BALTIMORE -- The irony of this winter isn't lost on Dennis Martinez. Only 18 months ago, on June 16, 1986, he stuffed his belongings into a duffel bag, shook hands with old friends Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan and walked out of the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse for what appeared to be the last time.
That afternoon was the end a 13-year relationship that had seen him transformed from a scared skinny kid transplanted from Nicaragua to one of the best pitchers in the American League to a man who fought a public battle against alcoholism, to, finally, a nice guy who couldn't finish first any more.
Roll the tape forward 18 months, and Martinez, now with the Montreal Expos, has become one of baseball's most surprising success stories. First, from a pitcher without confidence or success, he has developed a wicked forkball that helped him go 11-4 in a 1987 season that was almost spectacular as its various layers were peeled away.
He won 11 times despite not signing with the Expos until early May and not getting back to the major leagues for a month after that. He ended up making 18 starts, and the Expos went 14-4 in those games, an indication he was keeping his team close even when he didn't get credit for the victory. Not only that, he went 4-0 against the New York Mets and twice beat them down the stretch to help keep the Expos in contention.
A few weeks after the season, he routinely declared for free agency, and because he was a noncompensation player, hoped a couple of teams might phone and help drive up his asking price. The response has been overwhelming. In a winter when the free-agent news might still be dominated by Dave Righetti, Jack Clark and Jack Morris, Martinez has been one of the hottest properties. Two weeks ago, he was ready to sign a one-year deal worth an estimated $500,000 with the Expos. But when his agent, Baltimore attorney Ron Shapiro, showed up at the winter meetings last week, he found so many teams ready to talk that the Montreal price no longer was right.
The Orioles, the team that let him go, wanted him. So did the Cleveland Indians and others. The interest has been enough that the Expos, fearing losing him, have put a new offer on the table, one believed to be worth as much as $1.3 million over two seasons. Martinez is expected to accept it this week.
"You don't appreciate something like this until you've hit bottom," Martinez said.
Eighteen months ago, he had.
"I never thought my career was over, but there were times when it made you wonder," he said. "I always had faith that I'd be back somewhere, somehow. But when I saw the velocity I had on the ball and the break on my breaking pitch, there was no reason for not having more success. Something was missing, but I didn't know what it was. The more I thought about it, the more I think that it was just a matter of not having confidence in myself. When I stopped drinking in 1983, I spent the next couple of years concentrating on not drinking. That was the No. 1 thing in my life. By the time I got traded, I had to start thinking about my pitching again."
His fall from grace had been stunningly swift. After leading the American League with 14 victories in the strike-shortened 1981 season, he followed up with a 16-12 season, and when the '83 season began, was the No. 1 starter on a team that eventually would win the World Series.
His trouble began that winter when he was arrested for drunken driving -- not the first time -- and entered Baltimore's Shepard-Pratt Hospital for treatment of alcoholism. He was in the center for seven weeks, and Shapiro said he went through all the classic stages: denial, hating the people close to him and, finally, acceptance.
When he came out, he was a changed man in many ways. For one thing, friends could hardly believe how much gentler he was. The license plate on his black Mercedes still read LATIGO -- Spanish for "whip" -- but the pitcher who got by with sliders on the outside corner and fastballs under the chin no longer existed. "I was starting over," he said.
He went 7-16 in 1983 and struggled through the next three seasons before then-manager Earl Weaver, his last supporter in the organization, said enough was enough. Martinez got into just four games in 1986, was hit hard in three of them and booed at Memorial Stadium.
A week before the trade, then-Orioles general manager Hank Peters called Martinez into his office, and in a long, emotional conversation, told him he'd be traded to some team that could afford to let him pitch regularly.
"He said Earl didn't want to pitch me any more," Martinez said matter-of-factly. "He said I needed to go some place I'd get a chance to pitch."
Peters said he phoned dozens of teams and told each one the same thing: This guy is still young (31 at the time), has a terrific arm and is nice to a fault. He said the Orioles were asking for almost nothing, and that they only wanted to move him some place he could start anew.
It wasn't an easy sell. After going 82-57 in his first six seasons, he had a 5.25 ERA in the seasons 1983-85 and looked for all the world like a guy no longer capable of pitching well. Further, general managers had to wonder why, if the pathetic Orioles were giving up on a guy, they should be interested.
Montreal gambled, offering utility infielder Rene Gonzales for Martinez.
For Martinez, it was a jump-start for a stalled career. At 32, he seems genuinely at peace with himself, happy that he so far has won the battle with alcoholism while, at the same time, learning to pitch again. He laughs now about the evening in 1985 when an Orioles coach advised him to resume drinking or give up baseball.
"You can't do both," the man told Martinez.
"Yes, I can," Martinez snapped.
He patiently explains to each interviewer the steps of his recovery and its current stage, the daily prayer and Bible sessions, the Alcoholics Anonymous counseling groups and the discipline required to spend nights on the road alone without reverting to drink.
He spent last weekend in Silver Spring at a Christianity retreat, rising at 6 a.m. and spending the day praying and "taking inventory of my spiritual life. It gave me a chance to realize how much everything has changed since I stopped drinking. Basically, drinking didn't allow me to grow or mature. I wasn't able to develop even as a pitcher. I had some success, but that was mainly because I was given the ability to throw hard. I really didn't do anything with it until I stopped drinking."
Success didn't come automatically in Montreal. After the trade, he went 3-6 with a 4.59 ERA for the remainder of the 1986 season, performances that resembled his Oriole days. The turning point came after he re-signed the following May and was sent to Class AAA Indianapolis to get in shape.
"I was hit hard my first two starts," he said, "and was so down that I called my wife and said, 'I'm coming home.' She left it up to me, and after we talked, I got on my knees and prayed."
He said the prayers told him he should keep trying, and between starts, the Expos' pitching coach had him work on a forkball he had experimented with for a couple of years. This time, he didn't abandon it, and it eventually was the pitch that offset what had once been a straight fastball-slider game.
"I also went back to being aggressive," he said. "That's what had gotten me to the big leagues, and it got me back."
Now, he said he hopes to pitch five more years, saying, "If I can stay healthy, I think it shouldn't be a problem. The way I feel about it, I'm a pitcher now, not a thrower. It doesn't take as much out of me."