Dennis Martinez is among the least-appreciated pitchers in recent generations. Fans in Montreal certainly remember “El Presidente,” but the Nicaraguan-born right-hander is far from a household name in most baseball circles. He should be.
Martinez won 245 games from 1976 to 1998, despite never winning more than 16 in any one season. He pitched 3,999.2 innings and logged a 3.70 ERA. In 1991, at the age of 37, he threw a perfect game. That same season he led the National League in ERA, complete games and shutouts.
In nine full seasons with the Orioles, Martinez was a talented-yet-frustrating pitcher. From 1986 to 1993, with the Expos, he was a bona fide, and beloved, ace. He finished his career with three solid seasons in Cleveland, plus cameos in Atlanta and in Seattle. He’s now the bullpen coach for the Houston Astros.
Martinez talked about his long career — including his approach to pitching and his unwillingness to be anyone but himself — on a recent visit to Fenway Park.
Martinez on the first half of his career: “My first nine or 10 years in the big leagues, I was trying to establish all of my pitches for strikes, but I wasn’t able to do it. I survived all those years by having a good curveball. That was the pitch I relied on when I was younger. I also had a decent fastball.
“When I got to the Expos is when I felt I was on the way to becoming a pitcher. I knew I could throw my fastball, my curveball and my changeup at any time, in any situation, in any count. That’s when I became what you call a pitcher. Before that, I wasn’t.
“When I was in Baltimore, I learned a lot from Jim Palmer. He was a right-handed pitcher, as I was. Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor were left-handers, but we all learned and helped each other out. We talked about how to set up hitters and get them out. But Palmer was a role model to me; I could relate to him as a right-handed pitcher. I tried to eat up his brain as much as I could. I tried to do whatever he did and be a cannibal every four days. In those days, we pitched in a four-man rotation. I tried to be like him, but I didn’t do good, so I figured out my own way.”
On working with catchers: “I relied more on the frame of the catcher. I never tried to hit the mitt. I guided myself from the knees and needed my catchers to spread their legs out. Then I would have an idea of how I could make the pitch effective when I went to the outside corner. I lived on a four-seamer, low-and-away fastball, all my career. I attacked the hitters that way. That was my strength. Then I used my sinker to go in when I knew the hitters were starting to make an adjustment with my four-seamer, low-and-away fastball — they would start hitting it to the right-field line. I would see that and give them a two-seamer to keep them honest.
“Catchers sometimes have a tendency of trying to make you do what they want you to do. I relied on myself. “I didn’t really pitch with what the catcher wanted me to throw. For me, it was a process where I needed to learn by my own mistakes, and the only way I could do that was by pitching with my own feeling — my gut feeling. There is an emotion you need to have, and the determination of which pitch you want to throw. It can be the wrong pitch or the right pitch, but at the end of the day it’s how you locate it, and you locate better when you’re determined to achieve something you want to achieve. My determination to keep that fastball low and away is something that allowed me to not miss it that much. When I did miss, I got hit. When I got hit, I didn’t like it. I pitched to contact, so If I got hit, I wanted it be to hit soft.”
“Some catchers don’t like to move too much. There were times they’d say, ‘If I move too soon, we’re going to let the hitter know which way we’re going.’ I said, ‘I don’t care about that.’ I just cared about me. I wanted to feel myself good and didn’t care if he knew I was going away. As long as I made my pitch, they weren’t going to hit it hard. I’m glad there were some catchers who were able to help me out with that. Whoever didn’t want to help me, I found a way to tell my manager, ‘Hey, can you try this catcher with me, because this other guy isn’t willing to help me out here.’ I was glad the managers were able to help me out in that regard. I didn’t mind pitching to anybody as long as they’d do what I wanted them to do for me. Whoever didn’t want to do that, they didn’t catch me.”
On hitters who had success against him: “There were some hitters who, no matter what I did, ended up getting their knocks against me. One of them was Carl Yastrzemski. He could hit me with his eyes closed. George Brett was another guy.
“There were guys who I would set up, and get them to go for my pitches low and away — I’d try everything I could — and they still hit me. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. My philosophy was to try to minimize the damage when I faced them. I would concentrate on getting the guys in front of them, so when they came to the plate there would be nobody on. I knew they were going to get their knocks, because they were good hitters. I understood that and respected that.
“There were also hitters who, whatever they did — at the end of the day they couldn’t figure me out. It goes both ways. I was lucky to be able to have success against those guys you mentioned [Gary Carter and Mike Schmidt].”
On his changeup: “I started messing around with a changeup when they told me I needed one to stay at the big-league level. As soon as they told me that, I tried to find a way. They taught me with the three fingers, they taught me with a circle, but I could never throw it because I would slow my arm action. So I came up with a split-finger changeup. I felt that was a good one because it kept my fastball delivery pretty much the same way. I thought, ‘OK, this might be the right one.’ I kept playing with it and saw the ball was fading away against lefties. I started using it, and seeing how hitters were reacting, and went, ‘Oh, oh, this is the one I need.’ I continued to throw it and became more and more confident that I could throw it at any time. That’s when I felt I had become a real established pitcher.”
On his perfect game: “That day was one those games where you just feel good. I didn’t know I was going to pitch that caliber of a game, but warming up in the bullpen I knew it was going to be a tough game. I was facing Mike Morgan, who I had beat the time before in Montreal, 1-0 in 10 innings. We were facing each other again and were both pitching a perfect game into the sixth. We were going back and forth. I kept my concentration level to keep my pitches where I wanted to.
“I also mixed it up real well. In situations where they were looking for a fastball, I threw my changeup. In counts where they were looking for a changeup, or a fastball, I threw my curveball. It felt like I could read their minds. It’s a guessing situation sometimes. The hitter tries to guess you and you try to over-guess them. You need to know how to read swings. I wasn’t the smartest pitcher in baseball, but what I knew was good enough for me.”
On his Montreal years: “When I was with the Expos I had my best years in baseball. The reason was, when I got there, Larry Bearnarth, the pitching coach, taught me something I’ll never forget in my life. He said ‘OK, my man, you’ve been in the league for a long time — you’re a veteran and know what to do — so I don’t have to tell you anything. Do it yourself.’ That’s what I needed to hear. It’s when I started to blossom. Plus, I was in the third year of my recovery from the drinking problem I had. That’s when I started putting the pieces together in my mind.
“The drinking had an affect on my career. It did in 1983, when I had my worst year in baseball. I ended up with seven wins and 16 losses. It caught up with me in the long run. But thanks to God for allowing me to recognize the problem and do something about it. The last three seasons I was with the Orioles, they saw something different in Dennis. They saw Dennis Martinez didn’t have the killer instinct he had before and decided to trade me to the Expos.
“When I got to the Expos, it was, ‘OK, I’m ready to go.’ That’s when we had collusion, and I signed late [in 1987]. I had to go to Indianapolis, to a Triple-A team, to prove to them I can still pitch. That was a situation where I had to pray so hard: ‘God, help me. Show that you want me to pitch, or that you don’t want me to pitch no more.’ I was getting hit hard in Triple-A. But then I pitched a shutout and thought, ‘OK, this is a sign you want me to pitch again. I’m going to go for it.’ That’s where my life — and my career in baseball — got a second chance. I went on to achieve more, better numbers, and got to my first All-Star game.”
On his legacy: “I think maybe I am [underappreciated]. I don’t feel I got the credit I deserved, maybe because of where I came from. I was a Spanish-speaking kid from Nicaragua who didn‘t understand the language real well, and I got a reputation in the Orioles organization as a hot-headed pitcher who didn’t want to go along with the system. The reason was that I fought for my rights. I fought for what I believed. I had to battle with that, but God made me the way I am. I rely on myself a lot. Everything I got, I had to work hard for.
“And then, I played for the Montreal Expos, a Canadian team. Playing for a low-market-city team, people don’t hear about you too much. The team wasn’t like the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox, or the Dodgers, who get exposure all over all the world. I was hiding somewhere in Montreal. But I felt comfortable — I felt good — to play for that country and that city. I liked to pitch there. I didn’t mind anything else, I just wanted to pitch good for those people.
“Later, I broke Juan Marichal’s record for most wins by a Latin American pitcher. I am proud of that. I am also thankful.”