Martinez gradually steps out of Mattingly's shadow Yankees first baseman makes own fans with bat

June 23, 1996|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Whether Tino Martinez is entering Yankee Stadium, swinging a bat in the on-deck circle, patrolling first base or leaving the Bronx after a game, he has learned to expect and accept the legendary name that is tossed in his face like so many whipped-cream pies in a blooper sketch. "Don Mattingly" might as well be plastered across his forehead.

Following a famous player is always a chore, so Martinez usually ignores the taunts. The Mattingly fans will not disappear. They will always remember him as the superstar from 1985, not the player whose offensive skills had eroded by 1995. It is best to let them squawk or simply silence them. Martinez is doing both.

"It's definitely still there," said Martinez, lifting his eyebrows to emphasize the point. "I still hear it. I don't mind it. They say Mattingly things all the time. I understand it. I'm not going to let it get under my skin."

Ever so smoothly Martinez has grown more comfortable as Mattingly's successor and has basically been embraced by the fans who hated to see their hero replaced. Chants of "Tino! Tino!" have echoed in the Stadium lately and Martinez is now firmly entrenched. He knows it. Finally.

"Even if I hit .350 with 40 homers and 150 RBIs, they'll never forget Don Mattingly here and I don't want them to," said Martinez. "I want them to support me and support this team. I've gotten that. That's a really good feeling. To feel like I belong here is great."

Joe Torre, who replaced the successful Buck Showalter as manager, and Joe Girardi, who replaced the popular Mike Stanley as catcher, have undergone similar scrutiny from the fans. Torre understands the significance of the serenading of the new first baseman.

"It made me feel," he said, "that the fans weren't trying not to like him."

After batting a dismal .196 over the first three weeks, which caused him to press even more because he felt obligated to prove his mettle, Martinez has relaxed, has stopped lunging at pitches and has performed admirably enough to evolve into a Stadium favorite.

Why not?

His two-run homer spoiled Brad Radke's almost-perfect night Tuesday in a 2-0 victory over Minnesota, one day after he drove in three runs when the Yankees defeated the Indians, 6-3. He was eager to begin a four-game series in Cleveland on Friday.

"It's funny how you play well against certain teams," Martinez said, referring to how New York had won 21 of the last 29 meetings with the Indians. "Guys told me we played the Indians tough. It's good to have that over them."

Going into Friday, Martinez led the Yankees with 12 home runs and 51 RBIs, which is five more homers and two more RBIs than Mattingly had all last season. Martinez, 28, was batting .285 after a surge of 26 hits in 71 at-bats, and while he is not as proficient as Mattingly as a leader or on

Martinez defense, Martinez has not been a liability while making four errors.

Suddenly his 0-for-16 start at the Stadium -- "They booed me, which is fine because I would have booed myself" -- and his 0-for-17 drought with men in scoring position to open the season have been filed under another one of Martinez's frigid Aprils. Suddenly Martinez has joined Bernie Williams as the player Torre wants hitting in pivotal spots.

"I'm more relaxed," said Martinez, who was up to .280 with runners in scoring position. "I was trying to impress everybody and blend in. I had to tell myself to relax. It's easier to say it than do it."

Torre never thought Mattingly's significant shadow bothered Martinez, but he felt the five-year, $25 million contract Martinez signed after being acquired from Seattle last December was a burden.

"All of a sudden he's got a long-term contract making a lot of money and he feels he has to be superhuman," Torre said. "It's pride. You feel you have all this money coming and you have to earn it."

Although many observers believed the Yankees probably had overpaid a player some think had a career year (.293, 31 homers, 111 RBIs) in 1995, Paul O'Neill thinks Martinez is worth every dollar. O'Neill revered Mattingly but has become fast friends with Martinez.

"It was Donnie's decision to give it up, so that shouldn't be held against Tino," said O'Neill. "It wasn't like the Yankees got rid of him. If it wasn't Tino, it was going to be someone else. People should watch him because he's in the prime of his career. What he does in the next four years could be awesome."

Martinez conceded that his transition to New York has been the most difficult phase of his career because every mistake here gets magnified. While he knows there are still high expectations, Martinez is producing and that is keeping the fans happy. Even most of the Mattingly devotees.

"I didn't want the fans to forget about Mattingly," Martinez said, "but I wanted them to realize that this guy retired and we have a new first baseman. Let's get behind him and support him and the team. That has happened so far."

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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