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From Mexico to the big leagues, Rafael Martin is the most improbable story of Washington Nationals spring training

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010; D03

VIERA, FLA. -- After he finished high school, Rafael Martin took a job at a local contractor not far from Riverside, Calif., where he lived with his parents. He spent weekdays pouring concrete and laying pipe and at night he played beer league softball. On Sundays he pitched in a men's baseball league. That was his life for four years, and life wasn't bad.

On Sunday morning, Martin pulled on a crisp, white Washington Nationals jersey and took his turn posing on the infield of Space Coast Stadium so a photographer could turn him into a baseball card. He waited until noon before heading out to practice the pitches that the team's highest-ranking evaluators believe will soon make him a major league pitcher, most likely this season. That is his life now. "Maybe someday," he said, "they'll make a movie about it."

At once, Martin, 25, is the most improbable story of Nationals spring training and the most concrete success of their remade international scouting operation. After his four years in construction, Martin made the Mexican League after catching a scout's eye at a tryout he attended on a whim. Three years later, he had become one of the league's best relievers, a commodity at least 10 teams vied for this winter. Armed with personal connections and the best financial offer, the Nationals bought his contract and added to their organization a fairy tale.

"And," said Bill Singer, the Nationals scout who signed Martin, "he's going to play in the big leagues."

That evaluation comes for a pitcher who didn't play varsity baseball until his senior year at Jurupa Valley High. (He played summer basketball before his junior season, so the coach punished him with a spot on JV.) Once he finally pitched on the varsity, he threw in the high 80s and his team went 2-13.

Martin could have continued his college baseball career. The coach from the University of Redlands offered him a spot but no scholarship; Martin deemed the school too expensive. The coach at Riverside Community College told him he could walk on but guaranteed nothing.

"I didn't think I was good enough," Martin said. "So I didn't go. I hate being rejected."

He went to work for Slater Inc., a contractor in Fontana. After two years, he became a foreman and got his own crew. After three years, he worked in the office as a dispatcher. He was making $20 an hour and $1,000 a week, decent money for a kid still living at home.

Sundays were for baseball, and one day a teammate told him about a Mexican League tryout he was going to attend. When he showed up, a scout named Alfredo Peralta liked him. Peralta offered Martin $2,200 a month to play for the team in Mazatlan, Mexico.

"It was from one day to the other," Martin said. "I left my office and decided to go play baseball."

When he reported to Mexico, he was 22. He could throw about 88 mph. Because he had thrown so little, with such scant coaching, he improved rapidly. By his second season, he was throwing 90-92 mph and was asked to join the Mexican team at the Caribbean Series. By his third season, he could hit 92-94 mph and topped out at 96, and the Nationals caught wind of a kid in Mazatlan other teams were sending scouts to see.

In early winter, General Manager Mike Rizzo and international scouting director Johnny DiPuglia, hired months prior, sent feelers to see if Martin's contract could be purchased. In December, days before Christmas, he sent Singer to Mazatlan.

Singer, one of the Nationals scouting directors, watched Martin throw a plus-sinker, a slider good enough to be an out-pitch in the majors, and two kinds of fastballs. "He couldn't throw a fastball straight," Singer said. "Overall, shoot, it's tough to find something like that."

The next day, Singer arranged a meeting through Mazatlan pitching coach Sid Monge, with whom he had played on the California Angels in the mid-1970s.

DiPuglia, from his time as the Latin American coordinator of the Boston Red Sox, had developed a friendly relationship with the Ley family, the affluent owners of the Mazatlan team. "He did the whole negotiation," Rizzo said.

On Feb. 8, a day after Martin threw his final pitch in the Caribbean Series, the Nationals signed him. Martin will likely start at Class AAA Syracuse. When the Nationals brass asks Singer where he thinks Martin should start, he tells them Washington.

On Saturday, almost two months after he met him in Mexico, Singer saw Martin walking around the Nationals complex. "His eyes were like saucers," Singer said. Martin had not gotten used to his new life, and maybe he never will.

"It's amazing," Martin said. "It's a dream come true."

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