When he entered the game for the Baltimore Orioles in the top of the fourth inning with two outs on September 14, 1976, Dennis Martínez made history as the first Nicaraguan to play in the major leagues. He also made quite an impression, striking out the first three batters he faced, pitching 5.2 scoreless innings and notching the win.
The slender right-handed continued making his mark over the course of a 23-year career, hurling the first perfect game by a Latino and ending up with 245 victories — still the record for Latin American pitchers. More than half of those wins came after he defeated alcoholism, turning Martínez into an inspiration for others. Nicknamed “El Presidente,” Martínez chatted with La Vida Baseball about his life and journey, and how Roberto Clemente set an example for Nicaraguans and Latinos everywhere.
What does it mean to be the first Nicaraguan to reach the major leagues and to have success?
It means a lot… That was a challenge I faced when I came to this country: To be able to have the opportunity to play the game that I love. And I was lucky that I achieved it. I’m really grateful, and I thank God because he gave me the ability to become the first Nicaraguan to get to the big leagues.
How do you feel to see so many Latinos in the major leagues today?
It shows that we have baseball in our blood. That’s what we love to do. That’s what we all grow up doing — baseball. Many of us come from a different country, a poor Third World country, where there’s a lot of need. There are a lot of people that lived in poverty that just need to have an opportunity, the chance. And where better than this country? And for that we are grateful to this country, for allowing us to come here and do what we love to do, which is play baseball.
Many look up to you as an inspiration for overcoming alcoholism and achieving greatness. How does that make you feel?
It makes me feel a little more responsibility because it’s not that you’ve made it, it’s how you’re going to stay and be consistent with it. It is a lot about responsibility; you have to deal with it. I don’t mind that because my life has always been a challenge. I like the challenge. I like to prove people wrong. And I guess that’s one of my motivations; that I rely on it because there’s nobody who can tell me what I can or cannot do. I like to make choices myself [and] I know that when I go to bed, I will sleep well on my pillow, and I’m happy with that.
What kinds of advice do you give young pitchers?
To have faith, believe in God, that He will provide us with everything. And you have to work hard and dedicate yourself with education and determination to be able to achieve your goals. Dream big. And even though you fail, get up and try it again… It doesn’t matter how many times you fail as long as you get up and prove what you can do. Use the time that He gave us. Play hard and never give up.
Puerto Ricans and Nicaraguans share a special bond because of Roberto Clemente. What does Clemente mean to you?
He means everything because Roberto Clemente showed us what kind of a man he was. What kind of human being he was. He gave up his life trying to help us after the earthquake that we had in 1972 in Nicaragua. He showed us humanity. He was trying to bring a lot of aid that was needed in our country. He was a great example for all Latino players, just like Jackie Robinson was for the black people here in the United States. He was an icon for the Spanish-speaking players because what he showed was humanity. Not just because he was a baseball player, but because he was a family man, and he was able to leave his family behind just to help a different country. And unfortunately, he gave up his life.
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