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In My Baseball DNA: Tino Martinez

My first baseball memory is crystal clear in my mind; I was six years old, running around my parent’s living room while the TV in the hardwood entertainment center blared the Yankee game in the background. I’m not sure who the Bronx Bombers were playing, it could have been the Twins or the Mariners since they were under a dome, but I was stopped dead in my tracks when I heard that magical name:

Tino Martinez.

As I looked toward the large glowing box, I witnessed the New York first baseman running from first to second, going into a feet-first slide, and sliding through second base in a perfect arc to third, all without leaving the seat of his pants. Now, this clearly never happened. What probably occurred was that Tino slid into second, the ball got thrown into the outfield, and he got up and ran to third, sliding in once again; but my mind remembers it far more fantastically, helping to make Tino Martinez my favorite player of all time.
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I became obsessed with him, my favorite number became (and remains) 24, and I soon discovered that like Tino, I too was a right-handed thrower, but a lefty batter; I wanted to play first base – just like him – though that quickly changed the moment I had a ball thrown at my face from across the diamond. Countless hours were spent in the front yard pretending to be all sorts of Yankee hitters in Wiffle ball games with my friends, but mimicking Tino was always my favorite, his at-bats became a must-see for me whenever I was able to watch a game, and he blessed my fandom with many memorable moments.

Early in May 1998, I witnessed my first real baseball fight, as Orioles’ fireballer Armando Benitez drilled Tino in the back; the brawl that ensued was legitimately entertaining and makes today’s “fights” seem tame by comparison. You walked away after viewing with a new-found respect (or in the case of Benitez, disrespect) for many of the players involved and the lengths they were willing to go to protect their teammate.

Later in the year, during game one of the 1998 World Series, Tino Martinez struck out with the bases loaded, or at least he should have if not for a providentially bad call from the home plate umpire; Tino’s response to that second-chance redemption? Well, it went a little something like this:

With that one swing, despite it only being the first game of the series, the Yankees became World Champions – the air was let out of the San Diego balloon, and they never recovered.

Then there was game four of the 2001 World Series, a seven-game set full of dramatic moments, thrilling comebacks, and ultimately, Yankee defeat. I was a newly minted eleven-year-old when I got to watch Tino hit a two-run, game-tying homer off of D-Backs Closer Byung-Hyun Kim (I will never forget that pitching motion), it was spectacular.

That was the last Yankee memory I’d get to make of Martinez for a while, as the Yankees opted not to bring him back for the 2002 season, and he instead signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. I didn’t understand it, despite being a baseball fan for six years, this was my first realization of what Free Agency really was, and of course, it had to come at the expense of my hero leaving my favorite team (and man, he did not look good in red). After two years in a state of misery (I’m sorry, I meant “the State of Missouri), Constantino returned to the AL East, this time joining the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. While I was happy to be able to watch him a little more frequently (this was still before the days of streaming on MLB TV), it still wasn’t fun to see him in an opposing uniform.
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Then, on January 1st, 2005, the prodigal son returned home, as the “Bam-Tino” returned to New York to play first base for one final season, and oh how he did thrill. While his overall stats that year weren’t that great, a .241 average with 17 home runs and 49 RBI, one of my most indelible memories from his career came early on, as if in a “thanks for the love” to the fans, he homered in four straight games from May 8-11, took a game off on the 13th, and then hit another on the 14th and two more on the 15th! Eight homers in six games; not bad for a 37-year-old.

Tino Martinez’s story is classic; a man acquired by the Yankees from the Seattle Mariners to replace Yankees legend Don Mattingly after he had helped defeat them in 1995, he started off as a de facto punching bag (you think YOU can replace the captain?), but became a fan-favorite and Yankee legend in his own right. To this day, he still receives raucous cheers from fans whenever he returns to the stadium and is to be forever remembered in Yankee lore, as his plaque stands amongst many other legends in Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park.
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While not a Hall of Famer, his career puts him squarely in the Hall of Very Good (the Hallway of Fame?) as he put up a final slash line of .271/.344/.471, with 339 HR, 1271 RBI, 1925 H, 365 2B and 1009 R throughout a sixteen-year career. In 1997, Tino would hit a career-high 44 HR and drive in an additional high of 141 RBI, winning the home-run derby and finishing second in MVP voting to his former teammate, the future Hall of Famer, Ken Griffey Jr.; he did, however, win the Silver Slugger for his troubles and remains one of the five most recent Yankees to have hit forty home runs in a season. None of this even takes his fielding into account, as he was consistently underrated in that department; as my dad always used to say, “Tino Martinez is the best first baseman ever to never win a Gold Glove;” I don’t know if the facts bear that out, to be honest, but I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment.

I have yet to meet Tino, though it is on my bucket list; but one final, wonderful, memory I have involving him came long after he retired, as – during a visit to the Hall of Fame Archives (a story for another day) – I got to hold his bat. It was one of the best days of my baseball life.

Aaron is a Writer and communicator who has notably served on the communications team of the Westchester County Executive. Nicknamed "Mr. Baseball" in his youth, Aaron is a lifelong Yankee fan, Tino Martinez and Aaron Judge enthusiast, and a fierce defender of Craig Biggio's Hall of Fame worthiness. When he is not writing, or doing baseball related activities, Aaron is an avid foodie and culinarian. His non-baseball writing can be found at the Realety Check substack.

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