Martinez latest king of Dodgers' hill

July 19, 1991|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- Rarely will one game or one day or one event be so foretelling in the fate of a major-league pitcher as it was for Ramon Martinez. The game was a six-hit, nine-strikeout road shutout against the Atlanta Braves. The date was June 5, 1989.

But it was what happened in the aftermath of Martinez's first major-league shutout that spoke volumes about the Los Angeles Dodgers' prized young right-hander. Within hours of throwing his last pitch, Martinez got a call in his hotel room from general manager Fred Claire.

He was being sent back to Class AAA.

"I was asking him a lot of questions," Martinez recalled this week in the visitors clubhouse at Veterans Stadium. "I ask him, 'What I can do to be here?' They called me to start one game, but I didn't know. I feel disappointed. It was very hard. I cried."

It was made difficult by a language barrier that caused Martinez to misunderstand Claire's original intentions. Thinking his promotion was permanent, or at least for the rest of the season, Martinez had packed six suitcases and paid up a couple of

months' rent.

But while some in his situation might have sulked, Martinez went back to the Albuquerque Dukes as focused as when he had come up a couple of days before. Five days later, he pitched seven shutout innings. When he was called up a little more than a month later, Martinez had only one question.

"I ask, 'Is this for good?' " he said, laughing. "They tell me, if you pitch like the first time, you'll be here a long time."

Neither Martinez nor the Dodgers expect to have that type of miscommunication again. After going 20-6 with a 2.92 ERA and 223 strikeouts last year -- finishing second to the Pittsburgh Pirates' Doug Drabek for the Cy Young Award -- Martinez is being talked about in breathless, almost reverential, tones.

In an organization whose tradition includes some of the game's greatest pitchers, Martinez is merely the next in line. The legacy of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, of Fernando Valenzuela and Orel Hershiser, is now being carried on by this gangly 23-year-old from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

"My description of Ramon is gifted," said Claire. "But unlike a lot of young players, he understands he has a gift and he appreciates it. He uses the gift with confidence, with tremendous humility. He uses it with enjoyment."

Said veteran catcher Mike Scioscia: "It definitely goes beyond pure talent. He's very intelligent. He's a very hard worker. He's been brought along slowly and allowed to grow at his own pace. He knows how to get hitters out, something you don't always say about a young pitcher. But he's not your typical young pitcher."

Martinez, who signed with the Dodgers when he was 16, has emerged as the ace of a fairly talented, if suddenly erratic, pitching staff. With Valenzuela gone, with Hershiser coming back slowly after missing nearly all of the 1990 season after reconstructive shoulder surgery, Martinez is the team's No. 1 starter.

Going into his next start tonight in New York, Martinez is 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA. In 126 2/3 innings, he has struck out 81 and walked 34, giving up 103 hits. National League hitters have managed a .219 average against him. But while the expectations have grown, the pressure has not.

"I know the people don't expect a lot from me so quick," said Martinez. "Especially last year. I think they expect more this year, but I don't think I'm the ace. I have a lot to learn. I always learn."

Martinez was able to find his way into the rotation, instead of the rotation finding him. The spotlight has fallen on him, instead of being thrust at him.

Said Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda: "The emphasis is not on him. We have been able to bring Ramon along slowly."

Martinez spent two years in Class A, learning how to throw a curve and conjugate a verb in English. With the exception of a 1-3 record in Los Angeles at the end of the 1988 season, Martinez has gone a combined 77-27 since 1987. Among those who have tutored Martinez was Koufax, a former spring-training instructor for the Dodgers.

"He's a superstar forever," said Martinez, talking about the experience with the Hall of Famer, whose single-game, club-record 18 strikeouts he tied last season. "You feel so special when that kind of person teaches you."

Not that Martinez's career with the Dodgers has not been without incident. He held out 11 days in spring training earlier this year in a salary dispute, which caused him to lose his spot as the Opening Day starter to Tim Belcher. But he seems unsullied by his sudden stardom.

"It surprises me," said Martinez, whose slightly pulled groin muscle kept him from a possible second straight All-Star Game appearance last week.

"I have an ability to play baseball. I have a lot of confidence. Last year, I didn't expect to get 20 wins. When I won 15, I said, 'This is a lot of fun.' I am very lucky."

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