But that changed when he sat for a pregame news conference Monday. The room was empty aside from a few laptops and a public relations staffer. His tired face flashed onto a Zoom call with reporters. Martinez, 55, who has spent more than three decades marching in baseball’s tight-lipped culture, was ready to show the emotional toll of playing through the novel coronavirus pandemic. And then he did.
“You know what? I’m just not going to hold it in anymore,” Martinez said Friday in an interview with The Washington Post. “This is different for everyone. This is scary for us, even if our job is to play a game. I feel like that’s something I have to say.”
Since his major league debut in 1986, Martinez has avoided attention as a player, bench coach and manager. He doesn’t like selling himself. He has always had his agent negotiate deals, then tell him where to move. When his job was on the line last May, once the Nationals sunk to 19-31, he neither pushed blame nor accepted it. He just kept saying the club would figure it out. Eventually, he was right.
Now, though, Martinez feels a bigger responsibility, one that goes beyond making lineups or bullpen moves. Going 1-0 every day, his favorite catchphrase, has a totally new meaning. He was asked 17 questions Monday, most centered on the pandemic and an outbreak of cases among Miami Marlins players and staff. By the time he was finished, his comments were splashed across social media and bound for network television.
When asked about the Nationals’ scheduled trip to Miami, he challenged MLB by saying he hoped it would make the right decision. He admitted that, given his recent heart issues, he is scared of what could happen if he contracted the virus. He fought tears while saying his players have families, that they’re human, that this is affecting them like everyone else.
He was honest and unguarded. Afterward, he felt relieved.
“This is weighing on me a lot,” Martinez said, speaking slowly and softly through the phone. “It’s not just the players or myself. That’s only the start of it. It’s my coaching staff, the clubbies, the PR staff, the beat writers, everyone’s families. A lot of people could be in danger if we’re not smart and safe. And even then, you really don’t know if that’s enough.”
Martinez is used to not sleeping well. In 2019, as the Nationals’ record cratered, he would stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. with the latest loss on replay. He would jot down observations on a notepad. He would list relievers for the next night’s game, then need a whole pot of coffee before it started.
His habits are similar this summer. He still re-watches games after midnight and joked that it’s nice to speed through the “boring parts.” But he is kept awake by a far different kind of stress.
“It used to just be about baseball," Martinez said. “Now I worry that I’ll wake up to a call that the whole team has the virus. The Marlins’ situation is what I am most afraid of as a manager. I think it’s what we’re all most afraid of."
Since late June, when MLB finalized a restart plan, Martinez has dealt with a number of virus-related issues. Opt-outs by Ryan Zimmerman, Joe Ross and Welington Castillo were a small beginning. The Nationals had to cancel an early workout because of a lag in test results; then they actively considered moving their home site because of the District’s strict quarantine rules; then star outfielder Juan Soto tested positive for the coronavirus on Opening Day; then, at the start of this week, the team voted against going to Miami for a series that was later postponed by MLB.
That’s why Martinez was at Nationals Park on Saturday, running a casual intrasquad scrimmage. Soto was back after a city-mandated 10 days of isolation. He doubled in one at-bat before homering in another. Martinez also tested a five-man infield to use with less than two outs and an opposing runner on third base.
The games go on for now. The Nationals’ next one is against the New York Mets and scheduled for Tuesday. For as long as each lasts, Martinez is able to escape reality. Martinez forgets that he hasn’t seen his parents in months. He can’t fret over his family, which stayed in Florida amid repeated spikes in cases. And his kids can’t fret over him, saving their texts — “Stay inside!” ... “Be careful dad” — for the other 21 hours of the day.
Yet it all rushes back once he returns to his office. Across the past year, he has occasionally caved to emotion in the moments after a win. There was last August in Chicago, when he choked up talking about how far the Nationals had come after a rough start. There was last September in Washington, when the Nationals finally clinched a playoff spot. And there was last October, once they reserved a spot in the World Series, when Martinez mentioned bumpy roads, beautiful places and how his players healed him after a heart attack scare.
In 2019, these were the footnotes of a title run. In 2020, a candid coach or athlete is viral news. Martinez says he never expected to be featured on “Good Morning America” or MSNBC as he was in the past week. But he also never expected to manage a season such as this one, and he is leaning into a duty to defend his players and speak out.
Someone has to, he figures, and the camera was pointed at him.
“It’s just what I’m feeling, and I want to express it instead of bottling it up,” Martinez said. “I know that’s different for me, but right now nothing is the same.”
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