Search

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Dec. 30, 1991
Dec. 30, 1991

Table of Contents
Dec. 30, 1991

Wrestling
Football
Playoff Preview
New Jersey Nets
USC-Ohio State
Don James
Cheerleading
Dennis Martinez
First Person
Nostalgia
Point After

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Dennis Martinez labors with few laurels as the ace of the Montreal Expos, but in Nicaragua he's a beloved and benevolent hero

The darkness that stretched out below him seemed to be without boundaries to give it shape, and so he floated through it as he would a long, dreamless sleep. And then suddenly the stadium was there, a rictus of light in the blackened city. As Dennis Martinez peered out the window of the plane, the aircraft circled the ball field, buzzard-like, and then began to descend into the Managua airport. Fifteen thousand Nicaraguans had already waited more than an hour at the stadium through a steady drizzle for Martinez to arrive, and now he was dropping out of the sky and into the glow like a cloudburst.

This is an article from the Dec. 30, 1991 issue Original Layout

Martinez, the righthanded ace of the Montreal Expos, arguably has been the best pitcher in the National League over the past four seasons. Playing in near obscurity for the lowly Expos, he has given up an average of 2.81 earned runs per nine innings during that span, pitching better than any of the league's Cy Young Award winners over the same period. He emerged briefly and brilliantly from baseball's shadows last July 28, when he pitched a perfect game against Los Angeles in Dodger Stadium, but quickly returned to oblivion as the Expos sank quietly out of sight in the standings.

But when Martinez returns to his native Nicaragua, as he did last month to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of the national baseball season, he once again becomes el presidente, the pride of Nicaragua. After decades of dictatorship and civil war, this is a country that has no more valuable currency than a nickname with which to pay him tribute.

This trip to his homeland was the first for Martinez since his perfect game, which had triggered a delirious national celebration; his homecoming was to be cause for more merriment. But in Nicaragua the sudden intrusion of political fury is commonplace, and Martinez had had second thoughts about making the trip. Six days before the scheduled visit, supporters of the Sandinistas—the Marxist party that had held power in Nicaragua from July 1979 until Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president in February 1990—set fire to the office of the mayor of Managua and engaged in an exchange of gunfire with demobilized contras at the office of the Nicaraguan Resistance Civil Organization.

The violent outburst by the Sandinistas was a response to a bomb explosion earlier the same day at the mausoleum of the group's martyred founder, Carlos Fonseca, who died 15 years ago fighting the hated National Guard of former right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The explosion was variously said to have been the work of rightists or the Sandinistas themselves, but regardless, the incidents endangered the uneasy truce that had existed between the Sandinistas and the coalition Chamorro government. Martinez, who had never publicly aligned himself with either the contras or the Sandinistas, feared that he and his family might make equal-opportunity targets for both sides in the simmering dispute; after weighing the possible danger, Dennis and his wife, Luz, agreed that 18-year-old Dennis Jr. would stay home in Florida to attend to his own commitments but that the rest of the family—including Erica, 17; Gilberto, 9; and Ricardo, 3—would make the trip. For a national hero, it is not easy to back out.

If Martinez felt vulnerable as he entered the National Stadium in Managua, it certainly didn't calm his fears when, just as he stepped onto the field, several explosions went off overhead. As the welcoming fireworks boomed on, Dennis and his family were placed in an open mule-drawn carriage for a slow ride around the field. An eight-piece marching band followed the carriage with a mad clatter, while just a few feet away an equally determined 12-piece ensemble played a different tune, as if oblivious to the hootings of the other. The carriage was flanked by three gray horses trained to prance wildly, so that their exaggerated steps looked something like a rumba as the strange convoy made its way toward the pitcher's mound.

Waiting there for Martinez was Antonio Lacayo, the so-called shadow president in the Chamorro cabinet; next to Lacayo stood his political opposite, Humberto Ortega. Chamorro had defeated Humberto's brother Daniel last year in one of the few openly contested elections for the presidency in the country's history. In a decision that some Nicaraguans considered a gesture of reconciliation and others saw as an act of betrayal, Chamorro retained Humberto Ortega, who had been head of the Sandinista army, as chief of the Nicaraguan military. As the ceremonies proceeded, Ortega, in green fatigues, stood at attention on the pitching rubber.

Ortega's control of the military is a continuing reminder that the Sandinistas retain considerable power in Nicaragua, and a day earlier in Miami, the usually diplomatic Martinez had cast a critical eye on Chamorro's conciliatory dealings with the Sandinistas. "Why did they bother going through the election?" Martinez asked. "If I was president and somebody was trying to take away my country...."

The three men stood side by side during the playing of the Nicaraguan national anthem—Ortega symbolizing the country's troubled political past; Lacayo, the uncertain present; and Martinez, perhaps, its future. After the last note of the anthem had drifted through the stadium, Martinez threw out the first pitch of the season—to Ortega, who squatted behind the plate sporting a Cuban-made Batos first baseman's glove.

The next morning Martinez met with Carlos García, the Nicaraguan minister of sport. García had been the president of the country's baseball federation back in the early '70s when Martinez played for the national team as a 17-year-old. But when the Sandinistas came to power, García was charged with, among other things, spying for the CIA and supplying arms to the contra rebels.

"I never belonged to any political party," García says, "but the Sandinistas said the CIA wanted to control international baseball." García was never given a trial, just a 45-minute reading of the charges against him, and then he was imprisoned for 4½ years. "My job, my property were lost," he says. "It was like a grenade exploded and shattered Nicaragua into a thousand pieces. We think there may have been as many as 30,000 political prisoners in Sandinista jails. Nicaragua used to be a big prison. The worst part was the way they would wake you in the middle of the night to touch your mind with psychological terror. But that nightmare is over, thank god."

On this day García returned to prison, accompanying Martinez to the Zona Franca Penitentiary so that Martinez could distribute baseball equipment to the inmates. Martinez was led through the prison yard, and then, upon rounding a corner, he suddenly found himself walking between two long, facing ranks of prisoners dressed in ragged blue uniforms. As Martinez passed through them on his way to the baseball diamond to present the equipment, the inmates began to applaud. Martinez grinned from ear to ear.

By 11 a.m. Martinez was in the city of Granada, his birthplace, 30 miles southeast of Managua, where he spoke briefly to a group that was attending the second national Alcoholics Anonymous Convention. This was no empty ceremonial visit; Martinez, a recovering alcoholic, had stopped by to offer his encouragement. Then he was on his way again, driving through the sun-blasted streets of the barrios to distribute sports equipment and other supplies, carrying out what he calls "my mission." The landscape here is unrelieved: Rusted hulks sit by the side of the road, houses are thrown together with old boards and scraps of metal, children sit idly on front steps. In the streets Martinez greeted the people warmly, and he continued to follow the day's grueling itinerary without complaint.

But sometimes the demands on Martinez by his countrymen can seem overwhelming. "They're asking me for too much," he had said before leaving from Miami. "There's a lot of need down there, and they always run to me to solve their problems. Like I'm the savior. Like I can cure their disease."

Martinez knows, though, that he is one of Nicaragua's lucky ones. He got out of his homeland before the Sandinistas and the contras began to call upon young men to fight. In 1976 he became the first Nicaraguan ever to play in the major leagues, in '90 he signed a three-year contract with the Expos that will pay him more than $3 million per season, and that summer he became, at 35, the oldest player to appear in an All-Star Game for the first time. Four of his countrymen have come and gone from the majors during his career, so now he is again the only Nicaraguan playing big league baseball. "I'm proud that I made it and that I'm still there," he says. "When I broke into the big leagues and I told people I was from Nicaragua, they didn't even know where it was."

Martinez has never forgotten where his home is, and though he spends the off-seasons in Miami—a city with more Nicaraguans than any other except Managua—he says he hopes that someday soon he can return full-time to Nicaragua. "Most of the [Nicaraguan] people here don't feel comfortable enough yet to go back," he had said while sitting next to the pool at the back of his large, fenced compound in Miami, where he has lived for three years. "There's a lot of resentment from both sides [of the civil war], a lot of envy. Now, after 10 years, people want to get everything back that they have lost, or they won't go home. They don't understand that time didn't stop, and the country didn't stop when they left."

The Nicaraguans who made their way to Miami during the civil war have far less political power there than the well-established Cuban community. During a surge of refugees from Nicaragua three years ago, hundreds of the new arrivals spent Christmas in makeshift shelters on the field at Miami Stadium; it was after Martinez mounted a relief effort to help them find permanent housing that he began to speak with other prominent Nicaraguans living in Miami about organizing an association to ease the transition for those who had fled to the U.S. "A lot of Nicaraguans risked their lives to get here," he says, "and when they asked for help, they didn't get any. There are a lot of powerful people from Nicaragua here—bankers, engineers, people who have theirs already. People need to start saying, 'What can I do to help?' and forget about what has been done in the past."

"I think Dennis is a hero for the Nicaraguan people," says Dr. Oscar Danilo Pozo, a physician who fled his homeland seven years ago. At the end of the most recent baseball season, Pozo enlisted Martinez's help in organizing a drug-prevention program for young Nicaraguans in Miami. "Many people who get special positions and money forget the people around them, but Dennis is a very simple man who went to the highest place in his profession, and now he is encouraging the Nicaraguan people to follow his success."

When his pitching career is over, Martinez may lead a reverse migration from Miami to Nicaragua. And after that, he might toss his Expo cap into the political ring. Could el presidente prove to be more than just an affectionate nickname? "I will have to discuss with my family whether they want to go back, because the kids are in school here, but I want to go back," he says. "Maybe, in the position I am in now as a baseball player, maybe that opened my eyes and showed me that I have a right to say something and people will listen."

Violeta Chamorro is regarded by many Nicaraguans as a figurehead president, voted into office because she is the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who crusaded against the Somocistas while editor of La Prensa—then Nicaragua's sole opposition newspaper—until he was assassinated in 1978. Martinez wonders whether she is up to the job. "Are we going in the right direction, or are we going through the same vicious cycle again?" he asks. If Nicaragua is to have a figurehead in charge, he wonders, is it unthinkable that that figurehead could be a former baseball player? "I feel I can make a difference now," Martinez says. "Carlos García has been telling me he's been preparing me for something, I don't know what. I would definitely like to go back down there and help my people. I call them my people because that is what they are. We are one."

In his people, Martinez has found a family in which, for the first time in his life, he can be the favorite son. When Dennis was born, his mother, Emilia, was 43 and the next youngest of his six siblings was 10. "I grew up a lonely child," he says. "When I was a boy, I wanted to be good at everything I did, so I could be accepted. I wanted to be the best in math so everybody would want to copy from my paper, because I could get attention that way. I was trying to show people something that was not real. And as time went on, I continued to create a fantasy of what my life was."

The fantasy grew out of ugliness. Martinez's parents separated when he was young. "All I can remember is my mom and dad fighting," he says. "My dad was an alcoholic—the quietest, most lovely drunk I ever saw. He was very gentle, but my mom would always push him away. I didn't like that—seeing him drunk and the way she treated him. But when he was drinking, he would sell our pigs to get money for liquor."

Dennis never really got to know his father, Edmundo. "Every time I saw him he was drunk," he says. "I never had him at my side. Every time I see some player with his father in the locker room, I still kind of resent that. Just to have somebody to tell me, 'You did good today. You look good in that uniform.' I missed those things. I missed having someone I could talk to, somebody I could ask, 'Is this the right way?' I learned everything outside the home. I grew up the rough way, got hit a lot as punishment. I've read where my mother has said if I hadn't been raised like that, I wouldn't have turned out the way I did, but I'm not so sure."

Every Sunday, Martinez would go from mass at the cathedral that towers over the town square in Granada to the mercado. Amid the heat and the noise and the flies that seemed to fatten themselves on the choking smell of sweetness and rot, Dennis kept the books at the shabby stall where Emilia sold rice, beans and other staples. "I didn't like my friends to see me there," he says, "but I had to deal with it." He wore hand-me-down clothes with patches sewn on the seat of the pants and walked around at school with books held behind him to cover his embarrassment.

Dennis also did without socks for much of his childhood, but this flaying of the feet was a worthwhile sacrifice, for in Nicaragua socks often become homemade baseballs. "We would take a rock and wrap it up in a sock and use it for a ball," he says. "All over Nicaragua you can see those balls on the tile roofs. If it ever rained very hard in my country, you would have a sock storm."

By the time he was 17, Martinez had studied engineering for a year at the National University in Managua and was married to Luz, a fellow student from Granada. Dennis had also played a lot of baseball, though few people took notice of him on the diamond. Having been released by one of the worst teams in the Nicaraguan leagues and ignored by several others because no one wanted a third baseman who weighed 120 pounds, he was finally picked up by the Granada Tiburones. When Heberto Portobanco, the Tiburones manager then and now, saw Martinez snapping off curveballs on the sidelines while warming up, he asked him to pitch to a catcher. Eight days later Martinez pitched for Granada in an exhibition game against the Nicaraguan national team and gave up one hit, a home run to Rafael Obando, now a coach for the Tiburones.

Obando says Martinez has grown to mythic proportions in the eyes of his countrymen by simply staying the same. "He is still very humble," says Obando. "And always sending equipment to the team. Shoes, gloves—nobody asks him, he just sends stuff." The Tiburones have adopted the Expo colors in his honor.

The last game Martinez would ever pitch on his home soil for a Nicaraguan team was in 1973, and it was both a heartbreaking ending—a 1-0 loss in 10 innings to the U.S. team in the championship game of the amateur World Series—and the beginning of a 10-year hangover. Martinez had been discovered by a Baltimore Oriole scout, so after that game, the captain of the Nicaraguan national team sent Martinez on his way to the norteamericanos by getting him smashed on a bottle of rum. "I took a shot of rum straight up because I wanted to show the other guys I was a man," Martinez says. "Then I drank three or four more shots and passed out."

At the time there was little enough reason to suspect that Martinez was major league material. "My friends from the university said, 'Next week you'll be back here,' " Martinez remembers. But after less than three seasons in the minors, he was pitching in Baltimore. "When he came up with the Orioles, he was extremely gifted," says Jim Palmer, who was then the ace of the Baltimore staff. "He was a pitcher, not a thrower. I think [manager] Earl Weaver felt he should be pretty near perfect every time out. There were great expectations."

And great revelations. "I didn't have to go through hard times like other Latin kids do," Martinez says. "Coming from Nicaragua, everything seemed so easy here. You stay in the finest hotels, cat in the best restaurants, life is good. I wasn't prepared for that. Nobody could tell me what to do. I was the big shot."

After going 14-7 in 1977, his first full season in the big leagues, he returned to Nicaragua to a hero's welcome. "Oh, man," he says, "I will never forget that day. It was like the president was coming home. There were two or three thousand people waiting for me at the airport. The people really knew what was going on in baseball, and they were desperate for somebody to make it in the big show."

A caravan of cars escorted Martinez past crowds of waving people on the route from Managua to Granada. "I had to keep both arms up to wave back," he says. "By the time I got to Granada I felt like I'd pitched two games. But I felt good because I knew I had accomplished something they were waiting for."

More accomplishments followed; Martinez was 16-11 for the Orioles in 1978. That mark might have been even better but for Martinez's odd tendency to tip his pitches with grotesque facial expressions. A grimace as he released the ball, for instance, meant curve, and the hitters knew it. So Martinez stuck a plug of chewing tobacco and bubble gum in his cheek that was so colossal that when he released the ball, it simply appeared as if his head were about to explode. Ever since then, a big chaw has been a Martinez trademark.

In 1979 he led the American League with 292 innings pitched and 18 complete games, which led to a sore arm that forced him to miss most of the following season. He rebounded with 14 victories, tied for the most in the majors during the strike-shortened season in 1981.

But none of this helped to make Martinez beloved in Baltimore. "I developed a bad reputation through the media early in my career because I couldn't speak the language," Martinez says. "They made me look like a dumb guy who didn't really know how to respond to their questions. And I resented that."

He also resented not getting the attention he felt he deserved. "Palmer, [Mike] Flanagan and [Scott] McGregor were getting all the credit," he says. "Sometimes the media didn't even mention my name. There were times when I threw a shutout, and they would go to the pitching coach to ask the questions. And he would say something like 'It was a great game, but....' But what? How much better could I pitch?"

He was 16-12 in 1982, though he battled constantly with the Orioles' veteran catcher Rick Dempsey over pitch selection. Martinez believes Dempsey, together with Weaver, treated him like a child because he was Latin. "There are a lot of people who want to control the game for you," Martinez says. "They would say they couldn't understand why I didn't win 20 games, because I had the best stuff on our staff. They would say, 'He's not really smart. He's not throwing the right pitch at the right time.'

"I always resented it, because I wanted to control my own game, and because I believed the pitcher should make those decisions. I never heard of a situation where you shake the catcher off and he gets mad at you. If you're a catcher, you have to protect your pitcher. Rick Dempsey showed me up in front of the other players and the coaches, and I couldn't say anything because I was the only Latin player on the staff. I remember when I was with the Orioles feeling like they had taken my tongue out."

Dempsey remembers his own frustrations with Martinez. "You had to keep him focused on what he was trying to do," Dempsey says. "You couldn't let him get beat with his third-best pitch. Earl made sure I knew what he wanted us to do with each hitter. I know Dennis didn't like it, but we won that way."

Away from the ballpark, Martinez spent much of his time trying to get phone calls through to Granada to find out if his mother was all right. "From 1977 to '79 there was a lot of killing in Nicaragua," he says. "People were shooting at anything. Every day I would look at the paper and see if there had been any killing in Granada, and if there hadn't been, it would be like a big load out of my chest."

"All the time I would pray to the Virgin of Auxilia Dora, who is the saint of my city," Martinez told The New York Times in 1981. "Later I heard how just before Somoza was going to leave the country, he gave orders to bomb Granada. But the pilot was from Granada, and he still had family there, so he dumped all his bombs in the lake, and he flew to safety. Everybody in my city calls this a miracle, and I agree, because it meant my mother and my family were safe."

After the Sandinistas seized power, Martinez returned home less often and cut his visits shorter. "When I went down there I could feel the tension," he says. "You saw people standing around, but they wouldn't talk because everyone was nervous all the time." From 1982 to '87 Martinez didn't return to Nicaragua at all. But there was no way he could completely disengage himself from the events in his homeland. "I know he's had to perform a balancing act most of his career with the problems in Nicaragua, with people wanting him to take sides," says Flanagan. "He's had more things to deal with than your average major leaguer."

Martinez's predicament took graphic form in the 1983 movie Under Fire, in which Nick Nolte plays a photojournalist covering the war in Nicaragua. At one point in the film, a Sandinista guerrilla named Pedro gives Nolte a baseball and asks him to take it back to Martinez in the States. Moments later Pedro throws a plastic explosive for a perfect strike into a sniper's nest. As they walk away, Pedro turns to Nolte and says, "Koufax was good, but Dennis Martinez, he is the best. He's from Nicaragua. He pitches major leagues. You see Dennis Martinez, you tell him my curveball is better. And I have good scroogie. I like Sandinistas, and I like Baltimore Orioles." A moment later a bullet rips through Pedro's chest. He dies with Martinez's name on his lips.

"I was shocked when I saw it," Martinez says of the scene in Under Fire. "See, the Sandinistas thought I was with them, and the contras thought I was with them, but I wasn't with either. I was never on one side or the other because I never wanted to divide the people of my country. I wanted to bring them together."

In July 1979, Somoza fled Nicaragua for Miami. That fall, the Orioles got into the World Series, but Martinez was pummeled by the Pittsburgh Pirates in his two brief appearances, and Baltimore lost the Series four games to three. After the loss, Martinez's drinking became less restrained than ever. "I was young, I had a big contract, and I lost my head," he says. "I thought, Now they have to pay me no matter what I do, and I got very cocky. I was getting drunk in front of people, trying to act like a big shot. I always did everything to extremes. If I had one drink, I didn't want to leave until the bar closed."

When his father died in 1982, Dennis returned to Granada for the funeral of this man he had scarcely known. "I think I was the only one who didn't cry," he says. "I felt like, What do I have to cry for? Nobody wanted him when he was drunk, and he was drunk all the time." Dennis had once sworn to himself that he would never be like his father, but Edmundo's death provoked a strange response. "From that point on, I went even deeper [into drinking]," Dennis says. "Maybe I was trying to take his place."

As his thirst grew, his preparations for satisfying it became increasingly elaborate. "It definitely controls you," he says. "I never drank the night before I pitched, and I thought it didn't affect me. But I had trouble going to sleep those nights, and it didn't occur to me until much later that it was because I had no alcohol in my system. And during the game I was already thinking, Tonight I'm going to drink two or three beers."

He was expected to be the ace of the Baltimore staff in 1983, but when the Orioles beat the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series that year, Martinez played no part in the triumph. He had finished the season with a 7-16 record, had been dropped from the starting rotation and did not pitch in the Series. His demotion to the bullpen only hastened his slide. "That was the killing point," he says. "Now I didn't have to worry about pitching, so I drank every night."

That winter he was arrested in Baltimore for drunken driving and was admitted to Sheppard Pratt Hospital for treatment of his alcoholism. He was in the hospital for eight weeks drying out; after he was released he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Martinez hasn't had a drink in eight years.

But sobering up didn't immediately revive his arm or sharpen his control. His earned run average stubbornly remained above 5.00 for the next two seasons, and the Baltimore coaching staff grew frustrated by the dousing of his old competitive fires. "The first year I was concentrating more on my recovery than baseball," Martinez says. "That was the number one thing in my life. I knew everybody thought I was washed up." He appeared in only four games for the Orioles in 1986 and was shelled so soundly in three of those that he was booed by the Baltimore fans. Weaver's patience, too, had been used up, and Martinez was dealt to Montreal for utility infielder Rene Gonzales.

Martinez helped pitch the Expos into contention in his first full season there by going 11-4, and in 1988 he was a Cy Young Award candidate until mid-August, when the Montreal bats suddenly went dead every time he pitched, costing him six losses—three by shutouts—in his last eight starts. In '90, he had an ERA of 2.95 but finished the season 10-11 because the Expos scored only 16 runs in his 11 losses.

Martinez was passed over for the National League All-Star team in 1989, though he reached the break with a 9-1 record and an ERA of 2.83. He is routinely mentioned as a contender for the Cy Young Award but has never won it. Last season his 2.39 ERA led the majors, as did his five shutouts, which included the perfect game, but he finished a distant fifth to Atlanta's Tom Glavine in the Cy Young voting. "If you get in a situation where it's a close call between a black player, a white player and a Latin player for an award," he says, "the Latin player had better be way, way better than the black or white guy. Because, black or white, they're American."

Martinez is also critical of the way baseball owners import dozens of poorly educated teenage boys from Latin America each year to play in the minors while placing no emphasis on getting them any formal education. "If they're going to develop the kids as baseball players, they should do something for the boys' intellectual growth too," he says. "Most of the young guys who come here stay, whether they make it or not. As it is now, they can sign a teenage kid, throw some spare change at him and then not worry about what happens to him if he doesn't make it."

Two years ago Martinez became convinced that the Expos had given up far too easily on catcher Nelson Santovenia, a 28-year-old Cuban who was shipped to the minors because he was hitting .155 and had thrown out only three of 26 base runners. "I definitely believe racism is the reason they didn't stick with him," Martinez told reporters. "How many times do American players go into slumps and they just let them stay up? If he wasn't Latin, they wouldn't send him down."

Montreal manager Buck Rodgers promptly reprimanded Martinez, and the Expo front office extracted an apology from him. "Dennis was always speaking out," says Rodgers, now manager of the California Angels. "It almost got to the point where his teammates disregarded what he said because it was just Dennis. Sometimes he'd do it to make an excuse, other times to make a point. He tried to establish himself as a self-appointed team representative or the high-ranking Latin on the team. I went after him right in front of the club. After the meeting he told reporters I made a fool out of him. I told the writers, 'Good, that's what I intended to do.' But he's never going to shut up—and you don't want him to shut up completely, either."

"I could feel everybody's eyes on me," Martinez says of the confrontation. "People were trying to destroy me. But I'm a human being first and a pitcher second, and as a human being I have the right to say what I want. When I had a drinking problem, it was because I was always holding my feelings in. I don't hold things inside anymore. Some people might take it personally, but the bottom line is, I feel a lot better about myself now."

Martinez never felt better than after his perfect game against the Dodgers. No longer the overpowering pitcher he was in his early days with the Orioles, he concentrates on location and pitch sequence. "I'm always around the plate," he says, "so they go up there anxious to get me, but they end up 0 for 4." Against his assortment of sinking fastballs, changeups and breaking pitches, the Dodgers went 0 for 27.

After the game outfielder Larry Walker poured beer over Martinez's head—and Martinez carefully wiped the suds off his face with a towel. At a celebration later that night he was toasted with champagne by friends and several of his teammates. He raised his glass with the others, then set it back down without a sip. "Right then I thought about where I had come from and everything I've been through," he said later. "People thought I was washed up. Now look at this."

Nicaragua's state-run television interrupted regular programming to show the final innings of the perfect game, and President Chamorro later declared the date a national sports day in Martinez's honor. "The only thing bigger, maybe, would be to become president of Nicaragua," Martinez said.

That notion seemed a little less farfetched last month when Martinez returned from Nicaragua. "Who knows?" he muses. "I can't really project what will happen in the future. I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I think what would make a good president is a person with a big heart, who knows the people, who knows how the system works from the bottom to the top. Right now I'm just trying to help the youth stay away from drugs and alcohol. I try to get them away from the mentality of the machine gun. It's not my responsibility to say I will be a candidate. But some youth group may come along in the next five years and say it is looking for a new leader, and then, who knows?"

Martinez believes his country has suffered equally under despots of the left and the right. "How could they do those things and live with their consciences?" he says. "Perhaps it is the destiny of Latin America to be ruled by people who seek power as a way to enrich themselves, but why does this have to be so? Is it something in our culture? In our blood? Why can't government be a way for people to do good for those who are less fortunate? For me to have power over other people is to degrade them. A good president would help people, try to educate them and keep them healthy. Then you become the guy who gave them a chance. And you don't have to ask for power, because they are going to give it to you."

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIf Martinez ever runs for president of his country—and he suggests he might—he has found his future supporters.PHOTORONALD C. MODRADuring his visit to a prison in Managua, the 6'1" Martinez gave a hand and got a hand.PHOTORONALD C. MODRANicaraguan politics greeted Martinez in the form of Ortega (left) and Lacayo (center).PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/LOS ANGELES DODGERSLast July, Martinez briefly enjoyed baseball's limelight when he threw his perfect game against L.A.PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIn a country that knows its baseball, people of all ages know its greatest baseball player.PHOTOMANNY MILLANIn his early days in Baltimore, Martinez tipped his pitches with his facial expressions.PHOTORONLAND C. MODRAMartinez, whose career was nearly wrecked by his drinking, paid a visit to Alcoholics Anonymous.PHOTORONLAND C. MODRAObando (right), who once hit a home run off Martinez, still gets a good laugh out of it.PHOTORONLAND C. MODRAMiami is home to Dennis and his family—(from top) Luz, Ricardo, Erica, Gilberto and Dennis Jr.—but perhaps not permanently.PHOTORONLAND C. MODRAFor now Martinez is content to tip his hat, but he may someday throw it into the political ring.