Chito Martinez: winning package of contradictions

JOHN EISENBERG

August 16, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Chito Martinez is a uniform full of first impressions gone wrong. He was born in Belize in Central America and given an Hispanic name, but can't speak Spanish. He is no bigger than your average utility infielder, but has a knack for hitting home runs. He was thought to be no more than Triple A insurance when the Orioles signed him last winter, but has been one of the club's better players since being recalled six weeks ago.

He is 25 and comes from the baseball outback of New Orleans, and in his first shot at the major-leagues after more than 750 games and six years in the minors, his numbers -- .333 and eight homers -- support the long-standing and absolute truth that sometimes in baseball a meaningful consensus is as easy to grasp as an amoeba.

That works both ways, of course, so the Orioles will wait to see if Martinez is another find along the lines of Joe Orsulak and Randy Milligan, or another one-month wonder along the lines of Jim Traber and Mike Young. "You just ride the wave and see where it goes," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said. "But Chito certainly is showing a lot."

Indeed. Besides showing a potent bat, he has played capably in right field and demonstrated the best arm among the club's outfielders. His power is all about bat speed, a gift to a small player (5-10, 180). "And," manager John Oates said, "he's one of these guys who, when you sit back and listen to him, you can tell he knows what he's talking about. He thinks. He has a game plan."

It's not a bad package, particularly for a player who almost quit two years ago and was stuck in the Royals' organization, or not so much stuck as lost, lost in the baseball maw much as 65 people were lost in the City Jail: The people who mattered looked right through him.

The Royals gave up because he was neither fast nor strong enough to flourish in their big, plastic-grass ballpark. He had 21 homers and 67 RBI at Triple A last year, giving him almost 200 RBI in three seasons, but the Royals passed him by in favor of a faster prospect named Gary Thurman. "Some players just cross a line beyond which they aren't considered prospects by their teams anymore," Oates said. Martinez had crossed it.

He became a minor-league free agent. The Orioles wanted him from the beginning. He had played for Rochester manager Greg Biagini in winter ball in 1989, and Biagini told the Orioles he had a lively bat. "Greg told us he'd love to get his hands on Chito," Melvin said. The Orioles tried to trade for him last year. Twice.

Several teams outbid the Orioles, which isn't the surprise of the year, but Melvin said, "We sold him on the opportunity. We showed him we didn't freeze up our system with free agents, that we'd given chances to players like Milligan and Orsulak, who had also been hung up in the minors."

The Orioles are indeed fond of such players. They are too fond of them, actually, too often trying to fill holes with bargains instead of top-shelf merchandise. But that's another story, and there's certainly nothing wrong with looking for bargains, and Martinez signed with the Orioles for less money because he figured this was his chance to make the majors.

When the call came on July 5, after he'd hit 20 homers in Rochester, he became the first player born in Belize to make the majors. But he has lived in the United States since he was 2, in New Orleans, where his father runs a company that sells and services air conditioners. "My parents came here because there was more opportunity," Martinez said. "It was a better place to raise a family."

He was a baseball king as a high schooler, but got stuck in Double A after turning pro. Hitting .215 in July of his third season in Memphis, he almost quit. "I was tired of the failure," he said. "The game wasn't any fun at all. My attitude was bad. I was very close to saying, 'OK, time to get on with your life.' "

He was going to go to trade school and join his father's business, but suddenly began to hit. Having shortened his stroke on the advice of his hitting coach, he hit .340 with 13 homers in a month, and the game was fun again. Now it's really fun. He hit another homer last night, his third in two nights, and drove in four runs. He gave a half-dozen one-on-one interviews before the game, and another batch afterward.

"There's no way I could have envisioned this much happening," he said. "It's great, but it's important for me to try to keep doing the same things. My approach from the beginning was this was a chance to show I could hit major-league pitching. If things don't work out, I can say I got my shot."

He did, and, as Melvin said, "He's making the most of it." Will things work out? Who knows? The Orioles might have uncovered at least a platoon player, but Martinez himself is living, breathing, home-run-hitting proof that, other than Cal Ripken at shortstop and the Indians in dead last, baseball is about as predictable as a knuckle ball in the wind. You just ride the wave, the man said, and see where it goes.

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