Martinez is ready, willing and ailing

October 17, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

SEATTLE -- For the first time in 41 years, the Cleveland Indians are one win away from the World Series. And they are asking Dennis Martinez to pitch them there tonight in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

"It would be the best gift I could ever have in baseball," Martinez said.

A multitude of obstacles separates him from it. His knee is injured and his shoulder is stiff; he is feeling every one of his 40 years right now. The Seattle Mariners are no fun at the Kingdome, a loud, unfriendly place to pitch in a road uniform. And Randy Johnson will start for Seattle.

But Martinez, who won 12 games this season, is neither awed nor cowed by the daunting circumstances. He is just pleased he gets to pitch.

When he last visited the postseason, with the Orioles in 1983, he was already into the alcoholic daze that almost ended his career long before it was meant to end. Manager Joe Altobelli didn't dare use him.

"Physically, I was fine, but mentally I was wasted," he said. "This time, mentally I'm fine and physically I'm wasted. That shows me how mental this game is, that the mental side has more of an impact than the physical side. Because I can still pitch this way."

That, he can. Although he won only three games after July 21 in a slump attributable to injuries, he pitched well enough to win Game 1 of the ALCS at the Kingdome, allowing three runs in 6 1/3 innings. But he didn't win: A rookie named Bob Wolcott beat him.

Still, there is no doubt Martinez is ideally suited to tonight's task. He has a 16-5 road record for the Indians over the past two seasons, evidence of the fighter's edge he has developed since he stopped drinking and turned his life around in the late '80s.

As the winner of 231 games and one of only 14 pitchers in major-league history to throw a perfect game, he is well beyond the cheap threats of intimidation.

"I like to take on challenges to prove to myself what I can do," Martinez said.

Of course he is pitching tonight only because of the stiffness that has persisted in his right shoulder, which caused him to scratch as the Indians' Game 5 starter. Orel Hershiser replaced him Sunday night and won. Not a bad Plan B.

"It would not have been good for me or for the ballclub if I pitched Game 5, especially when it turned out to be so cold," Martinez said. "My shoulder feels a lot better now than it did on Friday. I'll feel good pitching indoors."

Martinez believes the stiffness resulted from his trying to compensate for a slight ligament tear in his left knee, an injury with which he has pitched for most of the season. He plans to have it surgically corrected after the playoffs.

"I've been miserable," he said. "The plan is to get to the knee right after the season because next season could be my last and I don't want it to be like I was this year. My knee hurt my shoulder, and I hate that."

Meanwhile, he is using every conceivable weapon in his fight against advancing age.

"I almost went to see the pope when he was in Baltimore," he said, "but I didn't make it. One of my kids got sick and I had to stay home. I had every intention of going, and as long as he knows and I know, that's good enough. At this point, you try anything."

Even if he missed out on the pontiff's blessings, Martinez knows the baseball gods have smiled on him in 1995, giving him this late chance to fill in one of the few holes in his career: the absence of a postseason win.

He started two playoff games for the Orioles as a 24-year-old in 1979, pitching well against the Angels in the ALCS and poorly against the Pirates in the World Series. Relievers earned the decision in both games.

Four years later, he earned a World Series ring but watched from the bullpen as the Orioles beat the White Sox and Phillies on their way to winning the Series. A 16-game winner the year before, he was a 16-game loser that year. His alcoholism was consuming him. He wouldn't beat it for another four years.

"That's why I've been able to handle having these physical ailments and still be able to pitch, because I've learned to be mentally tough," he said.

He will need every ounce of that toughness tonight with Johnson pitching for the Mariners.

"I look forward to it," he said. "I've never been the favorite anyway. I've always been the underdog, the one nobody believed in. It motivates me to know I'm in that position."

Regardless of the circumstances, Martinez will be in a position that all pitchers envy: the chance to deliver a pennant to his team.

"This is one of the dreams I have had," he said. "It would be wonderful to do something you'd always be remembered for. But as much as it would mean to me personally, the thing to do is forget about that and concentrate on giving my team a chance to win. That's all that matters."

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