, a game of catch broke out in the warenhouse aisles after one of the workers showed up with a glove and a ball. Martin -- a former high school star whose baseball dreams faded after he tore his labrum in college -- took the baseball and began throwing to a worker in a catcher's crouch. The workers watching the 6-foot-7 Martin pump 95 mph fastballs between aisles of refrigerators and upright freezers started thinking that perhaps their forklift operator should consider pursuing a different line of employment. "I think I still have a bruise in my butt from one of his curveballs," says the warehouse manager, Jed Stanphill.
Fast forward to May 7, 2014: Five miles down the road from Texas Appliance, 10 miles from his childhood home in Arlington, Martin took the mound in the seventh inning of the Rockies-Rangers game at Globe Life Park, two weeks after making his major league debut. The towering, lanky righthander retired Texas in order with 100 family members and friends watching from the stands.
Even Chris Martin will tell you that the Chris Martin Story is surreal. "That was when it all hit me, that this was all actually happening," he says. "Stepping onto that field in my hometown, in front of all those people who stuck with me through it all -- it was hard to just take it all in."
On the 2014 Colorado Rockies -- a strange, marvelous brew of All-Stars, reclamation projects, and outcasts -- a former forklift operator fits right in. High-octane, home-run belting Colorado, a team that entered the week with the best run differential in the National League, is one of most intriguing teams of the young season, a club loaded with compelling stories: there's Troy Tulowitzki, who looks like he'll have the NL MVP award locked up by July 4th; Nolan Arenado, he of the 28-game hitting streak and daily web gems; Justin Morneau, a former MVP whose career was in jeopardy a few years ago, but is enjoying a big comeback season; and Charlie Blackmon, who barely made the team out of spring training and was second in the league with a .339 average entering the week.
There's the bullpen, the NL's worst a year ago (4.23 ERA) but now much improved (3.74, ninth in the league), with an unheralded and unlikely cast of characters: LaTroy Hawkins, the 41-year-old closer who was kicked to the curb by the Mets after last season but had converted 10 straight save chances before his first blown save on Sunday; Tommy Kahnle, left unprotected by the Yankees and picked up by the Rockies in the Rule 5 draft, has become a secret weapon out of the bullpen, with a 1.59 ERA in 22⅔ innings; Rex Brothers, the excellent setup man and closer in waiting; and one of the league's most underrated relievers, Adam Ottavino (1.56 ERA and 18 Ks in 17⅓ innings), a righthander whose slider was, according to Fangraphs, the best among relievers last season.
And then there's Martin, who did not pick up a baseball for more than two years from 2008 to '10 -- that is, except for two relief appearances in an Arlington men's rec league that Martin decided to crash with a friend, curious if he still had it. One night, after blowing away three poor souls -- he struck out three straight on nine pitches -- a player walked up to Martin and said, "Dude, I think you had to be throwing at least 82 or 83 out there."
"Back then, I had no idea how hard I was throwing it," Martin says. "I was obviously throwing it around 95 -- not that anyone could know."
He seemed to be destined for big things out of Arlington High School, when he was drafted by the Tigers in the 18th round in the 2004 draft. He was just 17 then, "physically very immature, a lot of growing up to do," says his dad Matt, and Chris decided to turnl Detroit down for McLennarn Community College. A year later he was drafted by the Rockies in the 21st around. Again, Martin said no. It was during his sophomore year at McLennarn that Martin felt tightness in his shoulder.
"That's when I messed up, after getting injured, and stopped going to class," he says. "I was down and depressed about being hurt and not being able to play. Baseball was my life -- it was everything, and not having it in my life, I just didn't know what to do. I fell behind in school, and when Oklahoma and Texas started showing interest, I didn't have enough credits. Everything was messed up."
Martin was barely scraping by -- at one point, he was working mornings at Lowe's and nights delivering packages for UPS. He stopped watching games on TV because it was too depressing. "I had friends playing college ball, playing just 10 minutes from where I was," he says, "and I wouldn't go watch them because I was feeling sorry for myself, sitting at home or working at the warehouse while they're playing ball.
"The thing is, I had the talent. I hate to say it, but I took it for granted how good I was. I wasn't doing the little things -- maintaining my shoulder, putting in the work in the weight room. I regret not taking more time to take care of myself."
Things began to change when he started throwing again in those makeshift bullpen sessions in the warehouse and realized he still had his fastball. One day in 2010, he decided to show up, in shorts and a T-shirt, at a tryout camp for the Grand Prairie AirHogs, and his fastball clocked in at 95 mph. AirHogs manager Pete Incaviglia began spreading the word to scouts that he had a kid who deserved a shot. The Red Sox invited him to their spring training facility in Florida the next year but there was a catch: Martin had to pay his own way.
Martin threw 20 pitches. "He always had a thing for stepping up in big moments," says Matt. "And he did that day." Matt could see the Boston executives look at each other when the radar gun flashed 94. Afterward, Chris and Matt went out to lunch with Red Sox special assistant Allard Baird and scout Jaiyme Bane. "We're going to give you a chance, but this is probably your last chance. So make the best of it," Baird said.
Boston signed Martin to a minor league contract for the 2011 season. He reached Triple A last year and was so impressive -- posting a 2.25 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 72 innings over two levels -- that the Rockies asked for him in the offseason trade in which Colorado acquired Franklin Morales from the Red Sox. Martin made his major league debut on April 26, throwing a scoreless inning against the Dodgers, and over the last few weeks he has emerged as a valuable power arm in Colorado's bullpen, with a 4.15 ERA over nine relief appearances. Says Martin, "I'm just hoping to stick around."
Maybe this is just the beginning of the Chris Martin story. Back in Arlington, they're watching to see what happens next: at Texas Appliance, Mondays are now Purple Mondays -- every employee is required to dress in Rockies colors. Meanwhile, as he tunes into Colorado games from home, still not entirely believing that his son has made it, Matt Martin often thinks about a living room conversation they had after they returned home from the Red Sox tryout in Florida.
"We said, let's give this three years, see what happens, and we'll reevaluate things," he says. "Well, it's been three years. And we haven't needed to have that conversation yet."