This wasn’t Dave Martinez’s idea of a good time.
But now the microphone was coming his way, and nearly 44,000 people and a national television audience were looking at him, and he had to think — fast — of what to tell them. He stalled by saying he didn’t have any words. His voice cracked with emotion, a familiar sound, and that’s when it hit him. That’s when his mother’s voice popped into his head.
“I’ll say this,” Martinez started. “Often bumpy roads lead to beautiful places.”
A packed ballpark approved with a booming cheer. Yet the fans couldn’t have known, in that moment, how hard Martinez tries to believe that. It wasn’t always easy, no matter how many times Lillian Martinez told her son that phrase and no matter how many times he told it to himself.
When he was a kid growing up in Manhattan, mimicking Roberto Clemente’s swing, melting hours into his father’s baseball cards, Martinez couldn’t process a mom’s wisdom. He is the child of Puerto Rican parents, learned Spanish from a doting grandmother and spent hours dreaming of Clemente and the major leagues. Then whenever he slumped in a 16-year career — and he did slump — Martinez thought he would never make contact again. He lost sleep over failure. He got lost in his head.
But when the Nationals sank to 19-31 in mid-May and their World Series odds were close to zero, Martinez was older. Wiser. Ready to treat cliche as fact.
He heard the calls for his job but never read the stories. He had a health scare in September and feared for his life but rejoined the club before doctors had cleared him. Ask the Nationals how they arrived in the thick of autumn, a title chance in hand, and there is a common thread: the 55-year-old Martinez never panicked when many managers would have.
Then they found a beautiful place.
Based on personal experience
Rewind to a month ago, to a calm afternoon in mid-September, when Martinez could walk through Washington’s Union Station without attracting a crowd. It was two days before his heart tightened in the Nationals Park dugout, leading to a rush to the hospital and a cardiac catheterization that revealed no further issues. It was weeks before the Nationals advanced to the World Series, and had another champagne celebration, and Martinez stepped right into history.
Here in the train station, amid the bustle of commuters and commerce, was just an autograph session in front of the D.C. Lottery store. Martinez wore glasses instead of contacts. The Nationals’ flight from Minnesota had landed at 5 a.m. He got only a few winks of sleep. His team had a slim lead in the wild-card race, with two teams closing, but Martinez wasn’t worried. There had been time for doubt. This wasn’t one of them.
“Yo, Davey, what’s up with next season?” a young fan asked while pressing a photo of Martinez to the table. “Y’all going to be all right?”
“Next season?” Martinez shot back, twisting his face, before using a black Sharpie to scribble his signature. “We have a game later, man! Then we’re going to the playoffs. But first, we have to go 1-0 against the Braves tonight.”
When the Nationals were at their worst, stumbling through spring, stuck in fourth place, that’s what Martinez had to say: We have to go 1-0 tomorrow. It could be maddening to hear, especially after tough losses, when it seemed like nothing was going to turn around. But he stuck to it. He looked into television cameras, his eyes narrowed, and he promised better results: “We’ll come back and go 1-0.” He sat in his office with General Manager Mike Rizzo and promised the same. If he walked through the clubhouse, a space he leaves to his veterans, it’s what the players heard.
Maybe he mixed in a few curse words. Maybe his temper spiked behind closed doors. There’s still a player in there somewhere, still a hypercompetitive drive, but Martinez doesn’t have a public face. His message doesn’t change when the audience shrinks. Tell his players that’s impossible, and they push back.
“He manages like you’d expect an experienced player to,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “When you’re hitting every day, pitching, whatever, you can’t let any one thing eat you up. You’ll go crazy. You’ll burn out. Davey lived that, and as a result, we have such a relaxed environment. That starts with him.”
“When you start to hear the rumblings about your manager getting fired, it’s hard to ignore,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “I don’t think it’s crazy to say that we played for Davey earlier this season. We played to keep him in this room.”
Martinez doesn’t like calling mandatory team meetings. He learned that from Bobby Cox, his final manager before he retired in 2002, and made it his approach. He held one in Milwaukee as the Nationals were swept by the Brewers in early May. He gave everyone a chance to say what they thought was wrong, one by one, and it became a model the team used moving forward. It helped the group come together when the year was spiraling downward in New York. Martinez only had to sit back and watch that gathering unfold.
He otherwise prefers private conversations if a player is struggling. When young guys aren’t hitting — such as rookie Carter Kieboom in April or Victor Robles as the year wore on — Martinez told them he hit .139 in his first season. He was just 21 then, a skinny outfielder for the Chicago Cubs, and so often let the game into his head.
He played for nine teams in 16 seasons, prided himself on his defense, was the sort of journeyman who makes a good coach. He remembers often sneaking away from the ballpark with a bat in his bag, declining dinner invitations from teammates, rushing back to his room for a night of work.
Travel wasn’t like it is now, wasn’t so luxurious, wasn’t always big hotel suites and a ton of space. But Martinez had a routine. He would ask the medical staff for a roll of tape — fibbing a minor injury — and used it to clump his socks into makeshift baseballs. Then he flipped his mattress against the wall, screwed the top off the hotel lamp and had himself a tee. He would take hundreds of light swings, tuning his timing, bouncing the socks off the mattress and all over the floor.
One time he was so frustrated that he took a full cut and shattered the base of the lamp into pieces. He called his father, Ernie, and asked what to do. The front desk didn’t believe that he was a frustrated ballplayer. They just told him not to worry, as if that were possible, and to get a little sleep.
“Everyone keeps asking me why I didn’t blow up on these guys, why I didn’t get upset, why I didn’t think about getting fired when a lot of people thought I should be,” Martinez said in late September. “That’s because I’ve lived this. I’ve lived it so many times.”
‘They cured my heart’
Then he was in the back of an ambulance Sept. 15, connected to all those machines, wondering whether he maybe cared too much.
A lot crossed his mind on the ride to the emergency room. He wondered whether stress caused the pain. He thought about his children, his family and and his desire not to let them all down. He thought about his team, in the guts of a pennant race, and how he hated to miss even one pitch. But for once, he had to think about himself. His heart was telling him to slow down. Doctors would instruct him to stay away from coffee and alcohol and maybe try to sit more during games. Yet when they told him not to fly, for at least a few more days, Martinez went to Miami anyway.
“These guys back here, they cured my heart,” Martinez said on the victory stand Tuesday night, nodding to his club after it swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series, not letting the crowd or cameras keep him from tearing up. “My heart feels great right now.”
He soon left the stage and walked onto a packed field. Reporters converged. He took pictures with fans and friends and people he had never met. And when he found a sliver of space, for the shortest of moments, Martinez drew a long breath and looked around. The fans weren’t leaving the stands. His players were hugging their wives, holding their kids, hoping against hope that the Nationals could win four more games. All they ever needed was a chance. He rubbed his graying beard and grinned.
This is what his mother was talking about all those years ago. This was why panicking never crossed his mind.