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Jose Dennis Martinez
Starting Pitcher, 1994-1996
Height: 6'1" Weight: 160 lbs
Acquired: Free Agent, 12-2-1993
Left Via: Free Agency, 2-20-1997 (Seattle)
Dennis Martinez pitched just three seasons for the Cleveland Indians, but those were three of the most important seasons in franchise history. His signing prior to the 1994 season marked the beginning of a new era in the direction of the franchise.
With a new park opening the following spring, Indians General Manager John Hart was trying to finish off a roster that seemed on the verge of becoming a contender. Most of the offensive pieces were already in place, but the starting rotation was a major problem. Only one pitcher (Jose Mesa) made over 30 starts, and only three (Mesa, Mark Clark, and Tom Kramer) had thrown over 100 innings. An astounding 14 pitchers had started 5 or more games for the Indians in 1993, and almost none of those pitchers were any good. So finding some help in free agency was a top priority.
The problem wasn't money - it was perception. Even with a new stadium, Cleveland was seen as a joke by players around baseball, and free agents weren't exactly breaking down Hart's door to sign. Hart's initial offers to free agents Mark Portugal and Sid Fernandez fell short, so by the beginning of December, he had moved on to a second tier of free agents. Among that second tier was Dennis Martinez, who was looking to latch on to a contender. Dennis was going to be 39, and it had been a long time since he had pitched in the playoffs.
Martinez had come a long way even to get to this point. The first Nicaragua to really make it in major-league baseball, Martinez burst onto the scene as part of Baltimore's embarrassment of pitchers in the late 70s and 80s, and after helping to lead the Orioles to the 1979 pennant, it seemed that at age 24 Martinez was just scratching the surface of what he could do.
But all the while Martinez was building a promising career for himself, he had a drinking problem, one that he'd been hiding from the Orioles his entire professional career. Up until 1983, his alcoholism had not affected his play on the field, but that season his play suffered, and after the season, he was arrested for drunk driving. He entered a local hospital to begin treatment that winter:
"The first day I was in the hospital, I was still in what they call denial," Martinez explains. "In other words, I was still denying that there was anything wrong with me. I looked around and thought to myself what am I doing here with all these junkies, addicts and alcoholics. This was no place for me."
Martinez has a mind of his own. He doesn't jump simply because someone tells him to. He considered the counselor's proposal for a moment or so.
He then got down on his knees and prayed.
"That," he says now, "was the turning point of my life."
Martinez was now sober, but he didn't immediately become a good pitcher again. He would struggle in 1984 and 1985, and the Orioles dealt him to the Montreal Expos in June 1986. After that season, his contract was up, and he declared free agency, but no one offered him a contract (most likely due to the collusion that was going on at the time). He pitched in an independent league for a time, then finally landed back in the Montreal organization in May of 1987. Back in the big leagues by June, Martinez was better than he'd been even in his Baltimore heyday, posting 3.30 ERA over the last four months of the season.
1988 started a string of six straight season in which he pitched at least 200 innings, made at least 30 starts, and posted an ERA+ of at least 110. He had his best season in 1991; he had an ERA+ of 153, lead the NL in ERA, complete games, and shutouts, and tossed a perfect game on July 28th.
Dennis was getting better with age, having his best seasons after turning 33. But when he became a free agent after the 1993 season, not many clubs were interested in signing a 38-year-old pitcher to a multi-year contract, no matter how effective he'd been. He had slipped somewhat in 1993, and apparently that scared some potential suitors to believe that time was catching up with Martinez.
But the Indians were interested, and offered him a three-year contract worth approximately $4.0M a season. Martinez agreed to the deal, and the Indians announced both this signing and the signing of Eddie Murray on the same day. Murray and Martinez were teammates in Baltimore, and their reunion in Cleveland would help to bring about not only a change in perception, but also a change from four decades of losing baseball.
Martinez's first pitch as an Indian would be the first pitch thrown at new Jacobs Field. He would not get a decision, but he would allow just two runs in seven innings, exactly the type of outing the Indians were looking for. Bolstered by the addition of Martinez and a healthy Charles Nagy, the Tribe starting staff was much better than the one in 1993. Martinez finished the strike-shortened season with an ERA+ of 133, quite an accomplishment for a pitcher who had move from the National to the American League.
The Indians brought in Orel Hershiser after the strike ended to further bolster the pitching staff, and that move turned the Tribe rotation into one of the league's best. The offense, now clicking on all cylinders, didn't need much help, but the strong starting staff and virtually unhittable bullpen combined to dominate the AL Central from start to finish. The now 40-year-old Martinez almost matched his magical 1991 season, posting a 151 ERA+ and was named to his fourth All-Star Team in six seasons (all after he turned 35).
That fall, he made the first postseason pitch in 41 seasons when he started Game 1 of the ALDS. He didn't figure the decision, but when he left the game, the Indians were leading Roger Clemens and the Red Sox 3-2. His next start was Game 1 against the Seattle Mariners, this time facing off against Randy Johnson. He would get tagged with the loss, giving up 3 earned runs in six innings, but he got the last laugh by beating Johnson and the Mariners in decisive Game 6 by throwing seven masterful shutout innings in the Kingdome.
Martinez allowed a decent 3.48 ERA in the World Series, but the Indians lost both games he started. He left Game 2 down 4-2 after giving up two runs in the sixth. In Game 6, he tossed 4.2 shutout innings, but was pulled early because he was walking a tightrope, having given up 4 hits and 5 walks in those 4.2 innings.
Martinez only made 20 starts in 1996, missing essentially the second half of the season due to an elbow injury. He spent almost a month on the DL from late June to late July, then after a couple starts, made a second trip. He started a game in late August, but was removed just a couple of innings into it. He was not available to pitch in the postseason.
When Kirby Puckett announced his retirement that summer, Martinez attended; he had thrown the pitch that hit Puckett in the side of the face in what would be his last major-league at-bat, and although there was no definitive link between that pitch and the glaucoma that would end Puckett's career, Kirby made a point not to blame Martinez:
"Dennis Martinez sitting back there has taken a lot of crap for an accident that happened last year," Puckett said. "I'm telling you now, I love Dennis Martinez and he didn't do it on purpose. I was just leaning in there too far."
Sporting News, 7-22-1996
Martinez was a free agent after the season, and signed with the Mariners just before Spring Training. He only lasted nine starts into the 1997 season before he was released. He gave it one more go, this time with the Atlanta Braves in 1998, and pitched mainly out of the bullpen, including 4 appearances in the NLCS.He finished his career with 3,999.2 innings, just one out short of an even 4,000.
After he retired, Martinez got back into baseball as a minor-league pitching coach in the Cardinals organization. Still beloved in his native Nicaragua, its national baseball stadium was named after him in 1998.
Indians Career Stats
AL All-Star: 1995
AL WAR (Pitchers): 6th, 1994; 5th, 1995
AL ERA: 3rd, 1995
AL WHIP: 6th, 1994; 3rd, 1995
AL BB/9: 7th, 1994; 2nd, 1995
AL Innings Pitched: 4th, 1994