Modest Chito Martinez gives Orioles fans a reason to cheer

August 27, 1991|By Randi Henderson

Memorial Stadium fans recognize what a bright spot in an otherwise bleak year looks like: Chito Martinez.

"Chito-Chito-Chito," they sometimes chant when the rookie right fielder comes to bat -- especially on one of the multihit days he's piling up.

As he lopes out to take his position, rowdy cheers rise from the right-field grandstand.

It's part of the phenomenon of Chito -- a Belize-born right fielder who once wanted to play tennis but has proved in seven short weeks in the big leagues that he can bat .321 and knock the ball out of the park.

Paula Montgomery, up from Gaithersburg with her family to watch the game Sunday, explained the rookie's appeal: "He's good, he's a good-looker. He makes the team more exciting."

Mike Mohler, who came from Springfield, Va., with his son, added another perspective: "He's small and he has power," said Mr. Mohler, who matches Mr. Martinez's 5 feet 10 inches. "He's good for all us little guys. If somebody my size can hit a home run, that's a big deal."

And his fans couldn't have been more approving when Mr. Martinez responded to their applause with the modesty appropriate to a mid-season rookie.

He looked up at the stands, gave a tiny nod of acknowledgment, looked down at the ground and seemed genuinely embarrassed.

Later, in the clubhouse after the game, Mr. Martinez dropped his guard only slightly as he considered the way fans are reacting to him. At least for now, he fits more into the aw-shucks Cal Ripken school of fame than the hot-shot Ricky Henderson mold.

In fact, Mr. Martinez admitted that he can be a mite uncomfortable with the cheers and the Chito chant.

"I'm not into all that," he said with a grin that explains why some female fans think he's so cute.

And he quickly added, "It's nice to be greeted. It's nice that people appreciate what you're doing on the field. I try to let them know I know they're out there."

But if you assume Chito Martinez, 25, is living a boyhood dream come true, he'll gently correct you.

"As a kid I wanted to play tennis and I still love the game," he revealed, speaking about himself with maturity and reserve.

Although born in Central America, Mr. Martinez moved to New Orleans with his family when he was only 2 and -- despite his Hispanic look and Hispanic name (real name: Reyenaldo Ignacio Martinez; he doesn't know where the nickname came from) -- he speaks not a word of Spanish.

He turned to baseball in high school, came up through the minor leagues and two years ago, playing AA ball in Memphis, Tenn., almost hung it up. "I was tired of failure, tired of the hassle, tired of going to the park and not wanting to play," he recalled with little emotion.

Then he had a hot August, hitting a homer almost every other day, and was solidly on the track that has brought him here.

But if it were to all end tomorrow, Mr. Martinez -- whose wife's name is Angela and who has two sons, ages 2 years and 3 weeks -- could handle that too.

His father is in air conditioning sales and repair and if he'd left baseball two years ago, he would have joined his father's business. With few regrets.

"I like that kind of work, I enjoy it," he said, and somehow you believe that he means what he says. "I wouldn't be unhappy doing it. I could walk away from all this."

And as for the cheers, he said, "It's better than being booed."

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