"Because my name's Martinez, I'm afraid some people assume I don't speak English well. Sometimes, I'll go and start talking in front of people just to let 'em know, 'Hey, I can talk, too.' A ballplayer gets to a point where he wants to be appreciated. You'd just like to have somebody say, 'Hey, this guy's doing something.' " --Tippy Martinez, AL player of the week
BALTIMORE--In his seven years as a Baltimore Oriole, Tippy Martinez has been mistaken for just about everything except what he is.
"Even within the team, I'm known as being all different nationalities . . . some ask me if I'm Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Spanish, Chinese," said the bemused Martinez. "I got 'em all. What's the difference? At least I've got a choice."
About the only thing Martinez never has been mistaken for is an outstanding American relief pitcher. Which, of course, is just what he is.
These days, Martinez--a third-generation American from Colorado who speaks almost no Spanish, is, at last, a hot-as-pepper item. If he doesn't watch out, his anonymity may soon be in danger.
No other pitcher in the American League has worked in more games this season than his 49--a pace that would take him to the hill 83 times this year.
More important, Martinez and his underground legend of a left-handed curve ball are on a dizzying streak. In his last 15 relief appearances, Martinez hasn't allowed a run and has permitted just six hits; in 18 1/3 innings, he's walked just three and struck out 22. In his scoreless month of July, Martinez has two victories and five saves, improving his season record to 5-4 with 11 saves and a 2.92 ERA.
In one stretch of working six consecutive games, Martinez pitched exactly nine innings and faced the minimum number of batters--27, striking out 13 as he allowed only one hit and one walk.
Martinez has worked the league's best hitters over with impertinence, seldom even bothering to waste a pitch. Martinez twists them up with a 90 mph fast ball. Then he finishes the job with a curve that an Oriole coach calls "the damnedest I've ever seen."
In addition, Martinez has an inexplicable "backup curve" that appears out of nowhere. Martinez doesn't know how he throws it or when it will materialize, saying only that, "When I work a lot and get tired, my curve ball sometimes decides to break the wrong way."
Says Coach Elrod Hendricks, "We all wish he could throw it on command, because it's unhittable. But he can't. He can't even explain it."
Yankee Graig Nettles calls this backup curve, sometimes accused--out of desperation--of being a spitter, "the only pitch I've ever seen break in two directions."
In his first couple of years with the Orioles, Martinez--quiet by nature--found it amusing that interviewers approached him with simplistic pidgin English questions, as though expecting a one-word answer or blank stare.
Often, Martinez would lead them along with answers so brief that interrogators left without suspecting Martinez probably spoke better English than they.
Mistaken identity and linguistic chauvinism aren't the only factors in Martinez's relative anonymity. Throughout his Oriole career, Martinez has been exactly one-half of an exceptional relief pitcher.
If, like famous bullpen monsters, he'd been used in 80 games a season, he would, in an average year, have worked 125 innings, struck out 100 bewildered men and had a record of 10-5 with 15 saves and a 3.21 ERA. Maybe he wouldn't have won any Cy Young Awards, but he'd have gotten several all-star rings.
Instead of working in 80 games a year--something that's always been part daydream and part nightmare for Martinez--the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder has averaged just 40 games a year.
On one hand, Martinez says, "If I'd pitched 80 games a year, I'd be in the hospital now." But, on the other, he admits, "I've always wanted to be used like Goose Gossage or Sparky Lyle for a year or two, just to find out . . . You look at other relievers and think you could be up there, too . . . I'd like to get a chance to make an all-star team just once. After that, tone it down. I just want to be recognized."
This year, more through circumstance than design, Martinez has gotten that chance. "This is how I've always wanted to be used. An inning, or two at most, almost every day. I think I could work 90 games that way," said Martinez.
The weird proof of Martinez's durability is that he's often been, by traditional standards, abused by Earl Weaver. The manager sometimes refers to him as "Poor Tippy . . . I get the guy up so often that I feel sorry for him."
This year alone, Martinez has warmed up 170 times. "I really don't mind, as long as when you warm up, you get in the game. But it gets to be kind of annoying when you get up five or six times a game and you don't get in."
So passive and cheerful is Martinez ("Tippy never questions why," says Hendricks) that he has accepted the No. 2 relief role behind both Don Stanhouse and Tim Stoddard during his Bird years.
"When Earl takes me out of a game after I get a couple of left-handed batters out, he'll say, 'Great work. I'm sorry I gotta do this,' " said Martinez. "Sometimes you have to do the horse work and somebody else gets more credit, which is fine. As long as the team wins, I'm for it . . . It's sort of a secret, but the Orioles pay me well . . . Maybe I could have gotten more with another team, but I like it here."
Only in the last month has Martinez been used with the deference due someone in a hot streak. Instead of entering a game during the middle of a rally, Martinez often is brought in now to start innings.
"I hope that continues," he said. "When I'm brought in with no leeway for a mistake, where one walk or hit and I'm out of the game, it's always in the back of my mind." Martinez's days as a workhorse superstar may already be numbered. Typically, he couldn't care less. When Stoddard had his first creditable outing in weeks on Monday, Martinez was delighted.
"It's great to see Tim back," he said. "I'm a little tired."
Two kinds of players in baseball are supposed to be a little cockeyed: left-handers and relievers. In particular, left-handed relievers are supposed to be completely off center. Martinez could be the exception.
"Tippy's the only left-handed reliever in baseball," said Ray Miller, "who wears his hat straight."