At last, Martinez is a happy camper


March 09, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the first time in a long time, Chito Martinez comes to a baseball camp without the burden of trying to impress someone.

Which is a good thing.

Martinez does a few things well, but impressing baseball people doesn't seem to be one of them.

This is what he has done well: hitting home runs, brooding, tinkering with computers and staying in the minor leagues. He was very good at staying in the minor leagues. He was so good, he stayed there nearly seven seasons, which, in baseball years, is roughly equivalent to your typical geological epoch.

Now that he's penciled in as the Opening Day right fielder with a chance to take everyday aim at the short right-field wall at Camden Yards, the bad times don't seem so bad. The struggle doesn't seem so bitter. The time you nearly gave it up to go into the computer business with your cousin is a distant memory.

"It's an easy game when everything is going well," Martinez was saying yesterday. "It's when things go bad that you learn what you're made of."

Martinez came to the Orioles last year as so many do, which is to say on the cheap. A six-year, minor-league free agent, he was picked up from the Kansas City organization by that old junk dealer himself, Roland Hemond, who, as we know, is physically unable to be more than five minutes removed from a waiver wire -- not counting time stuck in elevators.

When Martinez joined the Orioles in spring training, he made good on his reputation. He impressed no one.

"It was the only time I'd seen him," manager John Oates said. "He didn't have a very good spring, and, to be honest, I was not very impressed."

Martinez wasn't very surprised. For years, he had been seen as a player who topped out at Triple-A. But neither was he disheartened. He'd gotten over the disheartened stage, and what he did instead was pound out 20 homers in 211 at-bats at Rochester while hitting .332. The Orioles had to bring him up.

"The way I looked at it was, 'How did they know?' " Martinez said. "How did they know I couldn't play in the big leagues? If I'd ever been given a month to show what I could do and I didn't get it done, I could live with it. I could say I wasn't a big-league player.

"But they didn't know that. I knew I could hit. I knew I could hit big-league pitching. It was just whether anyone would give me a chance to prove it."

You know what happened. He hit safely in his first six games with the Orioles. He hit 13 homers in 216 at-bats to provide some rare thrills at Memorial Stadium.

Now, the question is whether he's for real or whether he'll go the way of previous phenoms. Does the name Whammer mean anything to you?

The only thing we know for sure is that he'll be given every opportunity to make good. The configuration of the new ballpark assures him as much.

"We don't have a lot of left-handed power other than him and Sam," Oates said. "You can draw your own conclusions from that."

The obvious conclusion is that Martinez is safe until Opening Day and beyond. He didn't hurt himself Saturday with a homer, double and four RBI.

If he is for real, why did it take him so long to show it?

Martinez, 26, is a serious, thoughtful, young man, who has spent some time with this question.

"I had never failed before," he said. "The first time I did, I didn't know how to deal with it. What I did was put more pressure on myself to do well. The more pressure I put on myself, the harder it got."

A .300 hitter for most of his career, he went to Triple-A in 1987 and hit .215 for half a season before getting sent back to Double-A. He stayed for two more years, hitting .227 and .243. His home runs were up, but his head wasn't. Why should it have been? Three years in Double-A is an invitation to try another profession.

In '89, he was determined to quit. He called his cousin with the computer business, and it was all set, until something made him stay. And now he thinks he knows the secret.

"I don't feel pressure anymore," he said. "I'm relaxed now. I'm a better person on and off the field for it. I've got a family, and the thing I learned is that my kids are always happy to see me whether I got four hits or none. That makes it easier to accept failure. At this level, you have to be mentally tough. And I think I am."

We'll find out. The Orioles have a long string of outfield candidates, of which they'll keep five. Mike Devereaux is one. Joe Orsulak is two. Chito Martinez is three. After that, it's guesswork -- among Brady Anderson, David Segui, Dwight Evans, Luis Mercedes and Darrell Sherman. But it's the other guys, this once, who have to do the impressing.

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