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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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After going 14-7 in 1977, his first full season in the big leagues, he returned to Nicaragua to a hero's welcome. "Oh, man," he says, "I will never forget that day. It was like the president was coming home. There were two or three thousand people waiting for me at the airport. The people really knew what was going on in baseball, and they were desperate for somebody to make it in the big show."

A caravan of cars escorted Martinez past crowds of waving people on the route from Managua to Granada. "I had to keep both arms up to wave back," he says. "By the time I got to Granada I felt like I'd pitched two games. But I felt good because I knew I had accomplished something they were waiting for."

More accomplishments followed; Martinez was 16-11 for the Orioles in 1978. That mark might have been even better but for Martinez's odd tendency to tip his pitches with grotesque facial expressions. A grimace as he released the ball, for instance, meant curve, and the hitters knew it. So Martinez stuck a plug of chewing tobacco and bubble gum in his cheek that was so colossal that when he released the ball, it simply appeared as if his head were about to explode. Ever since then, a big chaw has been a Martinez trademark.

In 1979 he led the American League with 292 innings pitched and 18 complete games, which led to a sore arm that forced him to miss most of the following season. He rebounded with 14 victories, tied for the most in the majors during the strike-shortened season in 1981.

But none of this helped to make Martinez beloved in Baltimore. "I developed a bad reputation through the media early in my career because I couldn't speak the language," Martinez says. "They made me look like a dumb guy who didn't really know how to respond to their questions. And I resented that."

He also resented not getting the attention he felt he deserved. "Palmer, [Mike] Flanagan and [Scott] McGregor were getting all the credit," he says. "Sometimes the media didn't even mention my name. There were times when I threw a shutout, and they would go to the pitching coach to ask the questions. And he would say something like 'It was a great game, but....' But what? How much better could I pitch?"

He was 16-12 in 1982, though he battled constantly with the Orioles' veteran catcher Rick Dempsey over pitch selection. Martinez believes Dempsey, together with Weaver, treated him like a child because he was Latin. "There are a lot of people who want to control the game for you," Martinez says. "They would say they couldn't understand why I didn't win 20 games, because I had the best stuff on our staff. They would say, 'He's not really smart. He's not throwing the right pitch at the right time.'

"I always resented it, because I wanted to control my own game, and because I believed the pitcher should make those decisions. I never heard of a situation where you shake the catcher off and he gets mad at you. If you're a catcher, you have to protect your pitcher. Rick Dempsey showed me up in front of the other players and the coaches, and I couldn't say anything because I was the only Latin player on the staff. I remember when I was with the Orioles feeling like they had taken my tongue out."

Dempsey remembers his own frustrations with Martinez. "You had to keep him focused on what he was trying to do," Dempsey says. "You couldn't let him get beat with his third-best pitch. Earl made sure I knew what he wanted us to do with each hitter. I know Dennis didn't like it, but we won that way."

Away from the ballpark, Martinez spent much of his time trying to get phone calls through to Granada to find out if his mother was all right. "From 1977 to '79 there was a lot of killing in Nicaragua," he says. "People were shooting at anything. Every day I would look at the paper and see if there had been any killing in Granada, and if there hadn't been, it would be like a big load out of my chest."

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