On May 14, 1955, Dennis Martinez was born. “El Presidente” would go on to a 23-year career in the major leagues that included a perfect game, battles with alcoholism, and a distinguished record for games won.
Since I have been following baseball for a relatively short period, I have associations with certain players that do not necessarily match up with how most people see them.
Ozzie Guillen, for example, was never to me the player whose abilities, according to Bill James, “escaped the statistics … more so than any other player.” To me, Guillen was the guy who made a howler of an error in the 1999 World Series and then came back a few years later to manage the White Sox to World Series glory.
This is also true of Dennis Martinez. Martinez was the old guy who threw a perfect game. Later still, he was the even older guy who—along with another older guy, Orel Hershiser—pitched the Indians to the World Series in 1995.
I point this out because the other day the YES Network was showing the 1979 Orioles-Yankees game that took place the day after Thurman Munson died. I watched a little bit of it, and was surprised to see Dennis Martinez was the starting pitcher that day.
It struck me as strange because, from where I sit, the Yankees who played that day were effectively as ancient history as Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. That team, Lou Piniella, Reggie Jackson, Bobby Murcer, was all of another generation. And to see someone pitching to them who I remembered sseing pitch left me taken aback.
So I looked back at the career of the man they called “El Presidente.” Martinez was born in Nicaguarua in 1955. Nicaguara is not exactly a hotbed of baseball talent; only nine players have ever come to the majors from that country. Of the nine, only five have played in 100 or more games, with longtime Giants outfielder Marvin Benard leading with 891 games.
When Martinez debuted in 1976 at age 21, he was the first player to come out of the country and make it to the majors, putting him in the company of names like Steve Bellan (the first Cuban), Ozzie Virgil (the first Dominican) and Masanori Murakami (the first Japanese).
Martinez’ debut came in late September for an Orioles team that, although in second place, was miles behind the AL East leading Yankees. Martinez earned his first win in his very first appearance, going five and two-thirds innings in relief as the Orioles rallied to defeat the Tigers. In his final appearance of the year, on Oct. 2, Martinez went a full eight innings and gave up only one run, but lost when the Orioles offense could not manage any support.
Nevertheless, his performance doubtless helped to convince Earl Weaver he deserved a spot with the Orioles for the 1977 season. Martinez would appear in 42 games that year, mostly in relief. He pitched slightly below average but continued to earn Weaver’s trust.
In 1977, Weaver shifted Martinez nearly full-time to the starting rotation and he responded with a 16-win season. In 1979, despite pitching for a team that took the World Series to seven games before losing and posting a 110 ERA+, Martinez managed just a 15-16 record. He started games in both the ALCS and World Series.
Martinez took a step back in 1980, but in the strike-shortened 1981 season, he won 14 games, good for the league lead. That earned him a fifth-place vote in the Cy Young Awards and the only MVP support of his career.
By the early ’80s, even with his success, Martinez was battling personal demons. He struggled with alcoholism for most of his early career. He was arrested for drunk driving after the 1983 World Series. Martinez would later admit that during that Series—in which he did not appear—his interest in the Orioles’ success was focused on the champagne celebration that would come after. In The New York Times, George Vecsey took special note of Martinez’ enthusiasm in soaking his teammates during that celebration.
Martinez entered rehab, but struggled with the dual conflict of man against temptation and pitcher against hitter. He posted ERAs over 5 in both 1984 and 1985 and was sitting on 6.75 when the Orioles dispatched him to Montreal in a 1986 trade.
Widely regarded as at the end of his career at age 31, Martinez pitched nearly as badly for the Expos in ’86 as he had for the O’s the two years prior. However, in 1987 he began a career renaissance, going 11-4 with a 3.30 ERA. In 1990, his 6-7 record at the All-Star break was underwhelming, but his 2.84 ERA earned him a spot on the All-Star team, at age 35 the oldest player to make it for the first time.
In 1991, Martinez again finished with an under-.500 record, but led the league in shutouts. One of those, on July 28, was the 15th perfect game in major league history. Martinez needed just 96 pitches and a little over two hours to defeat the Dodgers. Martinez’ league-leading 2.39 ERA belied his 14-11 season record.
Martinez left the Expos, but not before becoming only the ninth pitcher to win 100 games both in the American and National League. He signed with the Indians and once again found himself in the postseason, appearing in the games for which I best remember him.
In 1998, during the final season of his career, Martinez—who once described his best weapon on the mound as “a big heart”—passed Juan Marichal for the most wins by a Latin pitcher, ending his career with 245. Martinez retired after that season and currently serves as pitching coach for the High-A Palm Beach Cardinals. It seems fitting that a man who battled so much to have a successful career is now charged with helping others achieve like success.