By IAN WILSON
Constantino, the Consistent Cannon.
Terrific Tino … the Magnificent Martinez … the Florida Phenom.
Okay, we’ll work on that handle.
Whatever you want to call him, Constantino “Tino” Martinez was a star for the Calgary Cannons like no other.
Unlike mega-talent Ken Griffey Jr., who was earmarked for Triple-A play in the Stampede City but only showed up for a brief exhibition appearance before blossoming in Major League Baseball (MLB), Martinez reported to the Cannons and stayed much longer than expected.
In contrast to that other Martinez, Edgar, who arrived in Cowtown as a defensively sound third baseman and showed few obvious signs that he was on a path to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Tino was impressive from the start and left no doubt that he would excel in the big leagues.
Off the field, Tino’s character stood in opposition to Danny Tartabull, a former standout with the the Cannons who later ran into trouble with the law.
Tino was, as they say, the complete package and the media coverage of his time in Calgary reflected what baseball fans saw in the can’t-miss prospect.
Before he even set foot in Alberta, Martinez had made a name for himself. His two homers in the final game of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea helped secure a gold medal for the United States. That year he was also a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the best amateur baseball player, and the Seattle Mariners liked him enough to select him in the first round of the MLB Draft with the 14th overall pick.
Martinez skipped past the Single-A level, making his professional debut at Double-A in the Eastern League. With the Williamsport Bills he produced 13 long balls, 29 doubles and 64 runs batted in (RBI) in 137 games.
Calgary Herald reporter Daryl Slade described the first baseman as “destined to be a solid, if not a star major-league player in the near future” in a March 1990 edition of the newspaper.
“I’m confident I can do it,” Martinez admitted to Slade of his MLB ambitions.
“But I’ve got to win the job in Calgary first, then have a solid consistent year – more consistent than last year. No good month, then bad month, then good month. Consistent.”
Added Martinez: “I want to make it to the big leagues, for sure … everybody has his own timetable. Griffey was just one of those phenoms with super talent who made it very young. One of my goals is to be there (Seattle) in September. I know I could go to Calgary and hit 25 homers and bat .300 and still not make it to the big leagues. I can’t control when I get to Seattle, but I’ll get my chance.”
Tommy Jones, the manager of the Cannons, also saw unlimited upside in the infielder he was about to inherit.
“He’s a tremendous player who will play in the major leagues within the next year or year-and-a-half. He will be an impact player with us. Last year, he went right to Double-A out of college and there was some adjustment. He needs a full season in Triple-A and anything less won’t be conducive to his development. There’s no need to rush him with Alvin Davis and Pete O’Brien in Seattle,” explained Jones to the Herald.
“He’s just one of those pure hitters and his defence is above average … offensively and defensively, he has very strong baseball instincts.”
HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE
It didn’t take long for Martinez to introduce himself to the Foothills Stadium faithful.
After Calgary Mayor Al Duerr threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the home opener, a record crowd of 7,086 fans watched their buzzworthy batter go to work on April 19th, 1990. Martinez launched a double off the centre-field wall in the eighth inning that turned the tide and delivered two clutch RBI in the 6-4 victory over the Las Vegas Stars. He also scored the insurance run on a sacrifice fly.
As the calendar flipped to May, the 22-year-old continued to impress.
When the Cannons traveled to Tacoma to square off against the Tigers, Seattle farm director Jim Beattie checked in on the Mariner first rounder.
“He is so professional, a lesson for older guys to watch what it takes to play in the big leagues,” Beattie told the Herald.
“You need a lot of extra work and he puts in the time. He’s just a steady ball player and he’ll have a good big-league career.”
By June, the Tampa, Florida native was mainly satisfied with his play but remained focused on maintaining the consistency that eluded him at Double-A.
“I’m pretty pleased with the way this year has gone. I try to stay on an even keel, the same mentality, even if I go 0-for-3 and strike out three times … instead of thinking bad things, you think you’ve got another chance and another four at-bats to get it together. If you don’t, that’s how slumps can begin – in your head,” Martinez told Slade.
“I’m not a natural athlete … I’ve always been a good hitter but I’ve got to work hard to stay on top of my game. There are millions of kids out there who would love to have my job.”
With 52 games of his Pacific Coast League (PCL) tenure in the books, Martinez was near the top of most of the club’s offensive categories.
He was feeling more confident and relaxed than he had in Williamsport the previous season, and his manager was finding new aspects of his game to praise.
“He’s the best first baseman I’ve ever seen taking ground balls in the dirt from other players. He’s been simply outstanding and brings a great attitude to the ballpark every day,” noted Jones.
When Cannons games were broadcast on television to a local audience, Martinez seemed to elevate his game even more, prompting reporters to dub him “TV Tino.”
During an April 21st telecast, Martinez went 5-for-5 in a 12-8 win over Las Vegas. He followed that up with a 4-for-4 outing, which included a three-run blast, during a 10-4 romp over the Colorado Springs Sky Sox that was broadcast from Foothills Stadium on CFCN on June 16th.
An Aug. 19th article by Helen Dolik in the Herald Sunday Magazine appeared under the headline “Bound for Glory” and wondered if the left-handed hitter was “too good to be true” for Calgary baseball fans.
“He’s mom and apple pie wrapped up in a Cannons uniform and he’s one of the best major-league baseball prospects to hit this city. Some will argue that he is the best,” wrote Dolik.
“On the field, Martinez owns the sweet swing. Controlled intensity is his trademark. The word ‘slump’ does not exist in his vocabulary and he’s never gone more than two days without a hit. Throw the ball in the same area code as first base and Martinez will catch it. He doesn’t mouth off, throw his bat or showboat …. There are no discipline problems with Martinez. He’s never late, works out religiously to hone his six-foot-two, 200-pound body and even takes the LRT (light-rail transit) to the ballpark from his downtown apartment.”
The only knock on Martinez was that he lacked speed on the base paths and that he once forgot about a promotional shoot for a TV ad. Fittingly, he was at the gym instead.
U.S. Olympic coach Mark Marquess, who was interviewed for the article, went even further in his admiration of Martinez.
“You have your favourites and he was one of my favourites – not only because of baseball but because of the type of person he was,” observed Marquess.
“It’s that all-American image. You think it can’t be true – nobody’s that good. But it is legitimate. What you see is what you get. Unfortunately today, that’s not always the case. If I had a son, I hope he would turn out like Tino.”
GETTING THE CALL
Shortly after that piece appeared in the Herald, Martinez got the call he had been waiting for, although he couldn’t quite believe it. Convinced roommates Todd Haney and Casey Close were pranking him when they said that Beattie had been calling, Martinez brushed off the initial news of a callup to the Mariners. He arrived back at his apartment around 1 a.m. on Aug. 20th.
“They told me when I got in; and I said, ‘Yeah, sure,'” Martinez recounted to reporters.
“It would be like them to try a trick like that. I actually sat down to watch TV before they convinced me to call Beattie.”
But it was no joke and Martinez didn’t go to sleep because he didn’t want to miss his morning flight to Texas for the matchup between the Rangers and the Mariners. He called his mother in Tampa at 3:30 a.m. and she and eight other family members made the trek to Arlington Stadium in time for the occasion.
“It’s been a long day,” said Martinez.
“But this is great. This is the day I first dreamed about when I was a senior in high school, and have looked forward to since then. But it’s met all my expectations.”
Injuries to O’Brien and third baseman Edgar Martinez provided him with an early opportunity and he took full advantage, going 2-for-4 with a run scored in his MLB debut, a 6-5 loss to the Rangers.
O’Brien was gracious in welcoming his potential replacement to the fold with open arms.
“His coming was inevitable – he proved that he could handle Triple-A and earned a chance to play here,” said O’Brien, who later moved to the outfield to make room for Martinez at first base.
“Whatever comes of all this, I think it will be positive for all of us. I wish him all the best. I hope he gets off on the right foot, because there’s nothing like a little success to get you going.”
Martinez got into 24 games for the Mariners that season and his stats with the Cannons indicated plenty of success.
In his 128 PCL games, primarily as the third batter in the Calgary lineup, he finished second in the league in total bases, with 226, and RBI, with 93. Martinez led the Cannons in hits (145), runs (83), on-base percentage (.413), and home runs (17). As a result of his performance, he was named a PCL All-Star, the Most Valuable Player (MVP) on the Cannons, and USA Today declared him the Minor League Baseball Player of the Year.
“I didn’t go out to win an MVP award, but I had a good season … this is something I’ll always remember. I’ll look back at it as a feather in my hat,” Martinez told the Herald.
“The reason I won was mostly because of the people around me. Todd Haney was always getting on base ahead of me and Tom Dodd was right behind me, driving everybody in. They couldn’t pitch around me.”
It seemed as though Martinez had little left to prove at the Triple-A level.
WHERE TO NEXT?
Despite his incredible play with the Cannons, the Mariners still had O’Brien and Davis under contract. Similar to Edgar Martinez, who was blocked at third base for years by Jim Presley, Tino would have to force his way into the Seattle lineup.
In the off-season, rumours of a trade between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Seattle Mariners surfaced. The M’s reportedly had their eye on outfielder Bobby Bonilla, but he was seeking a hefty $20-million contract and the package that Larry Doughty – general manager of the Pirates – wanted in return included Tino Martinez, Greg Briley and Jay Buhner. The trade never happened and Bonilla signed a five-year deal with the New York Mets after the season.
Martinez reported to Spring Training in 1991 aiming to wrest first base duties for the Mariners from the veteran O’Brien.
“Tino came into camp ready to compete against O’Brien and Pete had a better camp. Pete is also a flawless defensive first baseman, the top of his class. But Tino’s a quality player and we think he’s gonna play in the big leagues, just not right at present. That may change in a week and it’s nice to know we have that kind of player down on the farm,” Seattle manager Jim Lefebvre told Slade.
So it was back to Calgary for Martinez. Once again, he found a way to get better.
His second year with the Cannons included an 18-game hitting streak and improvements in most offensive categories. Through 122 games, Martinez finished tops on the team in runs (94), hits (144), doubles (34), homers (18), RBI (86), walks (82), and total bases (242).
As a result, the Mariners found a way to get him into more MLB games. He suited up in 36 contests for Seattle and collected the first four round trippers of his big-league career.
More accolades followed, as well. Martinez was named a PCL All-Star and Calgary’s MVP for a second-straight year, but this time he added league MVP honours to his trophy case.
Keith Bodie, the manager of the Cannons from 1991 to 1993, expected a lengthy stay in the majors for Martinez.
“He’s made steady improvements ever since he’s been here,” Bodie said in Sports Pics magazine in the first issue of the publication, which was released in September of 1991.
“He doesn’t have any weaknesses. All he lacks is experience. Tino has a very bright future at the major-league level.”
Martinez, the son of a cigar factory manager, remained patient and laser-focused on the path ahead.
“My time will come … I’d say I’m ready right now. All I need is a shot,” he told Sports Pics.
“I always wanted to be a baseball player and my dad taught me to work for it. That’s what helped me become a good hitter, and I work hard at being an all-around player.”
Added Martinez: “I studied the great hitters like George Brett and Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs. I tried to pick up a few things that they did that I could use and feel comfortable with.”
This time, there would be no coming back. Martinez had played the last of his games in the minor leagues and the rest of his 16-year MLB career awaited, most of it with the Mariners and the New York Yankees.
It was a superb playing career that included more than 2,000 games played, 339 homers, 1,271 RBI, four World Series titles with the Yankees, a Silver Slugger Award and a Home Run Derby title.
After he hung up his cleats, Martinez went into coaching and broadcasting. More recently, he has worked in commercial real estate in the Tampa area.
Call him consistent, call him terrific, call him magnificent … or you can just call him Tino.