The evolution and redemption of “El Presidente”

Any 10-year-old boy growing up in Nicaragua during the mid-1960s dreaming of becoming a star in Major League Baseball could have encountered a challenge similar to that of climbing Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain in the Himalayas.

That could well have been Dennis Martínez, who became Latin America’s winningest pitcher in MLB history on Aug. 9, 1998, while pitching for Atlanta and who ended his career the following Sep. 27, 1998, with a total of 245 victories.

Dreaming Big

During a recorded interview in Caguas, Puerto Rico, in the early 1980s, while he was playing winter ball, Martínez recalled, “I played as a kid and was an infielder and a pitcher. My idols were Juan Marichal and Roberto Clemente.”

Born in Granada, Nicaragua, on May 4, 1955, José “Dennis” Martínez had a great MLB career (1976-1998) with Baltimore, Montreal, Cleveland, Seattle and Atlanta. He compiled a win-loss record of 245-193 with a 3.70 ERA.

The four-time All Star righthander pitched a perfect game as a Montreal Expo versus the Dodgers on July 28, 1991, thus becoming the first Latino pitcher to accomplish that brilliant feat. He is enshrined in the Baltimore Orioles and Canadian Baseball halls of fame.

Martínez’s life was not easy growing up in Nicaragua, a beautiful country with a blotchy political history. His dad, Edmundo Martínez, had a drinking problem. Acquaintances say his mom, Emilia, was an honorable, nice, hard working woman.

He made his pro debut in the United States in 1974 with Miami, a Baltimore affiliate in the Florida State League. His first experiences in the United States presented challenges.

“It was difficult, as I did not know English well and some people thought I was a rebel or crazy,” he recalled. “All I could do was work hard, while fighting for what I understood were my rights.

“Besides, I had difficulties with alcoholism. In 1983, thanks to the Orioles, I received treatments at a Baltimore hospital and started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Then my life started changing.”

Martínez’s Change Up

He became very enthusiastic when we spoke about pitching. During an interview at the Montreal spring training facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 1990.

“I’ve always had a good arm,” he said. “I got along with a fastball, and my curve was good.

“However, in the 1980s I started mastering a changeup, and it was then that I understood that I truly belonged in MLB.”

Prior to the 1990 season, Martínez had 180 career wins and had set his mind on 200 wins, stating: “It is funny that you bring the 200 wins to my attention. I have been thinking about them in silence for some time now.

“But you know, my main goal is to surpass my hero Marichal’s 243 in order to become the Latino with (the) most wins in MLB history!”

Words of Praise from Two Titans

Former MLB slugger Juan González has been Martínez’s friend for years. A few days ago, I spoke to the 1996 and 1998 American League Most Valuable Player. With the admiration and respect that a pitcher of Martínez’s class deserves, Gonzalez said, “Dennis is a Hall of Famer as a person, and his career is worthy of consideration for honors in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

“As a pitcher with 245 wins, I say that above all he was a great competitor. His basic pitches were the fastball, a great curve and a good change up.

“But above all, he was a master at positioning his pitches and throwing the hitters off balance.”

José Morales – the eighth-best pinch hitter with 123 hits in that specialty – was happy to speak about Martinez from his home in Florida.

“We played with the Orioles (in 1981 and 1982),” Morales said. “He was very personable and earned my respect. I faced him during winter ball in Puerto Rico. He had a good fastball and a great curve.  But the change up was his forte.

“He once threw me one at such a slow velocity that I could have taken 15 swings and missed each time.”

Veteran Dominican Republic righthander Bartolo Colon of the Texas Rangers surpassed Martínez’s 245 wins last night.

Having known Martínez for over 35 years, I am positive that the eloquent gentleman known as “El Presidente” in Nicaragua will be happy and proud that Colon could scale the Mount Everest for Latino pitchers in MLB history.

Featured Image: Focus on Sport

Inset Images: Luis Rodriguez Mayoral