On President’s Day, let’s salute El Presidente.
I share a birthday with Dennis Martinez. He also pitched in the first World Series I ever watch (the 1979 World Series between his Baltimore Orioles and the eventual champion Pittsburgh Pirates.)
There is one more near miss connection. I will get to that later.
Martinez is the first player born in Nicaragua ever to make it to the Majors. He would compile more wins than any other Latin pitcher in big league history. And would become a folk hero in his own country, prompting an obscure political party to attempt to nominate him for President (thus his nickname.)
Martinez caught the eyes of scouts as he pitched well in international tournaments between Nicaragua and Puerto Rico and Cuba. He already had experience pitching in front of huge crowds by the time he was throwing in the Baltimore organization in the 1970’s.
The Orioles were stacked with pitchers, so they could allow the skinny Martinez develop. He made his debut with Baltimore in 1976 and by 1977 was there to stay. Initially used by Earl Weaver as a reliever and spot starter, Martinez won 14, finished 19 games, saved 4 and threw 5 complete games over 166 2/3 innings.
In 1978, with Rudy May and Ross Grimsley leaving Baltimore for Montreal, Martinez was inserted into the rotation and flourished. He threw 276 1/3 innings and posted a 3.52 ERA. He was even better in 1979, leading the league with 292 1/3 innings, 39 starts and 18 complete games. (He even threw a game in relief for good measure.) The Orioles won the pennant that year and a 7 year old Sully watched the World Series.
(His teammate was Tippy Martinez, no relation. I thought they were brothers until I was 12 years old.)
In 1981 he rebounded from a disappointing season to lead the league in wins that strike shortened series. But by 1983, injuries and alcohol addiction was catching up with him.
The Orioles won the World Series that year and he got his ring, but he was left off of the post season roster after posting a 5.53 ERA for the year. He couldn’t get the ERA under 5 for 1984 nor 1985 and after a handful of games in 1986, he was traded to Montreal but fared no better.
When the 1986 season ended, his career looked over. It was a fine career and one of note in his native Nicaragua. But the 32 year old Martinez was finished.
But he gave it one more try. After signing with the independent minor league Miami Miracle, he earned a second change with the Expos.
On June 10th, he went 7 strong innings against the Pirates, allowing just 3 hits. His second start, he threw a complete game 3 hit shutout against the defending World Champion Mets. When he threw 7 innings of 1 hit shutout ball against the Mets on August 10th, he raised his record to 7-1. He went 4-1 in September to finish the season 11-4 with a solid 3.30 ERA.
Then he showed his 1987 comeback was no fluke by throwing 235 1/3 innings in 1988, the most since 1982, winning 15 games and lowering his ERA to 2.72. The Expos were contenders in 1989 and Martinez won 16 games over 33 starts. In 1990 at ahe 36, he came all the way back and was named to the All Star Game for the first time in his career.
Then came 1991.
On a late weekend in July of 1991, my parents and I visited my brother Ted in Los Angeles where he was a college student. We decided to go to a Dodgers game while we were there. But which day would we go? Friday, Saturday or Sunday. We decided Saturday night. On Friday evening, Mark Gardner threw 9 no hit innings for the Expos. But Orel Hershiser and Kevin Gross kept the Expos from scoring and it went into the 10th. The Dodgers got three hits in the 10th to win a thrilling 1-0 game. We missed that game.
On Saturday, the game we attended, was kind of a dull Dodgers blowout. I remember thinking “Damn, I wish we saw the Friday night game.”
Dennis Martinez pitched the Sunday afternoon game. I listened to the last inning in the car. Dennis Martinez threw a perfect game. I had 3 choices to see a game that weekend. 2 of them included a pitcher throwing 9 no hit innings. I picked the ONE dud. Go figure.
Martinez led the league in ERA that year, finishing 5th in the Cy Young vote.
He would make two more All Star teams and in 1995 won 12 games as a 41 year old helping the Indians win the 1995 pennant. He finished his career as a reliever with the Braves in 1998, playing his final game in the NLCS.
Beloved in three countries, the favorite son of Nicaragua and big winner for Baltimore and Cleveland was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame for his years in Montreal.
He has been the manager of the Nicaragua National team and a coach and instructor for the Orioles and the Astros.
El Presidente turned a nice career into a memorable one that made 16 voters said “Yes”on their Hall of Fame ballots.
So on this Presidents Day, let’s look at the great highlight that I missed seeing.