Classic Yankees: Tino Martinez

It’s hard seeing legends retire. 2010 saw the last of Andy Pettitte in a Yankees uniform, and it looks as if 2011 will be the last of Jorge Posada. 2012 could see the last of Mariano Rivera, and then down the road eventually Father Time will catch up to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

All too often, the successor to a legend isn’t well received. Heck, there were many who didn’t care for Mickey Mantle, and who unfairly compared him to Joe DiMaggio. DiMaggio was “their guy”, and they wouldn’t accept the Mick, even though Joe had retired.

Such was the case in early 1995. Don Mattingly had decided not to play in 1996, and gave the Yankees his blessing to proceed without him. Even though it was evident for years that Mattingly wasn’t the same, Mattingly devotees refused to let go. I was one of the most ardent Mattingly fans there was, but in 1995, I had to accept the inevitable. In that shortened season of 1995 (144 games, coming off the strike), Mattingly still could hit for average (.288), but the power was that of a middle infielder (7 HR, 49 RBI, OPS+ 97) and not of a middle-of-the-order first baseman. The power that enabled Donnie Baseball to hit 35, 31 and 30 HR from 1985-1987 was gone due to a bad back. From 1990 through his last year of 1995, Donnie hit over 15 HR in only one season. Mattingly’s 162 game average from 1990-1995 was .286-10-64, OPS+ 104. Numbers, as I wrote, of a middle infielder who should be hitting second, maybe seventh. Certainly not numbers of a middle of the order first baseman.

Those numbers arrived in 1996 with the acquisition of Constantino “Tino” Martinez. At the time, many resented Tino taking the place of the beloved Mattingly. Martinez, however, soon became beloved in his own right.

Martinez began his career in Seattle, coming up at the end of the 1990 season. He hit .221-0-5 in 68 at bats that year. He got 112 at bats in 1991, hitting .205-4-9.

Tino, a 1B/DH, got full-time action in 1992, hitting .257-16-66, with an OPS+ of 103. He missed about 1/3 of the 1993 season, but had solid numbers when he played, hitting .265-17-60, OPS+ 113.

Martinez hit .261 with 20 HR and 61 RBI in 1994, the strike year. His OPS+ was a 108, and those numbers suggest that he could have wound up with 30 HR and 90 RBI if not for the strike.

In 1995, Martinez, along with teammates Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr., woke Seattle up to baseball. For years the Mariners were awful, and they played in a dreadful place for baseball, the Seattle Kingdome. A late season surge put the Mariners into the playoffs, and may have saved baseball in Seattle. Oh yeah, the Mariners also had a 19-year-old backup SS that year named Alex Rodriguez.

Martinez broke out in 1995, hitting .293-31-111, and was named an All-Star. His OPS+ was a 135, and in an epic five-game ALDS series against the Yankees, Martinez hit 9 for 22, 1 HR and 5 RBI. The Yanks won the first two games at home only to lose the next three in Seattle—the last in extra innings. Seattle lost in the ALCS to Cleveland, Martinez going just 3 for 22.

The Yanks then made a great trade on December 7, 1995, getting Martinez, Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir from Seattle for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock. Martinez and Nelson would be key figures in the Yankees dynasty of 1996-2001.

Tino started slowly for the Yanks in 1996, and after nine games was at .088. Fifteen games in, he was still below .200, and some Mattingly devotees were all over him. Even as late as May 24, Martinez was below .250.

Martinez rebounded to end up at .292-25-117, OPS+ 108. He struggled in the postseason, even though the Yanks won their first WS title in eighteen years. He was 4 for 15 in the ALDS, and 4 for 22 in the ALCS. After struggling in the first couple of games in the WS, Martinez was benched in favor of Cecil Fielder. Martinez was just 1 for 11 in the WS. Martinez didn’t drive in a single run in the 1996 postseason.

Tino came back with a vengeance in 1997, and finished runner-up to Ken Griffey, Jr. for the MVP award. He was once again an All-Star, and he won the only Silver Slugger award of his career. He hit .296, with 44 HR, 141 RBI, and he had an OPS+ of 143. He led the majors with 13 SF. He even won the HR derby at the All-Star Game.

In the 1997 ALDS, Martinez was 4 for 18 with 1 HR and 4 RBI as the Yanks lost to the Indians.

1998 is remembered as the season of McGwire and Sosa (and now, for the steroids that helped both, McGwire’s admitted, Sosa’s suspected) as the two of them battled to break Roger Maris’ HR record. While McGwire ended up with 70 (later broken by Barry Bonds [steroids] with 73) and Sosa with 66, Martinez led the 114-game-winning Yankees with 28. In this most magical of Yankees seasons, Martinez hit .281-28-123 with an OPS+ of 124. On May 19th of that year Martinez was drilled in the middle of the back by Armando Benitez after Bernie Williams hit a HR off Benitez. It triggered one of the nastiest brawls we’ve seen in baseball in the last twenty years or so. (Check out then-player, now manager Joe Girardi in the video).

Martinez struggled again in the postseason, going 3 for 11 in the ALDS and just 2 for 19 with one RBI in the ALCS. In Game One of the 1998 WS against the Padres, the heavily favored Yankees were trailing San Diego 5-2 entering the bottom of the seventh. Chuck Knoblauch tied the game with a three-run HR, but the Yanks kept going. With two out, Tino came up with the bases loaded. On a 2-2 pitch, he got a break. What appeared to be strike three was called ball three. On the next pitch, Martinez broke open the game with a grand slam. The Yanks went on to sweep the Padres. Martinez was 5 for 13 in the Series, with that one HR and its 4 RBI. To date, only Paul Konerko (2005) has hit a WS grand slam since Tino’s blast.

Martinez hit .263 in 1999 as the Yanks repeated. Once again he hit 28 HR, this time with 105 RBI. His OPS+ dropped to a 104. He was just 2 for 11 in the ALDS, but then was 5 for 19, 1 HR, 3 RBI in the ALCS. In the WS Tino was 4 for 15, 1 HR and 5 RBI.

Martinez should have received a Gold Glove in 1999, for this was the year in which Chuck Knoblauch started to come down with “Steve Sax Disease,” meaning he had trouble in making the simple throw to first on groundouts. Martinez saved Knoblauch many an error in the 1999 season, but somehow Rafael Palmeiro—who played just 28 games at 1B in 1999 while DH-ing in 128—was named the American League Gold Glove first baseman. What a joke that was and still is.

Although the Yanks three-peated in 2000 (one of just four teams to do so; the Yanks won four in a row 1936-1939, a record five in a row 1949-1953, and Oakland did it 1972-1974), Martinez had an off –year, batting just .258-16-91, OPS+ a disappointing 89. He was 8 for 19 in the ALDS, with 4 RBI, including a huge bases-loaded, three-run double in the first inning of Game 5—a game in which the Yanks scored six in the first and hung on to win 7-5. Martinez was 8 for 25 with a HR, 1 RBI in the ALCS, and then was 8 for 23 with 2 RBI against the Mets in the Subway Series.

2001 was the last year of Martinez’ deal with the Yanks, and as the season progressed, it was getting obvious that the Yanks had their eye set on Oakland’s Jason Giambi who, like Martinez, would be a free agent at the end of the season. Martinez rebounded with a strong season, hitting .280-34-113, OPS+ 113, and finishing 12th in the MVP balloting. He was just 2 for 18, 1 HR, 2 RBI in the ALDS, and then was 5 for 20, 1 HR, 3 RBI in the ALCS. In the World Series, Martinez was 4 for 21 with 1 HR and 3 RBI. That HR, with two out and one on in the bottom of the ninth of Game Four, tied the game and set the stage for Derek Jeter’s “Mr. November” walk-off HR an inning later. Alas, the magic ran out in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 in Arizona.

The next two years saw Martinez replacing another (at that time) legend, Mark McGwire (before he was disgraced) in St. Louis. Tino did ok, hitting .262-21-75 in 2002, OPS+ 105, but he had an awful NLDS, going 0 for 11. In the NLCS, Martinez was 2 for 14 with one RBI. In 2003, Tino hit .273-15-69, OPS+ 106.

Ironically, Giambi struggled early in 2002 as he replaced Tino at 1B for the Yankees, much like Tino did in early 1996 replacing Mattingly.

Martinez, by now aging, went to his hometown of Tampa for the 2004 season. He hit .262-23-76, OPS+ 117.

In 2005, Martinez, now 37, returned to the Yankees. In what turned out to be his final season, Martinez hit .241-17-49, OPS+ 104. He had one last streak of greatness from May 3rd to May 15th of 2005. In that timeframe he was 14 for 38, with 10 HR and 22 RBI, which accounted for most of his good stats for that year. He was 0 for 8 in the ALDS against the Angels.

For his career, Martinez hit .271 with 339 HR, OPS+ 112. His 162 game average was .271-27-102. In the postseason, Martinez hit .233-9-38 in 99 games.

He got 1% of the HOF vote in 2011 and was dropped from the ballot.

He wore #23 in Seattle before becoming a Yankee, but in replacing Mattingly (who wore 23), Tino wore 24 as a Yankee.

Martinez turns 44 on December 7th. After retiring, he has done some broadcasting (ESPN, and as a substitute for Suzyn Waldman on WCBS Radio when Suzyn takes off for Yom Kippur). From Wikipedia: Martinez agreed, in 2008, to be a special instructor for the Yankees to help their first basemen with defensive skills. After Spring Training, he was named Special Assistant to the General Manager. Starting in Spring Training 2010, Martinez became a color commentator for the YES Network, replacing the departed David Cone. He made his regular season debut on April 9, 2010, when he called a game between the Yankees and the Rays that was coincidentally played back in his home area of Tampa Bay.

In 2011, Martinez hit a HR off of David Cone during the Yankees Old-Timer’s day festivities.  Tino came a long way since those discouraging days in the spring of 1996, when Yankees fans didn’t want to accept him as Donnie Baseball’s replacement, for even before the HR on that day, it was Tino who received one of the day’s biggest ovations.

He had become beloved.

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