Former Oriole Dennis Martinez ponders political pitch

January 07, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Former Oriole Dennis Martinez, this baseball-crazed nation's contribution to the major leagues, earned the nickname "El Presidente" from a fellow player more than a decade ago.

Now, it looks like he's taking the name seriously.

Mr. Martinez, a 17-year veteran pitcher who signed a $9 million, two-year contract with the Cleveland Indians last fall, says he has been offered a chance to run for president of Nicaragua in 1996.

"They've been mentioning my name as a future candidate, as the man who is supposed to be best for the country," the 38-year-old Mr. Martinez said on a trip to his homeland. "I haven't told them yes or no."

While some treat the Dennis-for-president talk as whimsy, others note that baseball and politics have long gone together in this country, with politicians trying to score points by associating themselves with winning teams.

In the 1970s, the Somoza family dictatorship financed a local baseball club. A decade later, the leftist Sandinistas followed suit.

"Baseball is almost a religion in this country," said Edgard Tijerino, one of the nation's top sportswriters and broadcasters.

And in the baseball pantheon, Mr. Martinez ranks at the top. Reporters for the capital's four newspapers write stories about Mr. Martinez three or four times a week, more during baseball season.

"If he drinks a Coca-Cola, it's written about. If he wakes up with a cold, it's written about," Mr. Tijerino said.

Almost any Nicaraguan can recap Mr. Martinez's career in major-league baseball, from the day the 17-year-old right-hander left the country in 1974 through his seasons with the Orioles, the Montreal Expos and now with Cleveland.

They recount how Mr. Martinez became the 15th pitcher in history -- and the first Latin American -- to throw a perfect game July 28, 1991, setting off joyous national celebrations. Mr. Martinez is also one of only seven pitchers to win 100 games in both the American and National leagues.

A Spanish-language newspaper in Dade County, Fla., first suggested that Mr. Martinez, a South Florida resident since 1988, should make a pitch for the presidency.

"A lot of people may ask what a baseball player could do in politics," said Nicolas Lopez, editor of La Estrella de Nicaragua. "But look at Ronald Reagan. What was a cowboy, a bad movie actor doing? And he's the man who finished off the Soviet Union."

By early October, word surfaced that a political party, the Third Democratic Way, had formed and wanted to draft Mr. Martinez as its candidate for the November 1996 presidential election. The party is reported to be gathering signatures to petition for legal standing.

Some greeted the news with derision. With his limited high school education, Mr. Martinez is hardly qualified to lead the government, they said.

"The main factor in his being manipulated into this is the disorganization of the political parties in Nicaragua," said Edgar Escobar Fornos, a baseball tournament organizer. "There is no political leadership now."

Politicians aren't ranking high in Nicaragua these days. The nation is adrift, mired in recession and recriminations from a civil war. Half of working-age Nicaraguans can't find jobs. Violence and crime tear at the country.

So it's little surprise that some fans interviewed at a recent game in Managua's stadium said they'd let a pitcher take over the nation.

"I'd give my vote 50,000 times to El Chirizo," said Ivan Lopez, calling Mr. Martinez by a Spanish nickname that refers to how his thick black hair sticks straight up.

"With Dennis, there would be no problems," said Fidel Burgos, "He would say to the United States, 'We need rice,' and it would come."

Acutely aware of his titanic salary, Nicaraguans besiege Mr. Martinez with requests every time he returns home. Mr. Martinez usually complies with kindness, bringing toys or baseball equipment, or helping survivors of natural disasters like the tidal wave that struck in September 1992.

Nicaraguans, in turn, respect Mr. Martinez's struggle to battle alcoholism, his simple mannerisms and his devout Roman Catholicism.

If he accepts a candidacy, Mr. Martinez said he would need to bone up on Nicaragua's past -- just like he studied American history last year to become a U.S. citizen. He now has dual citizenship.

"If one day I decide to do something about it, I would like to read the constitution of the country, read more about what's going on," he said. "You have to have a good conception of the history of the country, otherwise you will not be able to do the job right."

He cringed at charges that he is being manipulated, saying he doesn't want to be like President Violeta Chamorro, who is seen as a figurehead.

"I don't want to be in that situation," he said. "That's what people have been saying about her, that people behind her have been using her."

Whether Mr. Martinez runs or not, he said he's long grown used to the "El Presidente" moniker, a nickname dating to his days with the Orioles. When Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza was toppled in 1979, Mr. Martinez's teammate Ken Singleton ribbed him.

"He said, 'You're going to be el presidente,'" Mr. Martinez recounted.

The name stuck.

"They don't even call me Dennis anymore, they just call me 'El Presidente,' " he said.

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