WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — The journey that brought baseball lifer Dave Martinez to Washington as the new rookie manager of the Nationals began on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 93rd Street in New York.
Martinez, the son of Puerto Rican parents, fell in love with the national pastime while growing up in the country’s biggest baseball town.
“My mom and dad were pretty hands-on. They were strict about me going out and running around the streets,” recalls Martinez. But as a young boy, Martinez found time to play baseball — as difficult as that was at times in a borough without a lot of grass.
“We played at a water fountain. We played on concrete,” notes Martinez, sitting in the shade on a patio outside of the Nationals clubhouse during spring training in Florida. “I mean, that was the only place you could play.”
On Thursday, Major League Baseball’s annual Opening Day, Martinez and the star-studded Washington squad he’s charged with leading will step onto a pristine green field inside Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park for the first outing of a 162-game season pregnant with expectations for the first-time manager and his Nationals.
It’s a job the 53-year-old skipper has prepared for his whole life.
Martinez was 13 when he moved to Florida to pursue, with his New York family’s blessing, his passion for baseball in the more favorable climate of the Sunshine State.
He went to middle school and high school in Florida while focusing on baseball, though he also played some football.
When he was 15, he went back to live with his parents in New York but that lasted about a month.
“My dad said, ‘Hey, you need to go.’ I was playing all the time, playing (baseball) every day. So I went and lived with my uncle,” Martinez said. He graduated from Lake Howell High in Winter Park, Florida, before he was drafted by the Cubs out of junior college.
After 16 years as a major league player and more than 10 as a coach, Martinez will be in the dugout for the first time as a big league manager when the Nationals play the Reds.
Then in a few weeks, the Nationals will head to New York to face the Mets, a rival in the National League East. Will that be more special for Martinez to be back in New York as a manager?
“I think it will be. I am just excited for the first game in Cincinnati, Opening Day. To go back there (to New York), that is kind of where it pretty much started,” he said.
He will try to do what those before him, including Davey Johnson, Matt Williams and Dusty Baker, could not: Lead the Nationals to at least one postseason series win. He also knows there are big expectations for Washington, which won the previous two National League East titles under former manager Baker.
But the Nationals lost both times in the first round, giving Washington an 0-4 record in the playoffs since 2012.
Martinez, who always seems to be smiling, was hired to be the manager who finally gets the Nationals over the hump.
Whether he’s the answer to that annual Washington riddle is a question for October. For now, it will have to be enough to know who he isn’t.
He is not Baker, his laid-back predecessor and a borderline Hall of Fame player and manager who grows his own wine and attended jazz festivals in California as a young man.
Nor is he the strict, rigid Williams, the Nationals manager from 2014-15 who rarely strayed from his in-game plan, no matter the consequences (see Jonathan Papelbon).
Martinez is not even his mentor Joe Maddon, the longtime Cubs manager who has an English literature degree and isn’t hesitant to use his credentials to get inside the halls of Congress.
What Martinez is, perhaps to his core, is a solid baseball man that the franchise is counting on to bring just the right mix of balancing relationships with players and the ability to access and use the sport’s powerful new data tools.
That combination — the vibrant personality of someone who works with people and someone who also understands and embraces the brave new world of baseball analytics — reflects the influence of a father who enjoyed the country as much as the city. As a young boy, Martinez got out of the city regularly with his father, who loved camping. They headed to the Catskills and Lake Placid in upstate New York and also made treks to Pennsylvania.
Martinez, a big city kid who was at home in the country, plans to balance old-school baseball intuition with new-age printouts and stats.
Former big league pitcher Shawn Camp got to work with Martinez when the latter was a first base coach for Tampa Bay in 2007.
“He is a personable guy. He has a lot of passion, a lot of energy, he brought to the field every day,” said Camp, who played at Robinson High and George Mason University in Fairfax. “He was always approachable. He was a guy who was just down to Earth.”
“He understands the grind. He is taking really care of us,” Nationals pitcher Brandon Kintzler said of Martinez during spring training.
“He is smart about how he puts the lineup together,” said Matt Adams, a new first baseman/outfielder for Washington. “It seems like it is going to be a fun year, for sure.”
As much as the team’s owners would like to hear otherwise, no manager can guarantee a title. But the Nationals are in good hands this year, say those who know the rookie skipper.
“He is going to be loved in the clubhouse (by the players),” Camp said. “He is going to be a guy who will lead.”