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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, May 04, 2001
Thoughts on the Retirement of a Favorite Player
This article triggered my memories of some of my favorite players. If it does for you as well, please share your recollections with us.
It was May of 1999. I was graduating from college, and I was depressed because a redhead I was in love with had decided she wasn?t in love with me. I was mad at the redhead, mad at myself, and most of all, I was mad at the world for the way it entices us with happiness, then yanks it away like that football Charlie Brown is always trying to kick. I was tired of kicking at trick footballs. So with a wounded spirit, I drove to Cooperstown to see if I could find myself again. Long story short, I ended up with a job as a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library, a job I still hold today. More importantly, that was the summer I ran into Ram?n Mart?nez again.
Ram?n Mart?nez is my favorite pitcher. In 1988, when I was eleven, my dad took me to opening day at Dudley Field, the ancient, dilapidated, wonderful ballpark that the Double-A El Paso Diablos played in. As with many such parks, the clubhouses were nothing more than tiny, crumbling brick buildings behind the outfield bleachers. To get from the clubhouse to the playing field, the visiting players had to walk right through the stands. We got to the game an hour early and walked over to the right field bleachers. Sitting on a rusted folding chair outside the visitors? clubhouse, his eyes squinting in the late afternoon sun, was one of the skinniest human beings I have ever seen. It was 20-year-old Ram?n Mart?nez, the scheduled starter that day.
His three-and-a-half-legged metal chair was covered with a coat of gaudy yellow paint, which had peeled just enough to reveal that the color had once been gaudy red. The chair looked like it would have collapsed had anyone other than Mart?nez, the human toothpick, tried to sit in it. He was leaning back in that chair, rubbing a baseball with extraordinarily long, thin fingers that looked like they belonged to E.T. I knew who he was immediately? the year before, he?d been a 16-game winner in Class A ? and I walked up to ask him for his autograph. He looked at me with bright, inquisitive eyes behind long Bambi eyelashes, and his face broke out in a shy grin that can only be described as infectious. He was genuinely happy, and only later did I realize he was probably shocked that a kid in a visiting ballpark even knew his name, much less wanted his autograph. We didn?t say much to each other that day? his English was as bad as my Spanish? but that wonderful smile said everything. Wordlessly, he handed me my autograph, and then, to my surprise, also handed me the baseball which he?d been rubbing for the game. I asked him to sign it, and he did. (Three years later, I would get his younger brother Pedro to sign the ball too.) Ram?n won that game, the first of many he would win in the minor leagues that year, and by August he was in Los Angeles helping the Dodgers win a world championship. I have seen him pitch on TV many times since then, and every time I do, I see those long E.T. fingers handing me the baseball, and I smile.
I have been to perhaps 75 big league games since then, many of them Dodger games, but until 1999 I had never again seen Ram?n Mart?nez pitch in person. Then, on a whim, my pal Joey and I decided to drive 200 miles to Rhode Island for a Pawtucket Red Sox game. Mart?nez had signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox the previous winter, but he was coming off serious arm surgery and wasn?t expected to pitch in 1999. Characteristically, Mart?nez had worked diligently, but silently, to prove those expectations wrong. By August he was making rehab starts in Class A.
Joey and I had to work later than expected, and we didn?t hit the road until about 3:00. Game time was three hours away, and it was a four and a half hour drive. If we sped all the way we might get there by the third inning. To make matters worse, as soon as we crossed into Massachusetts it began to rain. Hard. Visibility was about 15 feet, and as game time neared we were still trudging along on the Masspike. I turned on the radio to catch the beginning of the game. I found the station, and my heart leapt when I heard the surprise starting pitcher. It was Ram?n Mart?nez, who had just joined the Pawsox and would be making his first Triple-A rehab start tonight.
As calmly and quietly as possible, I told Joey that he must drive faster. After all, rehab starts often don?t last more than two or three innings. We might already be too late. Drive faster, I told Joey, rain be damned. Joey understood my Mart?nez connection, and he wanted to get there too. But he also wanted to live, and he was already driving pretty fast anyway, so there wasn?t much he could do. For the last hour of the drive I sat impatiently as the rain pounded harder and harder. I was worried not only about whether we?d get there on time, but also about how Ram?n would fare in his rehab test. I listened on the car radio as Mart?nez worked his way in and out of trouble for the first two innings, then got himself into another jam that he couldn?t quite work out of. A Buffalo batter hit a home run. Then a walk, then another homer. And another. The announcer said Mart?nez looked weak and maybe his best days were behind him. By the end of the third he had given up three homers and six runs. I told Joey to drive faster.
We finally got there. There were 7,000 people in the park, although it was cold and raining. A radio station had distributed cardboard signs sporting a big red ?K? with the Dominican flag underneath. But Mart?nez wasn?t striking many people out. The soaked K signs littered the stadium?s concrete floors and aluminum benches, dripping and useless. The crowd, half of it huddling under the grandstand roof, grew restless as Mart?nez began throwing his warmup pitches in the top of the fourth. I sighed as I saw that familiar high leg kick in person for the first time in eleven years. I immediately felt at home. Mart?nez pitched another inning, and a good one, as it turned out. They took him out after that, but I didn?t care. After more than a decade, I had finally seen Ram?n pitch again. My summer was complete.
All in all, that summer of baseball gave me the same kind of feeling rock critic Jon Landau must have had in 1974 when, on a rainy night in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he first heard an obscure young singer named Bruce Springsteen. Landau, 26 at the time, later wrote of his discovery: ?On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.? I?ve been around baseball ? or rather, it?s been around me ? all my life. But the things that happened during the summer of 1999 made me feel like I was seeing baseball for the very first time. And Ram?n Mart?nez was at the center of it. That season turned out with a happy ending for him ? he went up to the Red Sox and got in a couple of starts at the end of the season, and then pitched valiantly and well in the playoffs. But ever since then, he?s struggled. He?s been a very bad pitcher these last two seasons, painful as it is for me to say it. And now he?s decided that he doesn?t have it anymore.
When your favorite player retires, strange and sometimes unwelcome emotions run through you. I?ve gone through it once before, when Kirk Gibson retired in 1995. But Ram?n is different. He?s the first player whose career I have followed closely in its entirety, from the very beginning to the very end. The 19-year-old Class-A stringbean evolved into a stubborn, respected veteran, struggling against a body that will no longer do the things he wants it to. It was a good career, better than most, not as good as some. He will not make the Hall of Fame, and few will think of him after he?s gone. But I?ll remember. Thanks, Ram?n. Thanks for the smile.
Eric Enders is a freelance writer and a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York. He thanks those who made it to the end of this article for enduring its blatant oversentimentality, if that?s a word. He promises it won?t happen again.
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