Martinez has struggled with this — internally, more than anything — because he had never connected the game with delivering a public message twice a day. The Washington Nationals manager would rather show you than tell you how he’s feeling, what he thinks, why you should believe in him.
“I’ve never been one to sell myself,” Martinez said during spring training, his feet up on his desk, his life a bit easier then and his job much more secure. “Ever since I was a player, I didn’t speak up much, didn’t raise my hand for things, didn’t feel like I had to because I would just put in the work. That’s how I talked.”
He paused for a moment, his eyes softer and narrowing, and waved a hand through the space between him and a reporter.
“So this,” he said, “this part can be hard for me.”
Right now, close to eight weeks into his second season as the Nationals’ manager, Martinez is the face of a team that cannot win. The Nationals, built with nearly $200 million and championship ambition, were 19-31 after being swept by the New York Mets in four games this week. Martinez is at risk of being fired, the calls for his removal louder than ever, if ownership decides it is time. That could be any day now, with his decision-making and inexperience contributing to the team’s issues. Or it could be delayed by a win, or two, or, if Washington does something it has yet to this season, a streak of three.
And it all leads Martinez in front of cameras and notepads — once in the afternoon, again after every game — to convince fans, his team, his bosses, maybe even himself, that this will change. He is, fair or not, a direct reflection of these Nationals and their results. Saying they will improve is promising that he will improve, too. Saying they can succeed is saying they can succeed with him in the dugout. Saying it’s early, still just the twilight of May, is asking for everyone to give him and his club a chance.
Martinez may not like selling himself. He may even hate it. But he’s having to do it more than ever — at least for as long as he can.
“It’s a challenge,” Martinez said Tuesday in the manager’s office at Citi Field. “But speaking with the media and letting people know what’s going on here is a very important part of my job. And I’m learning with it all the time.”
Growing up, Martinez watched his father, Ernie, leave for long trips as a truck driver without complaining about being tired or convincing anyone he was working hard. He just did it, quietly, day after day, and his son took note before retreating to the attic to pick through old baseball cards.
And when Martinez became a player himself, he carried his father’s unspoken lessons onto the field. He hardly ever talked to general managers or owners while shuttling between nine teams across 16 seasons. He let his agent do that and took care of what he could: be a reliable utility outfielder, scrap at the plate, turn up his defense if his bat was cool.
The rest, to him, was just noise. He even tried to drift away once he retired, watching his sons and daughter grow up and living a normal life not timed to the next first pitch. But he was roped back in by Joe Maddon with the Tampa Bay Rays, first as a spring training instructor and then as a bench coach. He never asked for that, and when his name was floated for manager openings in the coming years, he rarely jumped at those, either.
“Maybe the way I am cost me some opportunities in the past,” Martinez said while lounging behind his spring training desk in mid-March. “I didn’t want to put my name out there. I don’t know if I was afraid necessarily, I was just comfortable with where I was. But it got me here, where I want to be.”
Here is with the Nationals, who hired him in October 2017 and have been chasing expectations ever since. They went 82-80 in Martinez’s first season, a marked disappointment, and retooled to compete this year. They haven’t — they entered Friday 10 games in back of the first-place Philadelphia Phillies — so each passing news conference feels like a plea for time.
The Nationals’ major league-worst bullpen entered Friday with a historically bad 7.02 ERA, handcuffing the team and Martinez’s ability to manage it. On Thursday, after it blew another game, Martinez insisted he has the relievers to succeed. On Wednesday, when all-star Sean Doolittle pitched Washington to a loss, Martinez expressed shock through a gravelly voice. And on Tuesday, when his late-inning decisions were heavily critiqued, Martinez tapped his knuckles on his wooden desk before saying: “It’s frustrating. It really is. The guys are battling. But we’ve got to finish games.”
He is not a smooth public speaker. His words are often put through a shredder on social media and thrown back at him. His unshakable positivity — the boys battled, today is a chance to go 1-0 — can appear delusional when Washington is buried in misery and mistakes.
“But we appreciate it that way,” Nationals right fielder Adam Eaton said. “He has to do that every day, when you guys want answers and there are none. Anyone would feel uncomfortable doing that. It’s why I’d never be a manager. It can be a really tough spot to be in.”
Now there’s the lingering question of how much longer Martinez will occupy it. The answer, this time, is well out of his hands. And in some ways this is how he always wanted it, the effort and scoreboard doing the selling, the rest falling into place.