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In his people, Martinez has found a family in which, for the first time in his life, he can be the favorite son. When Dennis was born, his mother, Emilia, was 43 and the next youngest of his six siblings was 10. "I grew up a lonely child," he says. "When I was a boy, I wanted to be good at everything I did, so I could be accepted. I wanted to be the best in math so everybody would want to copy from my paper, because I could get attention that way. I was trying to show people something that was not real. And as time went on, I continued to create a fantasy of what my life was."
The fantasy grew out of ugliness. Martinez's parents separated when he was young. "All I can remember is my mom and dad fighting," he says. "My dad was an alcoholic—the quietest, most lovely drunk I ever saw. He was very gentle, but my mom would always push him away. I didn't like that—seeing him drunk and the way she treated him. But when he was drinking, he would sell our pigs to get money for liquor."
Dennis never really got to know his father, Edmundo. "Every time I saw him he was drunk," he says. "I never had him at my side. Every time I see some player with his father in the locker room, I still kind of resent that. Just to have somebody to tell me, 'You did good today. You look good in that uniform.' I missed those things. I missed having someone I could talk to, somebody I could ask, 'Is this the right way?' I learned everything outside the home. I grew up the rough way, got hit a lot as punishment. I've read where my mother has said if I hadn't been raised like that, I wouldn't have turned out the way I did, but I'm not so sure."
Every Sunday, Martinez would go from mass at the cathedral that towers over the town square in Granada to the mercado. Amid the heat and the noise and the flies that seemed to fatten themselves on the choking smell of sweetness and rot, Dennis kept the books at the shabby stall where Emilia sold rice, beans and other staples. "I didn't like my friends to see me there," he says, "but I had to deal with it." He wore hand-me-down clothes with patches sewn on the seat of the pants and walked around at school with books held behind him to cover his embarrassment.
Dennis also did without socks for much of his childhood, but this flaying of the feet was a worthwhile sacrifice, for in Nicaragua socks often become homemade baseballs. "We would take a rock and wrap it up in a sock and use it for a ball," he says. "All over Nicaragua you can see those balls on the tile roofs. If it ever rained very hard in my country, you would have a sock storm."
By the time he was 17, Martinez had studied engineering for a year at the National University in Managua and was married to Luz, a fellow student from Granada. Dennis had also played a lot of baseball, though few people took notice of him on the diamond. Having been released by one of the worst teams in the Nicaraguan leagues and ignored by several others because no one wanted a third baseman who weighed 120 pounds, he was finally picked up by the Granada Tiburones. When Heberto Portobanco, the Tiburones manager then and now, saw Martinez snapping off curveballs on the sidelines while warming up, he asked him to pitch to a catcher. Eight days later Martinez pitched for Granada in an exhibition game against the Nicaraguan national team and gave up one hit, a home run to Rafael Obando, now a coach for the Tiburones.
Obando says Martinez has grown to mythic proportions in the eyes of his countrymen by simply staying the same. "He is still very humble," says Obando. "And always sending equipment to the team. Shoes, gloves—nobody asks him, he just sends stuff." The Tiburones have adopted the Expo colors in his honor.
The last game Martinez would ever pitch on his home soil for a Nicaraguan team was in 1973, and it was both a heartbreaking ending—a 1-0 loss in 10 innings to the U.S. team in the championship game of the amateur World Series—and the beginning of a 10-year hangover. Martinez had been discovered by a Baltimore Oriole scout, so after that game, the captain of the Nicaraguan national team sent Martinez on his way to the norteamericanos by getting him smashed on a bottle of rum. "I took a shot of rum straight up because I wanted to show the other guys I was a man," Martinez says. "Then I drank three or four more shots and passed out."
At the time there was little enough reason to suspect that Martinez was major league material. "My friends from the university said, 'Next week you'll be back here,' " Martinez remembers. But after less than three seasons in the minors, he was pitching in Baltimore. "When he came up with the Orioles, he was extremely gifted," says Jim Palmer, who was then the ace of the Baltimore staff. "He was a pitcher, not a thrower. I think [manager] Earl Weaver felt he should be pretty near perfect every time out. There were great expectations."
And great revelations. "I didn't have to go through hard times like other Latin kids do," Martinez says. "Coming from Nicaragua, everything seemed so easy here. You stay in the finest hotels, cat in the best restaurants, life is good. I wasn't prepared for that. Nobody could tell me what to do. I was the big shot."