Martinez slipped away more than once

Ken Rosenthal

June 26, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK -- First inning. Four runs across. One out, runners on first and third. Way back when with the Orioles, Dennis Martinez would have been knocked out of this game.

Last night he almost won it.

Martinez left with a one-run lead in the seventh, but Montreal reliever Scott Ruskin gave up a two-out grand slam to the New York Mets' Kevin McReynolds in the ninth, and the Expos lost 8-5.

No matter. Martinez's recovery from alcoholism remains one of the game's most compelling stories, and the shame of it is, the Orioles could have re-signed him, not once, but twice.

The list of homegrown Baltimore pitchers thriving elsewhere keeps growing -- Pete Harnisch (2.01) regained the NL ERA lead from Martinez (2.08) last night -- but this is a unique case.

Though former general manager Hank Peters won't admit it, the Orioles might indeed have re-signed Martinez if not for the collusion by baseball owners after the 1986 and 1987 seasons.

Martinez, now 36, was a free agent each of those years, but the first time he was forced to return to the minors after failing to receive an offer from the Orioles or any other club.

The second time the Orioles were one of several teams to show interest, but Martinez says each bid was for the same amount -- even though he finished 11-4 with a 3.30 ERA after rejoining Montreal.

The owners have since been found guilty of conspiring to depress free-agent salaries after the '85, '86 and '87 seasons. Martinez, through his agent, Ron Shapiro, has filed a claim to receive a share of the $280 million in collusion damages.

He doesn't need the money, not after signing a three-year, $9.2 million contract instead of becoming a "new look" free agent last winter. But he says, "I was still an Oriole inside my heart" after '87. He very nearly returned, for the same salary he earned from Montreal.

"I was still living in Baltimore at the time," says Martinez, who was with the Orioles from 1976 to '86. "Everything would have been better. But then I thought, I was already a different pitcher. I had established myself in Montreal. I didn't have to prove anything to anyone. In Baltimore, I would have needed to prove myself all over again."

Martinez had an ERA above 5.00 each of his last four seasons with the Orioles, and he admits, "the drinking had something to do with it." Peters finally traded him to the Expos for a player to be named (infielder Rene Gonzales) on June 16, 1986.

By the end of that season Martinez was again showing promise. He worked out over the winter at Memorial Stadium, and Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks recommended the club take another look. Peters ignored his advice, citing Martinez's past problems, not collusion.

"We had just dealt him," explains Peters, now the club president at Cleveland. "We gave him away, just to give him another opportunity. He was really struggling with us. He needed a change of scenery. It was not anything to do with collusion."

Maybe not, but Peters made a desperate attempt to sign Martinez for Cleveland when the righthander became a free agent under normal market conditions in '89. "Maybe he felt bad," Martinez says, smiling. Or maybe the rules had changed.

In any case, since the start of '87 Martinez has nearly twice as many victories (61) as the Orioles' leading winner, Jeff Ballard (34). Meanwhile, Mike Boddicker has 45 wins since getting traded by the current GM, Roland Hemond, in July 1988.

True, Boddicker would have left anyway as a free agent. True, Martinez might have needed to change countries and leagues. Every club can name players it wishes it had back. But former Oriole Ken Singleton, now an Expos broadcaster, believes Martinez deserved a second chance.

Singleton says, "When a guy gets out of drug or alcohol rehabilitation it takes longer than people think for them to regain confidence, not only in their abilities as baseball players, but in their abilities as people to function on this earth.

"In that respect I think the Orioles gave up on Dennis too soon. Dennis is a lot better pitcher now than he was with the Orioles, one of the best in this league. He's been awesome. He's No. 1, and he knows it. When they need a good game, he throws it."

Martinez (9-4) has pitched three shutouts and four complete games, and seems certain to make the All-Star team for the second straight year. Since Opening Day '89 he is 27-1 when the Expos support him with four or more runs. They score, he gives them a chance.

Last night was no exception -- Martinez settled down after a 43-pitch first inning, only to see the bullpen blow his 5-4 lead. "Now I know what I have to do to stay in the game," Martinez says. "If this had happened in Baltimore I would have lasted maybe two or three innings."

But this didn't happen in Baltimore.

For Dennis Martinez, there's no turning back.

Dennis Martinez: What a comeback

Since he was traded to the Montreal Expos for former Oriole Rene Gonzales, Dennis Martinez has been one of the National League's best pitchers.

W L ERA G GS SV IP H R ER BB SO

1986 Orioles 0 0 6.75 4 0 0 6.2 11 5 5 2 2

Rochester 2 1 6.05 4 4 0 19.1 18 14 13 9 14

Montreal 3 6 4.59 19 15 1 98 103 52 50 28 63

1987 Miami 1 1 6.16 3 3 0 19 21 14 13 3 11

Indianapolis 3 2 4.46 7 7 0 38.1 32 20 19 13 30

Montreal 11 4 3.30 22 22 0 144.2 133 59 53 40 84

1988 Montreal 15 13 2.72 34 34 0 235.1 215 94 71 55 120

1989 Montreal 16 7 3.18 34 33 0 232 227 88 82 49 142

1990 Montreal 10 11 2.95 32 32 0 226 191 80 74 49 156

1991 Montreal 9 4 2.08 16 16 0 117 100 29 27 29 68

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