Before Jose Lobaton headed to the on-deck circle in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 2013 American League Division Series, then-Tampa Bay Rays bench coach Dave Martinez made a suggestion.
Boston Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara had been throwing a lot of splitters, Martinez noted. Move up in the box a bit. Maybe catch one early.
Lobaton swung and missed at the first pitch, a splitter down and away. Then he moved up in the box as Martinez had recommended. Uehara threw him another splitter, down and away. Lobaton golfed it out to right-center field for a walk-off homer.
“[Martinez] knows a lot of intelligent things about the game learning from Joe [Maddon],” Lobaton said of Martinez’s years at the side of the current Chicago Cubs manager. “… He tells you everything directly. He tells you the things he needs to tell you. He’s really good with that.”
Lobaton, who has spent the past four years in Washington, will be a free agent when the World Series ends this week. He might never play for Martinez, who was officially named Nationals manager Monday, and will be introduced at a news conference Thursday.
But that story, of baseball advice communicated clearly, and of players trusting enough to accept it, illustrates the prevailing industry opinion of Martinez: He is a smart baseball man and good communicator, a guy many thought had what it takes to be a manager who is finally getting the chance to prove it.
People in front offices and dugouts around the league know the names. Any of them can rattle off an unwritten list of coaches everyone thinks will make good managers someday, and usually they find consensus. Dave Roberts was always on that list before landing with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2015. So was Alex Cora, who agreed to manage the Red Sox earlier this month. Martinez’s name has been on that list for years, too.
Earning a spot normally requires some combination of exposure, longtime connections with well-established managers, and harder-to-pin-down personality traits — the know-it-when-you-see-it things that can be hard to articulate, even for those who experience them regularly.
“Players have a feel for the people they work with and their coaches and their managers. In all of my experiences, players have reacted very favorably with Davey,” said former Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, who was with the Rays when Martinez joined the organization as a spring training instructor in 2006, then as bench coach in 2007.
“He lets the players play, which I think they appreciate. If there is reason to say something, he’s certainly not afraid to say it, but he also lets the players play. That’s a real fine line that every coach and every staff member — especially the manager — straddles, and I think he’s very good at it.”
Martinez played 16 major league seasons for nine teams, accumulating 1,599 hits while batting .276. He played in the postseason one time, in 2001 with the Atlanta Braves in the final year of his career. The 53-year-old has since been a part of two pennant-winning coaching staffs and a World Series-winning coaching staff, experiencing 66 playoff games overall in the dugout.
He also endured scandal. In Jose Canseco’s 2005 book, “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits and How Baseball Got Big,” the baseball firebrand wrote he injected Martinez with steroids when the two were teammates in Tampa Bay. Martinez admitted to the Tampa Bay Times that he listened to Canseco’s offer, but told the Times, “I didn’t use steroids. The guy approached me with them, I took a look at them, but, from the bottom of my heart, I couldn’t use it.” Despite Canseco’s accusation, which occurred after Martinez’s playing career had concluded, Martinez was not named in the Mitchell Report nor was the subject of any MLB discipline.
He joined the Rays spring training staff in 2006. Before the 2008 season, he was hired as Maddon’s bench coach. That season, the Rays marched to the American League pennant. Through this fall, Martinez learned under Maddon. People close to him — such as longtime Rays bench coach Tom Foley, who drove Martinez to and from the park every day of their Tampa Bay tenure — say Maddon’s approach to the baseball grind probably rubbed off.
“I’ve been with four managers here in Tampa — with Joe it was just his positiveness. From day one it was, we can play with these guys, we can beat these guys, we’re as good as they are. And we were losing 98 games or losing 100 games,” Foley said. “… Davey’s a positive guy. He’s going to look on the positive side, and I think his one thing is communication, and I think he can do that with anybody.”
Foley said he expects Martinez to have two rules as manager, and probably not many more. Be on time. Run balls out. Nothing that should ruffle the feathers of an experienced clubhouse like that of the Nationals.
A sense of baseball right and wrong, combined with the people skills to communicate it, were hallmarks of Dusty Baker’s managerial style. He handled personalities, knew players better than they sometimes knew themselves, and made sure days off and playing time questions were answered before they arose. Multiple people who have worked with him believe Martinez should have the communication skills to do the same, if not the requisite experience.
But besides experience, the difference between Martinez and Baker seems likely to be a heightened reliance on analytics. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo pointed that out in his statement about the hiring.
“As we went through this process it became clear the type of manager we were looking for,” Rizzo said in the release. “Someone who is progressive, someone who can connect with and communicate well with our players, and someone who embraces the analytical side of the game.”
Exactly how much emphasis Martinez will put on analytics, on new-school numbers rather than old-school traditions, remains to be seen. But his mentor, Maddon, is considered a forward thinker, a man not beholden to tradition for its own sake.
“Joe has treated him as an assistant manager. So he has the same sheet, the same information that Joe has every game. And they think alike,” said longtime friend Buck Martinez, now a Blue Jays television announcer. “So you’re going to see a lot of Joe Maddon traits in his managing, I would think. He communicates very well, and obviously working for Maddon, he embraces the analytics.”
Lobaton said he was surprised it took Martinez this long to earn a managerial position. For years, he interviewed for jobs like these. For years, teams — including the Nationals — went another direction. Maddon’s protege will now get his chance, one earned with communication and baseball acumen that has paid off in October before — and that the Nationals hope will pay off again.
Jorge Castillo and Dave Sheinin in Houston contributed to this report.
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