Orioles' Martinez credits Royals for hitting success Relearned swing lifts flagging career

July 18, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Chito Martinez finally got to Royals Stadium, though not by the route that he originally had mapped out for himself.

Martinez arrived here yesterday as a member of the Baltimore Orioles organization, which signed him in November as a six-year minor-league free agent.

"I knew sooner or later I'd get here," he said, "but I didn't think it would be with these guys."

He had hoped it would be with the Kansas City Royals, who made him their sixth-round choice in the June 1984 free-agent draft. Martinez ascended quickly through the minor-league system, only to stall at the Class AAA level and eventually give up hope of playing with the Royals.

"I figured after they didn't call me up in September last year that I wasn't in their plans," he said.

Royals officials say that isn't entirely true, but concede that Martinez probably made the right decision when he left the organization to sign with the Orioles.

"We tried to re-sign him," said Bob Hegman, the Royals' assistant director of scouting and player development. "We offered him the top dollar we could offer a six-year free agent and invited him to major-league camp as a non-roster player, but he chose to go elsewhere.

"He was in the picture, but it was more of an insurance policy for us. He was looking for a chance to play, so he made the right decision."

Martinez was disappointed that he did not get an invitation to spend September with the club after he had hit 21 home runs for the Class AAA Omaha Royals last year.

Much had changed in the two years since he first reached Class AAA. He had moved quickly through the Royals system after nTC signing out of Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, batting .304 for the Class AA Memphis Chicks in only his third full minor-league season. But the next step did not come so easy.

"At one time, he was our top hitting prospect in the minor leagues," Hegman said. "Then he had a bad year and some of our people fell off of him."

Martinez batted just .215 and struck out in one out of every three at-bats after making the jump to Class AAA in 1987. He ended up back at Memphis for most of that season and did not get back to Omaha until last year.

Something happened in the interim that turned him back into a major-league prospect. Martinez said it was the work he did with Royals hitting instructor Tommy Burgess, who persuaded him to shorten his swing and stop uppercutting the ball.

The results were not immediate, but by late 1989, Martinez had begun to turn his flagging career around. He finished strong and had 23 home runs and 62 RBI for Memphis that year, then returned to Omaha and hit 21 homers with a career-high 67 RBI. This year, he was batting .325 and leading the International League with 21 home runs in just 60 games when the Orioles purchased his contract from the Rochester Red Wings on July 5.

"He's probably one of the few guys who had a swing, lost it, and was able to regain it," Hegman said. "Cory Snyder is going through that right now."

The Royals aren't exactly second-guessing themselves on Martinez. Who could have known in early November that Bo Jackson would be released? Who can say that Martinez would have had the same first half at Omaha that he had for Rochester?

"He would have had a job with us," Hegman said, "but you still don't know if he would have been up here. But if he hit .320 at Omaha and done the same things he did at Rochester, he might have.

The Orioles obviously had their doubts. They could have called him up a few weeks sooner, but chose to give Brady Anderson an opportunity to improve on a sub-.200 batting average. Anderson played well for a while, but Martinez finally joined the club in New York two weeks ago and made an immediate contribution.

He hit safely in his first six major-league games, setting a club record, and hit his first home run on July 11 at the Oakland Coliseum. That homer, which cleared the fence in center field in one of baseball's roomiest parks, illustrated his deceptive power, but it was his second home run that made everyone stand up and take notice.

That was on Monday night, when Martinez hit a two-run shot off California Angels stopper Bryan Harvey with two outs in the ninth inning to give the Orioles a dramatic comeback victory.

Chito Martinez at a glance

Given name: Reyenaldo Ignacio Martinez

Nickname: Chito

Origin of nickname: "I've been called that as long as I can remember. I think my grandfather's nickname was Chito."

Height: 5 feet 10

Weight: 180

Age: 25

Birthplace: Belize (formerly British Honduras)

Hometown: New Orleans

Resides: Metairie, La.

Originally signed with: Royals

Acquired by Orioles: Signed as a minor-league free agent, Nov. 16, 1990

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