Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 32: Catching Up With Dennis Martinez

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the greats who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 32 days

In the early 1990’s, the young and talented Cleveland Indians ball club was on the brink of something special. All that they needed after their 1993 season was a couple of veteran leaders to bring all of the pieces of the puzzle together.

“We had said all along that we were going to try to develop our core players and when we felt like we had a chance to contend, we would try to trade for or sign a couple big time free agents that would help us to get over the top and contend,” Indians manager Mike Hargrove said. “We did that when we signed Dennis Martinez and Eddie Murray.”

Both well-respected veterans, the starting pitcher Martinez and the first baseman Murray signed contracts together on December 2, 1993, which would turn out to be one of the most important dates in assembling the 90’s Indians juggernaut. Heading into a new ballpark, Murray was signed to serve primarily as a designated hitter and to provide leadership to the Tribe’s young hitting stars, but Martinez was looked upon to produce in what had been an area of weakness…and signing in Cleveland became an easy choice when he scanned the roster.

“I knew what kind of offensive team the Indians had,” Martinez said. “I got convinced by John Hart, the general manager then. They were looking for a starting pitcher; someone who could go deep into the game. They were scoring a lot of runs. And being a pitcher of that caliber, I knew I was able to do that. I was looking for a strong offensive team. As a starting pitcher, you’re always looking for that support when you can. So I thought that that was the right place for me. I felt that that was the right environment for me to be, especially in that ballpark. It was amazing then, because it was the beginning of that ballpark, Jacobs Field, and that really intrigued me.”

Martinez and Murray were former teammates, having played together with the Baltimore Orioles from 1977-86. The tandem even teamed up for a World Series Championship over a decade earlier, as the O’s defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in five games for the 1983 title. The two veterans signing with Cleveland on the same day did not just happen to be a coincidence.

“We kind of hinted at it at one point, we talked about it,” Martinez said. “We saw the talent that was here. All they needed was leadership. I guess Eddie Murray was one of the best guys that could take over this team, and he did. He took them under his wing, guys like Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton. I kind of went to the pitching staff too and said alright boys, let’s go, we’re going to do it.  I cannot do it by myself, we are going to do it as a team. Mike Hargrove made us really feel like a tribe, like we had one purpose and it was to bring the trophy back here.”

Hargrove knew he was getting a pitcher who didn’t just throw; he got a leader who pitched with a purpose as well.

“Dennis Martinez would never give in to any hitter,” Hargrove said. “I think that sometimes young pitchers are so afraid of walking hitters that they’ll eventually give in and throw a strike out over the middle of the plate. Those balls get hit really hard and Dennis didn’t ever do that. Dennis never wanted (catcher Sandy Alomar) setting up on the plate; he had him setting up three to four inches off of the plate. Dennis would try to hit that (target) and as a hitter, you’re probably going to swing at it and you’re not going to hit it very hard. Dennis was very good at that.”

The 40-year old Martinez, who wore #32 on his back for the final 13 seasons of his 23 year career,  was impressive enough to allow Hargrove to name him his Opening Day starter for the first game in Jacobs Field history. Martinez earned a no-decision that day, but still worked an impressive seven innings allowing just two runs on three hits.

“It was a great honor. Of course, it was against Randy Johnson,” Martinez said with a smile. “It seemed like everything that happened over those three years involved Seattle and the Indians. We were fortunate that we came through. Just to be here, in the origin of this ballpark, throwing the first pitch and feeling the admiration that I had from the fans.”

Martinez was an easy ballplayer for the Cleveland fans to admire, coming in as one of the more respected and well-known names in baseball. Just three seasons prior to signing with the Indians, Martinez accomplished one of the rarest feats that a pitcher can dream of achieving. 

“That was a great achievement,” Martinez said of his perfect game on July 28, 1991. “I was one of those lucky guys that was able to throw a game of that caliber. It only happens once-in-a-lifetime and I am really blessed to be one of them.”

At the time of his perfecto, Martinez was a member of the Montreal Expos. He was in the middle of an All-Star season (his second of four total) and was unquestionably one of the best pitchers in the game of baseball. His special day came at Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine, as Martinez became just the 13th pitcher in history to hurl a perfect game.

“It was a special day,” Martinez remembers. “All my pitches were working. My confidence level was way up. I trusted my pitches and I was able to execute the way that I wanted. The guys behind me made outs in the field. Delino DeShields broke a record, I think, of making plays at second base.  If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. So they were a big part of that game, too.”

It had been a long time since the Indians had acquired a pitcher of Martinez’s caliber and he really helped put the team over the top. A string of team success followed Martinez’s signing and a lot of credit can be given to the generosity of then-owner Dick Jacobs.

“What really made me sign was Mr. Jacobs,” Martinez remembered. “He convinced me because of the person that he was. I had a meeting that evening (of my negotiations) in Miami. I told him that I needed to be back in Miami at a certain time and I couldn’t hold out any longer with the negotiations unless anything happened quick. It was a family reunion, and he told me ‘don’t worry about it, I’m going to send you on my private jet.’ When he told me that, I thought he was joking, but I took his word as a man and he came through. It was the best flight that I ever had in my life, and let me know what kind of person I was getting involved with.”

With Martinez anchoring the pitching staff, the Tribe took off in their new ballpark. The Indians finished the strike-shortened 1994 season with a 66-47 record, just one game behind the Chicago White Sox. In 1995 the Tribe steamrolled the rest of the American League with a 100-44 record—winning the Central Division by a record 30-game margin. The staff was once again anchored by Martinez, who made his final All-Star appearance that summer.

“To me, the 1995 team was the highest one,” Martinez said of all of the teams he played for. “The championship Baltimore team does not compare. That was really a great, talented team that we had in ’95.”

The team captured the hearts of the Cleveland fans like none prior and none since. The ’95 Tribe made their first postseason appearance since 1954 that October and also won its first pennant in 41 long years.

“We just got beat in the World Series because of the pitching of the Atlanta Braves, you have to tip your cap to them,” Martinez added. “Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz. You can’t go wrong with those three guys. They always say that good pitching beats good hitting and they proved that in that World Series, I guess. But hey man, that team, you can see if you go one by one, you can look back and say, ‘Man, that was the team of the 90’s.’ I mean, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Paul Sorrento, Carlos Baerga, Omar Vizquel, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Dave Winfield, Eddie Murray, Sandy Alomar, Tony Pena and then the pitching…Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, Mark Clark, Jose Mesa….just name them one by one, it was an amazing team. I cannot say I was ever involved with a team better than that one.”

After the Tribe’s unforgettable run to the World Series in 1995, Martinez spent one more season with the Indians as the ’96 Tribe rolled to their second straight postseason. In September, with the Indians knowing full-well that they were going to let the 42-year old veteran go at the end of the season, they acknowledged perhaps their most successful free agent signing with a ‘Dennis Martinez Night’ at the Jake.

“They did have a ceremony here,” Martinez remembered. “It was a broken heart moment, even though I knew that that’s the way it is…we weren’t going to be here forever…it made me kind of heartbroken to not be able to finish my career here. That should have been the best time for me to say, I came here, we did what we were supposed to do, we showed them how to win. I was feeling two sides of the coin. On one side I was happy that I did what I had to do, that I gave it my all here. But on the other side, I was sad just to leave this city and the great years that we had playing here. The people of the organization honored me and seemed appreciative of what I did. They accomplished what they wanted to accomplish by bringing me here, going to the World Series, even though we didn’t win it. The goal was to help them to win a championship and take them to the World Series…and that’s what we did.”

While Martinez’s time was growing short in Cleveland, he still had a couple of seasons left in his arm. Martinez spent the 1997 season pitching for the Seattle Mariners and then 1998 back in the National League with the Atlanta Braves. Nevertheless, the ‘Dennis Martinez Night’ allowed Cleveland to bid farewell to one of their heroes who was known simply as ‘El Presidente’. The nickname, translated simply as ‘The President’, was embraced by the city of Cleveland, but was not its origin. A former Oriole teammate of Martinez’s is responsible for giving him one of baseball’s classic nicknames.

Ken Singleton, when we had a problem in Nicaragua and had a revolution, said ‘Hey, you might be the first Nicaraguan player to go into politics in Nicaragua,’ and then, later on, four or five years later, there was a party from Nicaragua that came here and wanted me to be their leader for an election,” Martinez said. “Unfortunately, I was still playing ball and I felt like I had a few more years left in me. That was during the Montreal time when the party came in. Then, when the perfect game happened…then it exploded big time. Singleton was involved in that game, too. He was a color commentator up in the booth. He kept saying ‘El Presidente perfecto!’ I love it. When people say it I feel like they are saying it with respect. I take it with pride.”

Now, long retired from playing ball, Martinez is back involved with the game he loves so much. After taking nearly a decade away to be with his family, Martinez was hired to work as a spring training instructor for the Orioles for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, then was hired as the bullpen coach for the Houston Astros for the 2013 season. Although El Presidente was not back with the Astros in 2014, the opportunity allowed Martinez to get back in a Major League uniform for the first time since 1998.

“I stayed away from baseball for ten years,” Martinez said. “I stayed at home to see my last two kids enjoy high school, college and playing ball. I wanted to spend time with them and the family. I got involved with the resort that we own in Nicaragua. So I was able to move back and forth and spend some time in Nicaragua and at home with my family.”

Back involved with baseball, Martinez feels the nostalgia any time that his path comes back through Cleveland.

“We cared for the city a lot,” Martinez said of his teammates and himself. “The fans were the best fans I have ever been involved with.”

Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

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