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True Gem

Tino Martinez brings four championship rings with his return home. More importantly, he brings an intensity and a professional approach that a young ballclub craves.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published February 22, 2004

[Times photos: Toni L. Sandys]
Long before earning World Series rings, Tino Martinez learned the game at the West Tampa Little League fields.

ST. PETERSBURG - There were days, Don Zimmer said, when the best thing to do was stay away. He would see the fire in Tino Martinez's eyes or hear the edge in his voice, sense that something was interfering with Martinez's insatiable desire to win, and even Zimmer, with all he has done in the game, knew better than to cross paths in the Yankees clubhouse.

"I love Tino, but I didn't want Tino jumping on my a--," Zimmer said. "I had a pretty good idea when Tino was in "that' mood and I'd just stay away. I'm anxious to be on the same side with him again."

That fierce intensity is just one of the reasons the Rays brought Martinez home for a happy ending to a storybook career that started on the fertile fields of the West Tampa Little League and grew into a fantastic journey.

Even if at age 36 his bat has slowed a tad, he still can add some left-handed power to the Tampa Bay lineup. And even if his range may have diminished a bit or his hands might not be quite as soft, he will be impressive at first base.

But the true value of what Martinez brings to the Rays extends beyond his bat and glove. It can't be measured statistically, not unless the sabermetricians have developed a program to quantify heart, experience, leadership, determination and intensity.

"He is the complete package," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's had a successful career at the major-league level. On the field, we think he has another year or two left to continue to play at a high level. The championships that he's won, the way he carries himself - I think the word "professional' is overused sometimes in sports, but this is the consummate professional. His work ethic, what he brings on and off the field, is going to be a tremendous example to our young players."

"You really couldn't ask for a better guy for this organization with all the young guys and the example he's probably going to set," said veteran Robert Fick, who has played against Martinez for years. "He's pretty priceless I'd say. Tino's won World Series and he's been there and done everything pretty much. He's played with the greatest players of our age. We're lucky to have him."

The Yankees once felt that way, winning four World Series (and playing in a fifth) during Martinez's six years in New York, but they let him go after the 2001 season to sign Jason Giambi. The Cardinals felt that way when they signed Martinez and finished first and third during his two seasons there, but decided he was the one who needed to go as they attempted to restructure their roster this winter.

Martinez's absence now is felt in both places.

"You're talking about a guy who's earned a terrific reputation," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "The Yankees still say they're not the same without him. ... You're going to get a guy in there who gives you total professionalism from the first day of spring training until the end of the season. Frankly, we're going to miss him."

Martinez's tenure in St. Louis didn't end well. His numbers weren't great (.273, 15 homers, 69 RBIs), but not bad enough for the disproportionate share of blame he got for the team's 2003 shortcomings. Worse, some St. Louis columnists portrayed him as part of the problem, a negative presence and malcontent in the clubhouse. That the Cardinals were quick to trade him, and essentially paid the Rays to take him (covering $7-million of the $8.5-million remaining on his contract), didn't make it look any better.

But La Russa says the reports were absolutely wrong, so ignorant of things such as how Martinez helped teammates on a daily basis and through trauma such as the death of teammate Darryl Kile. Teammates rallied to Martinez's defense, pitcher Matt Morris taking the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the Post-Dispatch, insisting the accusations were absolutely off-base and that, among other things, Martinez "brought nothing but professionalism and knowledge of what it takes to earn a championship."

Former Cardinal Eduardo Perez said he thought so much of Martinez that one of the reasons he signed with the Rays was the chance to play with him again.

"He's a great teammate," Perez said. "He's a guy to be respected."

"With his presence, people are going to look up to Tino," said Zimmer, who left the Yankees for the Rays. "Tino's a gamer. He's a competitor, a tough competitor. He knows what it's all about."

The Rays are counting on Martinez to have a positive influence in their clubhouse, showing and telling their young cornerstone players what it takes to be successful.

"He brings a lot of experience and World Series championships to a club that's learning how to win one," Aubrey Huff said. "He's a guy that's been there before with a team like the Yankees, with all the media and all the exposure they get up there, and all the pressure that comes with it. He can come here and teach some of the young guys how to go about their business professionally on and off the field."

The assignment, Martinez said, is a welcome one.

"I'm comfortable with that role," he said. "This team is so young. They know how toplay and they're talented, but when things get tough during the season, I've been through a lot of ups and downs, and I can help them through those times."

At times, the influence will be subtle, a casual observation or quiet suggestion. But occasionally it will be rather obvious and even loud as Martinez isn't shy about speaking up when he sees something he doesn't like or senses something going amiss, and everyone is a fair target.

"Tino's a winner," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "He knows what it takes to win. He's real intense. He brought the intensity level up when he was with us."

Martinez has had a tremendous career. He won a state high school championship at Tampa Catholic (then later transferred to Jefferson), was an All-American at the University of Tampa, a first-round draft pick and an Olympic gold medalist. He had a hand in helping Lou Piniella resuscitate baseball in Seattle, spent six years in the bright lights of New York with four World Series rings to show for it, made two All-Star appearances and earned the reward of a three-year, $21-million contract in St. Louis.

The transitions have not always been easy. He replaced Don Mattingly in New York and Mark McGwire in St. Louis, and the pressure could have been overwhelming, if he wasn't used to the pressure he puts on himself.

Now he has the chance to finish his career at home and help turn the local team into a winner.

"What a great opportunity this is," Martinez said.

There are any a number of possible explanations for his down years in St. Louis - the expectations that came with replacing McGwire, a shoulder injury that restricted his swing, the transition to the NL. He refuses all, saying simply he did the best he could.

And he expects to do better.

"I'm trying to help this team improve and become a contender," Martinez said. "I'll do my part to play the best I can. Whatever the numbers may be, I'll play hard every day. I don't have anything to prove, but I expect myself to play well."

The Rays are confident that with occasional rest and days off against tough left-handers Martinez still can be an impact player in the AL. La Russa predicts nothing less.

"He'll have anywhere from a good year to a real good year," La Russa said. "Something you learn about players is that the same things that make a guy special can work against them.

"Tino is such a proud guy that he came in here his first year and he really wanted to prove to everybody that this is the guy who won four rings and he can help us and he put immense pressure on himself. The more he kind of relaxed and was being himself, the more you saw what he could do. He's got plenty left."

The Rays just want him to do what he does best.

"Let him be Tino," Zimmer said. "Just let him relax. He'll pop a two- or three-run homer now and then. Just as long as people don't have too high of expectations because he's Tino Martinez, he played for the Yankees, he's going to hit 35 homers and all that. He'll help win a ballgame, and that's the most important thing."

In more ways than one.

[Last modified February 22, 2004, 01:45:26]

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