Despite getting a head start, Jacen Martinez is playing catch-up when it comes to baseball.
The Towson State second baseman has spent more time around the game than any of his teammates, since he grew up watching his father Tippy pitch for the Orioles. There was spring training in Miami and summers at Memorial Stadium, and his playmates were named Belanger, Crowley and Dempsey.
The Tigers' leadoff hitter, however, is also one of their most inexperienced hands in game situations. The 20-year-old did not play high school baseball, since his senior class at Rock Academy totaled eight and there weren't enough students to field a team. He broke a hand in March 1990 while at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, Fla., and didn't play at all last summer.
But this year he's making up for it in a big way. The Towson State season will reach at least 51 games in the NCAA East Regional at Maine beginning Thursday (3 p.m.), when the Tigers play Mississippi State. And next month Martinez will begin play for Johnny's, the national 20-and-under power, which will give him another 70 or 80 games. He relishes the swings.
"I don't feel I'm making up for lost time, but I needed this year," Jacen said. "I need to play more, get more swings, so I can learn what I can do."
Tippy Martinez, who last pitched in the Senior League and entertained thoughts of working in Japan this year, instead opted to join the Towson State program as pitching coach. His last experience in the college game came at Colorado State. He was entering his sophomore year there when Jacen was born, and he learned what his son could do growing up in the Denver area, where Jacen was good in baseball, but better at soccer.
From 1976 to 1986, Tippy set the Orioles' all-time record for saves, 105, and it was in the middle of that tenure that the family settled in the Loch Raven High school district. Dad made a pitch for soccer and baseball at Calvert Hall, but Jacen opted for the smaller setting of Rock Academy, a non-denominational, evangelical Christian school.
"I went to Rock Academy for religious reasons," Jacen said. "That meant no high school baseball. I pretty much knew the game because I played all the time with Terry and Jim Crowley, Tony Muser, John Dempsey and the Belangers [Rob and Rich, sons of Orioles all]. But I found out there's no replacement for being in a game situation."
Jacen did gain summer experience during his high school years playing for some pretty fair Putty Hill Optimist teams that served as a springboard to some pretty fair college careers. Martinez became a starter at Santa Fe midway through his freshman season, but the 1990 campaign and his development were stopped by the broken hand.
In search of a second baseman, Towson State coach Mike Gottlieb was reminded at a sandlot game of Jacen's availability. Tippy had worked out with the Tigers in the fall of 1987, so there was a mutual respect. A scholarship to North Carolina was falling through, and Jacen is making the Tar Heels think twice, as he's hitting .304 with a team-leading 36 walks, 12 doubles and 19 steals.
"He's proved a lot over the course of this season," Gottlieb said. "I was worried about his glove, but our double-play combination turned out to be a bright spot."
Freshman Chris Massella was the shortstop for much of the season, before moving to third base. He and Martinez are two of the five first-year starters that have turned around Towson State from last year's 1-29 skid.
The East Coast Conference champions are seeded fifth in the East Regional at the University of Maine's Mahaney Diamond in Orono, and will try to improve their 27-21-1 mark against Mississippi State (40-19).
The regional opens at 11 a.m. Thursday, with top-seeded Clemson (56-8) meeting Princeton (22-20). The 7 p.m. nightcap Thursday matches third-seeded Maine (45-16) against Big East champion Villanova (37-13-1).
The winner of the double-elimination tournament advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., May 31 to June 8.