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Bruce Newman
December 30, 1991
Dennis Martinez labors with few laurels as the ace of the Montreal Expos, but in Nicaragua he's a beloved and benevolent hero
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December 30, 1991

Return Of The Native

Dennis Martinez labors with few laurels as the ace of the Montreal Expos, but in Nicaragua he's a beloved and benevolent hero

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"I never belonged to any political party," García says, "but the Sandinistas said the CIA wanted to control international baseball." García was never given a trial, just a 45-minute reading of the charges against him, and then he was imprisoned for 4½ years. "My job, my property were lost," he says. "It was like a grenade exploded and shattered Nicaragua into a thousand pieces. We think there may have been as many as 30,000 political prisoners in Sandinista jails. Nicaragua used to be a big prison. The worst part was the way they would wake you in the middle of the night to touch your mind with psychological terror. But that nightmare is over, thank god."

On this day García returned to prison, accompanying Martinez to the Zona Franca Penitentiary so that Martinez could distribute baseball equipment to the inmates. Martinez was led through the prison yard, and then, upon rounding a corner, he suddenly found himself walking between two long, facing ranks of prisoners dressed in ragged blue uniforms. As Martinez passed through them on his way to the baseball diamond to present the equipment, the inmates began to applaud. Martinez grinned from ear to ear.

By 11 a.m. Martinez was in the city of Granada, his birthplace, 30 miles southeast of Managua, where he spoke briefly to a group that was attending the second national Alcoholics Anonymous Convention. This was no empty ceremonial visit; Martinez, a recovering alcoholic, had stopped by to offer his encouragement. Then he was on his way again, driving through the sun-blasted streets of the barrios to distribute sports equipment and other supplies, carrying out what he calls "my mission." The landscape here is unrelieved: Rusted hulks sit by the side of the road, houses are thrown together with old boards and scraps of metal, children sit idly on front steps. In the streets Martinez greeted the people warmly, and he continued to follow the day's grueling itinerary without complaint.

But sometimes the demands on Martinez by his countrymen can seem overwhelming. "They're asking me for too much," he had said before leaving from Miami. "There's a lot of need down there, and they always run to me to solve their problems. Like I'm the savior. Like I can cure their disease."

Martinez knows, though, that he is one of Nicaragua's lucky ones. He got out of his homeland before the Sandinistas and the contras began to call upon young men to fight. In 1976 he became the first Nicaraguan ever to play in the major leagues, in '90 he signed a three-year contract with the Expos that will pay him more than $3 million per season, and that summer he became, at 35, the oldest player to appear in an All-Star Game for the first time. Four of his countrymen have come and gone from the majors during his career, so now he is again the only Nicaraguan playing big league baseball. "I'm proud that I made it and that I'm still there," he says. "When I broke into the big leagues and I told people I was from Nicaragua, they didn't even know where it was."

Martinez has never forgotten where his home is, and though he spends the off-seasons in Miami—a city with more Nicaraguans than any other except Managua—he says he hopes that someday soon he can return full-time to Nicaragua. "Most of the [Nicaraguan] people here don't feel comfortable enough yet to go back," he had said while sitting next to the pool at the back of his large, fenced compound in Miami, where he has lived for three years. "There's a lot of resentment from both sides [of the civil war], a lot of envy. Now, after 10 years, people want to get everything back that they have lost, or they won't go home. They don't understand that time didn't stop, and the country didn't stop when they left."

The Nicaraguans who made their way to Miami during the civil war have far less political power there than the well-established Cuban community. During a surge of refugees from Nicaragua three years ago, hundreds of the new arrivals spent Christmas in makeshift shelters on the field at Miami Stadium; it was after Martinez mounted a relief effort to help them find permanent housing that he began to speak with other prominent Nicaraguans living in Miami about organizing an association to ease the transition for those who had fled to the U.S. "A lot of Nicaraguans risked their lives to get here," he says, "and when they asked for help, they didn't get any. There are a lot of powerful people from Nicaragua here—bankers, engineers, people who have theirs already. People need to start saying, 'What can I do to help?' and forget about what has been done in the past."

"I think Dennis is a hero for the Nicaraguan people," says Dr. Oscar Danilo Pozo, a physician who fled his homeland seven years ago. At the end of the most recent baseball season, Pozo enlisted Martinez's help in organizing a drug-prevention program for young Nicaraguans in Miami. "Many people who get special positions and money forget the people around them, but Dennis is a very simple man who went to the highest place in his profession, and now he is encouraging the Nicaraguan people to follow his success."

When his pitching career is over, Martinez may lead a reverse migration from Miami to Nicaragua. And after that, he might toss his Expo cap into the political ring. Could el presidente prove to be more than just an affectionate nickname? "I will have to discuss with my family whether they want to go back, because the kids are in school here, but I want to go back," he says. "Maybe, in the position I am in now as a baseball player, maybe that opened my eyes and showed me that I have a right to say something and people will listen."

Violeta Chamorro is regarded by many Nicaraguans as a figurehead president, voted into office because she is the widow of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who crusaded against the Somocistas while editor of La Prensa—then Nicaragua's sole opposition newspaper—until he was assassinated in 1978. Martinez wonders whether she is up to the job. "Are we going in the right direction, or are we going through the same vicious cycle again?" he asks. If Nicaragua is to have a figurehead in charge, he wonders, is it unthinkable that that figurehead could be a former baseball player? "I feel I can make a difference now," Martinez says. "Carlos García has been telling me he's been preparing me for something, I don't know what. I would definitely like to go back down there and help my people. I call them my people because that is what they are. We are one."

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