A hole is blown out of a chain-link fence in the backyard of a
house in Tampa. A criminologist would call the hole evidence,
the kind of evidence that tells a silent story. How did New York
Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez chase away the ghost of his
predecessor, Don Mattingly, by the end of his first year in New
York? How did Martinez drive in more runs than any other player
ever has in April and establish himself as one of the elite run
producers in the American League? The answer is as obvious as
the hole in the fence.
As a teenager Constantino Martinez, who grew up with his
grandfathers' name and his father's diligence, blew open the
fence by hitting a baseball into it off a tee. He did this not
with one blast but, in the way that water carves out canyons
from rock, with repeated blasts. Tino pounded away every day
from the time he was 13, flattening his swing into a quick,
"Every day, year round," says his older brother, Rene Jr.
(pronounced REE-nee), 30, a bank vice president. "When the hole
opened up in the fence, he covered it with a net and kept going.
If he was bored and had nothing to do, he'd go back to the tee
Now 29, Martinez, the second of Sylvia and Rene Sr.'s three
sons, hasn't changed. He still hits off a tee, though he does so
before batting practice in major league ballparks. He also lifts
weights four times a week, fields hundreds of practice ground
balls daily, routinely takes extra batting practice and
generally exhibits a work ethic that would shame a Sherpa. And
he is still busting fences.
Martinez reached week's end hitting .306 with more RBIs (57)
than every player in baseball except the Seattle Mariners' Ken
Griffey Jr., and tied for second in homers (20) with the Oakland
A's Mark McGwire, four back of Griffey. In the last three
seasons the lefthanded-hitting Martinez has driven in more runs
(285 through Sunday) than anyone in the American League except
Albert Belle (321) of the Chicago White Sox, Mo Vaughn (301) of
the Boston Red Sox, Jay Buhner (297) of the Mariners and Frank
Thomas (292) of the White Sox. Perhaps more startling, he has
made Mattingly as quaintly archaic in Gotham as the Automat. At
week's end Martinez had already hit as many home runs this year
as Mattingly did in any of his last six seasons, and he had more
RBIs than Mattingly did in 1994 or in '95, his final year.
"He is one of the best teammates I've ever had," Yankees pitcher
David Cone says. "I've played with some real gamers who were
kind of wacko. But Tino is the most even-tempered gamer I've
ever been around. He has a very intelligent approach to the game
while being such an intense competitor."
"I've always believed," Martinez says, "that the answer to your
problems is working harder. In the end, even if the numbers
aren't there, at least I'll know I worked hard. It's a lesson I
learned from my father. No one worked harder than he did."
The telephone would ring at 6:30 in the morning, and Tino would
know who it was. His father would be calling from the Villazon
Cigar Company, Inc., factory, one block away from the family's
house on Kathleen Street, with news that another shipment of
tobacco had arrived from Honduras. "Send the boys over," he
would tell Sylvia, a schoolteacher. Rene Sr. was a strong
man--6'2", 240 pounds and a former parole officer and high
school football star in Tampa--who took great pride in never
missing a day of work. He was the factory's general manager, and
he had already been at work three hours when he would call for
his sons. Rene Sr.'s father-in-law, once an employee at
Villazon, owned the place.
Tino was only 10 at the time. During summer vacations and
Christmas breaks he and Rene Jr.--and in later years their
younger brother, Tony, now 27 and a teacher--would report for a
shift of work. They helped unload 100-pound crates of tobacco.
They lent a hand in the fumigation chambers. They helped arrange
the tobacco in the stifling heat of the sorting room, which made
the steamy Florida air outside seem inviting. They came home
reeking of perspiration and tobacco with their father's words
ringing in their ears: "Hard work never hurt anybody."
"It was Dad's way of telling me what hard work is all about,"
Tino says. "He never came right out and said it, but his message
was, Stay in school, work hard and do something with yourself or
else you could be unloading tobacco your whole life. Working in
the factory wasn't exactly something that my brothers and I
looked forward to, but we learned from it. It taught me to work
hard as a player."
Martinez excelled at baseball in high school and was a
three-time Division II All-America at the University of Tampa,
where he used the batting cages more often than the backyard
fence. He would gush to his mother about his zest for the game,
saying, "I love my office outside!" and Sylvia would nod and
say, "You sure do." The newspapers were full of glowing articles
about the hometown boy. His father cut them out and stored them
without saying a word. "He taught me not to let success go to my
head," Martinez says.
Whenever Martinez struggled, his father offered simple advice.
"Go back to the basics," he'd say. "Are you hitting enough off
the tee? Are you taking extra batting practice?"
The Mariners selected Martinez with the 14th overall pick in the
June 1988 draft, but he spent that summer with the U.S. Olympic
team, which went on to win a demonstration-sport gold medal in
Seoul. He spent most of three seasons in the minor leagues
before a rather unremarkable start to his big league career. By
the end of the '94 season he was a mediocre first baseman and a
career .254 hitter, but he and the Mariners came of age in '95.
He batted .293 and knocked in 111 runs in a division-winning
season that saved baseball in Seattle. He batted .409 and drove
in five runs in the epic five-game Division Series, in which the
Mariners rallied from an 0-2 deficit and knocked the Yankees out
of the postseason, effectively ending Mattingly's career. After
the Mariners lost to the Cleveland Indians in the American
League Championship Series, Martinez figured the club would
trade him so it could afford to keep its bigger stars, Griffey
and ace Randy Johnson. He told Seattle manager Lou Piniella, a
Tampa Bay-area resident in the off-season, "If I can't stay, I'd
like to play in New York."
He loved the energy of the Yankees fans and the financial
resources of owner George Steinbrenner. The Mariners did trade
him to the Yankees, along with pitchers Jeff Nelson and Jim
Mecir in exchange for third baseman Russ Davis and pitcher
Sterling Hitchcock. New York welcomed Martinez with a five-year,
$20.25 million contract. He promptly fell on his face by hitting
.196 over the first three weeks of last season. Yankees fans
rode him like the C train.
"I tried to impress people right away," Martinez says. "I swung
too hard. I was overanxious. It wasn't because I was replacing
Mattingly. I wanted to show my teammates what I could do and
live up to the contract. Every day I drove to the park thinking,
This is the day I'm going to get four hits."
One day he called up his brother Rene and said, "The fans have
every right to boo me. And you know what? I still love it.
They're great here. They really care.'"
Another time he telephoned his agent, Jim Krivacs, who put one
of his other clients on the line. "Just keep plugging; you'll be
fine," the other client, Mattingly, said. It was the first time
Martinez had spoken to him since the trade.
Then, on April 30, 1996, Martinez's three-run homer in the
seventh inning turned out to be the game-winner in a victory
over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards. The next night he
did it again, this time with a grand slam in the 15th inning.
New York fans have been cheering him ever since. He finished
last season batting .292 with a team-high 117 RBIs while leading
American League first basemen in fielding percentage. "He takes
so many ground balls at first base," Yankees manager Joe Torre
says, "that he's made himself into a better first baseman than
any of us thought he could be."
The hard work, though, betrayed Martinez. He expended so much
energy getting through his first season in New York that at the
end he went as limp as a stogie left outside its humidor. "I was
grinding every single day, and it took a toll," he says.
Martinez wound down the year, including the postseason, with one
home run in his last 120 at bats. He didn't have an RBI in 48
plate appearances in the playoffs. Torre benched him for Games
3, 4 and 5 of the World Series, choosing to use
righthanded-hitting Cecil Fielder, even against Atlanta Braves
righthander John Smoltz in Game 5. "I told him he wasn't
playing, and I knew he was angry," Torre says. "He didn't say a
Says Martinez, "I was hurt. Deeply hurt. I had busted my butt
day in and day out and never asked for a day off all year. I was
definitely mad. But I kept it to myself. I walked back to my
locker and, after a minute, told myself, 'O.K., be ready to come
off the bench. You don't want to come in and do something bad
because you weren't ready to play.' I never have talked to Joe
However, two months after the Yankees won the World Series,
Martinez did send Torre a Christmas present: two boxes of cigars.
Rejuvenated and relaxed, Martinez started hitting in spring
training this year. With the exception of a 3-for-34 slump last
month, his bat has stayed hot. His well-honed stroke stays level
through the hitting zone for an unusually long time, which
explains why his home runs often lack eye-popping lift or carry.
"I'm a line drive hitter with power," he says. "I've hit a lot
of home runs into the first or second row. People keep asking me
what I'm doing differently. The answer is nothing. The
difference is that I was relaxed from Day One. I didn't have to
come in and impress people. I'm just more confident. If the
count's 0 and 2, I still feel I can get a pitch to hit, whereas
before I'd be anxious."
Martinez, a career .240 hitter in April entering this season,
opened with 34 RBIs in the first month, two more than the
previous major league record, which San Francisco Giants
outfielder Barry Bonds set last season. Martinez accounted for
seven of those RBIs on April 2 when he hit three home runs in
Seattle. That feat prompted the Mariners fans to give him a
standing ovation and teammate Derek Jeter to whisper to him in
the dugout, "Let them have Griffey. We've got Tino."
"The work ethic Tino has is that two hits are never enough and
three RBIs are never enough," Torre says. "That's what makes for
Says teammate Paul O'Neill, "I never understood people getting
on him early last year. Donnie chose not to play. It wasn't like
Tino or anybody ran him out. But Tino handled it great. He likes
to win games and then go home to his wife and kids. That's it.
He doesn't need the spotlight."
Rene Sr. never got to see Tino's children, Olivia, 4; T.J., 3;
and Victoria, 17 months. He didn't get to see his son make it to
the big leagues either. Three days before Christmas 1989, while
Martinez was home after his first season in the minors, his
father complained of a headache. The pain grew so bad that Rene
couldn't get out of bed. On New Year's Eve, Sylvia checked her
husband into a hospital, where doctors discovered a tumor in his
brain. They operated on Jan. 3, but he died the following day.
He was 48.
Tino can still hear his father's voice, especially during the
bad times at the plate. Are you working hard enough? Are you
hitting enough off the tee? "I go back to the basics that he
knew," Martinez says.
Little else has changed. Sylvia still teaches school and still
lives on Kathleen Street. The hole in the fence is still there.
And grandpa Constantino, 79, still runs the cigar factory, where
early one morning in the years to come, T.J. Martinez might find
himself unloading crates of Honduran tobacco in the Florida
heat. "Maybe," Tino says. "If he needs it, it'll toughen him up
too." Hard work never hurt anybody.
A Career on the Upswing
YEARS G R H HR RBI AVG.
1990-94 402 158 350 57 201 .254
1995-97* 351 214 394 76 285 .295