In August 1996, Dave Martinez was an everyday outfielder for the Chicago White Sox hitting .318, hardly a dispensable asset. But that didn’t keep the 5-foot-10, 160-pound Martinez from tangling with the team’s biggest star — both in stature and notoriety.
Late in a weekday matinee at Yankee Stadium, Frank Thomas stormed off the field and into the dugout, hollering about whatever injustice that was threatening to get him ejected. Thomas, elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, was always yelling about something. This time, third baseman Robin Ventura couldn’t take it.
Fists formed. A confrontation brewed. Then, legend has it, in charged Martinez.
“Next thing you know, [Thomas] snapped at me,” Martinez said of the man known as “The Big Hurt.” “I was like, ‘Nope. Uh uh.’ We both went to the ground.”
Accounts of the outcome vary, but most include Martinez subduing all 6-feet-5, 240 pounds of Thomas in time to spare Ventura.
The peacemaker that afternoon is now the Washington Nationals’ rookie manager, and he opens his first spring training with his new club next week in West Palm Beach, Fla. When asked who the Nationals should expect, the answers from those who know him best are so repetitive they seem rehearsed. They’re also well illustrated by that mismatch with Thomas.
“Don’t let that friendly exterior fool you,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “He’s no choir boy.”
Those who played with him and those who watched him coach at Joe Maddon’s side for the past decade describe Martinez as a genuinely friendly guy with a magnetic personality — and an undeniable edge. They said Martinez is fearless, not just in the sense that he backs down from no one, but also in his willingness to stand up to those close to him.
“Dave Martinez was always, always, trying to be in the middle just for the good of the team,” said Ozzie Guillen, a former manager who is now an ESPN Deportes analyst. “He’s a tough guy. He’ll fight anybody. On the other hand, he would invite everyone to his party. That’s the kind of guy he is.”
Martinez became Maddon’s most trusted dugout adviser — and one of the most talked-about managerial prospects in the game — over seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays and three with the Chicago Cubs because of a unique ability to relate to players. After all, telling opponents they are wrong is one thing. Delivering tough messages to teammates — or, as a coach, to one’s own, potentially high-profile players — is another.
“The thing I’ve always liked about [Martinez] is he’s never been afraid to have difficult conversations,” said Maddon, the Cubs manager. “It doesn’t mean yelling or screaming. It just means being straight up with guys. . . . He’s not worried about hurting somebody’s feelings or saying the wrong thing. He’s just attempting to do the right thing and make sure it works.”
A partnership spanning decades
As a manager, Martinez is an unknown commodity. At 53, he has never managed in the minors. He has never managed at all.
Maddon had his eye on Martinez for two decades before their partnership began. He first chased him down in 1983 when Martinez was playing in instructional league. Martinez was 19, and his play spoke louder than he did.
He was fresh off an uncomfortable stint in Puerto Rican winter ball. Though born to Puerto Rican parents in Brooklyn, Martinez didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, other than occasionally with his grandmother. When he was 12, his father sent him to live with an uncle in Florida so he could play baseball year round, but he never quite picked up the language. This was a surprise to Cubs staff when he arrived at winter league. The veterans never let him live it down.
“I like the way you play,” Martinez said he remembers Maddon saying. He all but shrugged it off, not thinking much of the compliment.
Almost 25 years later, a half-decade after Martinez’s playing career had ended, Maddon asked him to be a guest instructor at Rays spring training in 2006. Andrew Friedman, the team’s GM at the time, noticed Martinez’s impact immediately.
“Because he’s able to create a strong relationship, it also allows him to be able to have tough conversations with players. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around at being able to do that,” Friedman said. “Guys appreciate and know that he’s coming down on them with the best of intentions.”
Within two years, Martinez was the Rays’ full-time bench coach, by which time he spoke Spanish fluently — though not perfectly. He asked Latino players to speak to him in English while he spoke to them in Spanish, to help both of their language skills.
While most credit Maddon with the quirky clubhouse traditions his teams are known for, Maddon credits Martinez. As the empathy and fearless authenticity Martinez showed as a player began to emerge in his coaching, Maddon decided to “let him loose.” Martinez introduced a postgame disco ball to the Rays’ clubhouse, one he and Maddon later transferred to the Cubs. He brought in some sort of neon sign — Maddon couldn’t recall which — that Martinez would allow the team to light up after wins. First baseman James Loney would play his saxophone in an impromptu band Martinez facilitated. As usual, he was undaunted by cacophony.
Little rattles Martinez. When the Cubs trailed the Cleveland Indians in Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, on the brink of watching a dominant season disintegrate at the most painful moment, Martinez turned to those near him in the dugout and wondered aloud, “When was the last time we lost three straight games?”
The question reminded many Cubs players that they were built to overcome adversity. They held on to win that game, and then two more, to claim the franchise’s first World Series since 1908.
Given Martinez’s reputation as a force for clubhouse cohesion, speculation about his future began swirling as early as five years ago. That he would get a major league managerial job felt like a foregone conclusion. But time after time, interview after interview, Martinez saw others land jobs he thought were going to him. Even Friedman, his former general manager, hired a different rookie manager, Dave Roberts, when the Los Angeles Dodgers needed new blood.
“Every team is different, every team is a little unique in how they go about the process. It can change, even from year to year,” Friedman said. “For Davey, I think it was more bad luck than anything, just in the timing aspect.”
Then, in October, the Nationals parted ways with Dusty Baker. Then came the phone call and a trip to Washington. Then came congratulations from all corners of the game — including a tweet from former teammate Wade Boggs, whom Martinez hadn’t talked to in some time, that nearly broke the news of his hiring.
“I knew it was going to happen,” Friedman said of Martinez eventually getting his shot. “He certainly deserves it, and more importantly, I think he’s going to be really good at it.”
Martinez’s clubhouse toughness and touch finally yielded him a manager’s job.
“And,” Maddon added, “it all began with one disco ball in Tampa Bay.”
Out of Maddon’s shadow
“So he’s Dave now in Washington?” Maddon asked, when reached to chat about the man who stood next to him in the dugout for 10 seasons. From Rizzo to Maddon to people around the game, everyone seems to lean more toward “Davey.” Martinez said he doesn’t mind either. Like everything with Martinez and the Nationals, they’ll have to feel things out.
Whatever his players will call him, Martinez inherits an opinionated and veteran Nationals clubhouse eager to finally break through. That clubhouse now lacks its gatekeeper, Jayson Werth, who is almost certain to play elsewhere this season (he remains unsigned). It still includes discerning stars such as Max Scherzer and of course, Bryce Harper, who is said to love the Martinez hire.
But the question will linger until Martinez answers it: What is he without Maddon?
For starters, he likes to drink a glass of wine after a game, bike to the park when possible, try new foods, and dress well. He has four children, one of whom is named Jagger — not after Mick, but after a soap opera star. His youngest, a daughter, is in college. His eldest is 29. Martinez wears glasses, but not too often in public if he can help it. Glasses are Maddon’s trademark.
As for Martinez the manager, no one knows quite what the Nationals are getting. Guillen’s best guess is that Martinez is something of a Rizzo-like hybrid, an “old school baseball man” open to new-school analytic tricks, if not defined by them. He is no analytics expert, but he wants to hear from those who are, which is one reason the Nationals hired him.
Martinez is not a smooth-talker, not a natural in situations that require it, and according to people familiar with his interviews over the years, he wasn’t always willing to assert his own contributions, not wanting to take away from Maddon. When the Nationals interviewed him for their managerial vacancy in 2013, Rizzo heard more about what “we” — Martinez and Maddon — were doing than what Martinez himself might do. Rizzo and ownership, the Lerner family, decided on Matt Williams instead.
But when Rizzo called Martinez in the days after Baker’s departure, he sensed something had changed.
He brought Martinez to dinner with the Lerners. They didn’t interview for long. Even Martinez’s sons, David and Dalton, said they could tell something was different this time. A day or so later, Rizzo made the call.
“I thought, ‘Hallelujah,’ ” Martinez said. “. . . I really felt it was time.”
The difference, Rizzo said later, was that Martinez seems to know exactly who he is now. This time, he seemed more confident in what he had achieved, more willing to talk about the contributions he made to the Cubs’ dynamic — less deferential, more willing to stand up for himself.
“Eventually, you find your voice. You become more certain of what you say and how you say it,” Maddon said. “And when you do that, obviously, whoever you’re talking to says, ‘Hey, this guy is really forceful and believes what he’s saying, and I kind of believe what he’s saying, too.’ ”
Martinez promises the same quirky clubhouse, the same breakfast-on-the-field kinship he honed with the Cubs. He vows the same energy and positivity that drew players to him, and the same straightforwardness that earned their respect. But he also promises to do things his way.
“When they ask me what are you going to do different, I’m going to spend a lot more time communicating,” Martinez said. “Joe gets a lot of messages across through the media. Whereas, I’ll get my messages across by actually having one-on-one conversations.”
When he visited Nationals Park for the first time as manager, clubhouse staff showed him to his office and asked what he wanted it to look like. In that moment, his new reality hit. He didn’t know what to say. Finally, he told them he only needed a chair or two.
“I won’t be in here very much,” Martinez said. “I’m going to be out and about. I can’t sit still. I love being around the guys, and I don’t see myself ever changing.”
While those in the Nationals organization and around the game are waiting to see who exactly Martinez the manager will be, the man himself has learned to trust who he has always been. Even if that means jumping into the middle of things.