clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #71 Tino Martinez

New, comments

The "Top 100 Yankees" series returns with one of the savviest trade acquisitions in franchise history: '90s dynasty hero Tino Martinez.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Name: Constantino "Tino" Martinez
Position: First base
Born: December 7, 1967 (Tampa, FL)
Yankee Years: 1996-2001, 2005
Primary number: 24
Yankee statistics: 1,054 G, .276/.347/.484, 189 2B, 11 3B, 192 HR, 113 wRC+, 16.6 rWAR, 16.0 fWAR

Biography

There has been a recent trend among Yankees fans to encourage the team to hold onto their talented young players and let them develop, perhaps due to an attachment to the homegrown bunch that helped the franchise win four World Series titles in five years. However, as Harlan has written before, those championship clubs had a considerable amount of veteran talent infused in them as well, talent acquired by dealing prospects in notable trades. Not every prospect can turn into a Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams, and while it makes sense to hold on to some of them, the 1996-2001 Yankees would not have been the same with Russ Davis instead of Tino Martinez.

From Tampa to Seoul and Seattle

Born on a December day in 1967 to Rene and Sylvia Martinez, the man who became known as "Tino" grew up in baseball-crazed community. His family had both Cuban and Greek roots, and his father and older brother's love of the game stoked Tino's enthusiasm. Martinez's father was a big fan of the Reds' MVP slugger George Foster, and even when Tino was just learning the game, he brought him to Reds spring training at nearby Al Lopez Field. On his own, Foster would go through buckets of balls simply practicing his swing in front of a fence.

The younger Martinez took the inspiration to heart and quickly became a budding star. The local Little League community was stacked with talent, including fellow future All-Star Luis Gonzalez, but Martinez stole the show. At age eight, he once decided to switch-hit on a whim in a game and homered from both sides of the plate. Four years later, he crushed 25 homers in just 24 games. Martinez continued to improve, becoming a varsity starter at Tampa Catholic High School as a freshman, even while his father had him endure grueling hours morning and evening helping him unload boxes of cigars at his grandfather's factory. That team led by eventual big league starters Rich Monteleone and Lance McCullers won the state championship; scouts had already begun to notice Tino as well.

Martinez transferred to Jefferson High School in Tampa after his sophomore year, where he was reunited with Gonzalez. After two more stellar seasons, he was a state champion again, but he shocked college baseball coaches everywhere with his decision to stay local and play at the University of Tampa. Although they had known he was unlikely to sign with the Boston Red Sox, who took him with their third round pick of the 1985 Draft, but the University of Tampa was a Division II school.

Nonetheless, Martinez took care of business in college, batting .398 with 54 homers over three years. He earned national recognition playing on Team USA in the 1987 Pan-Am games, the 1988 Baseball World Cup, and the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. He hit .407/.452/.796 in World Cup play to earn MVP honors, and then won a gold medal in South Korea, starring in the 5-3 victory over Japan by belting a pair of homers. Even before the Olympics began, Martinez assured himself of a bright future through his sterling reputation. With the 14th overall pick in the 1988 Draft, the Mariners took him off the board. He hit the ground running in Double-A Williamsport during his professional debut in 1989, batting .257/.330/.399 in a pitching-heavy league where he was at least two years younger than most of his competition.

Tragedy struck Tino before he could begin his second season. His father had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he passed away at only 48 years old on January 4, 1990. It was a devastating blow to someone who had been so important to his life, but Martinez was determined to make his father's prophecy about making the major leagues come true. After wrecking Pacific Coast League pitching to the tune of a .320/.413/.499 triple slash in Triple-A Calgary, Rene Martinez's dream came true on August 20th. Tino Martinez started for the Mariners and singled against the Rangers' Bobby Witt in his very first at-bat; he went on to notch a multi-hit game in his MLB debut. That was just the beginning.

All-Star ascent

Despite Martinez's strong numbers in Calgary, he returned to Triple-A for the vast majority of 1991. In what became a trend for Martinez throughout his career, he had to play first base behind the shadow of a fan favorite. Alvin Davis was the 1984 AL Rookie of the Year and the first universally beloved player in Mariners history, and he was quite productive for them every year through 1990. Davis suffered a rapid decline in '91 to a 76 OPS+ though, and by the end of August, Martinez was back in the majors and splitting time with him. He didn't play that well either, though he did belt his first of 339 career homers, a solo shot off the Brewers' Julio Machado on August 26th.

Davis departed Seattle as a free agent in the off-season, and the position was now Tino's for the taking. Without having to worry about anyone taking his job, Martinez took control, quickly proving to be an excellent defensive first baseman and a steady hitter, batting .261/.327/.453 with 65 doubles and 53 homers over his first three seasons. Tino was not the only mashing Martinez in the starting lineup either; the unrelated Edgar Martinez won the 1992 AL batting title and overcame injury to become the most dangerous DH of his generation.

Led by Rene Martinez's longtime friend, manager Lou Piniella, the Mariners looked to be a team on the rise thanks to the efforts of Tino, Edgar, Jay Buhner, Randy Johnson, and of course, the otherworldly Ken Griffey Jr. The 1994 players' strike cut the Mariners' first legitimate bid for a playoff spot in franchise history short, as they were just two games behind the Rangers, albeit with a mere 49-63 record (the '94 AL West was destined to be a tire fire of beautifully mythic proportions). Fortunately for Seattle fans, it all came together in 1995.

Although the Mariners got off to a slow start, Tino Martinez had a breakout first half, hitting .299/.377/.602 with 18 homers, earning his first career All-Star appearance, standing beside Griffey, Johnson, and Edgar Martinez at the midsummer classic in Texas. They rallied from a 13 1/2 game AL West deficit to catch up to the Angels with a torrid September run, forcing a one-game playoff for the division title. In the pressure-packed Kingdome atmosphere, Tino went 1-for-2 with a single, a walk, a run, and a sacrifice fly as Johnson dominated the Angels in a three-hitters, sending Seattle to the postseason for the first time in its 19 years of existence. Without Tino's breakout 31-homer, 134 OPS+ campaign, it would have been an even greater challenge to take down the Angels.

It was on to the ALDS, where the Mariners faced the Yankees and perhaps the most revered first baseman in the game: captain Don Mattingly. Martinez went 3-for-10 with a pair of walks in the first two games, no easy feat considering how raucous the fans at Yankee Stadium were for their first playoff action since 1981. Seattle dropped them both and returned to the Kingdome needing to win three straight to save their season, yet again. They were up to the task, as they broke the Yankees' hearts with late-game heroics, and Tino's 6-for-12 homestand (led by his first playoff homer, above) helped them come back to win the Division Series. They then went up 2-1 over the 100-win Indians in the ALCS, but Cleveland gave them a taste of their own medicine by winning three in a row to bring Seattle's dream season to a close.

The Mariners' remarkable run in '95 led to a baseball renaissance in Seattle and last-minute approved measures for a new ballpark, helping the team avoid relocation to Tampa Bay. However, the 1995 playoffs would be Tino Martinez's final games in Seattle. Management informed Martinez that they would likely trade him prior to the '96 season in order to help them cut $5 million from payroll. They were talking with a few different teams, including the Cubs and Padres, and they wanted to know if he had any preferences about where to go. Martinez told Piniella that he had loved playing in Yankee Stadium during the postseason.

A number of deals were thrown around between the Yankees and Mariners over the course of the next month and a half as they tried to agree on a deal for Martinez. Some featured promising rookie starter Andy Pettitte and some featured hard-hitting catching prospect Jorge Posada, but the main attraction to Seattle GM Woody Woodward was third baseman Russ Davis, who Baseball America had once ranked the 26th best prospect in the game. Piniella really wanted Posada and thought that he had talked up Martinez enough to owner George Steinbrenner to get him included in the deal, but thankfully for the Yankees' future, Posada remained in pinstripes. On December 7th, the trade was complete, as Davis and lefty starter Sterling Hitchcock moved to the Pacific Northwest while Tino packed his bags for New York alongside relievers Jim Mecir and Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir. Davis never amounted to much of anything; Tino, on the other hand, was about to become a Yankees icon.

Filling Donnie's shoes

The first few months of Tino Martinez in New York certainly brought some confusion. Most of the negotiations seem to have occurred above GM Bob Watson's head. Furthermore, Martinez and his agent, Jim Krivacs, entered talks regarding his future contract hoping to get a three-year, $11 million extension. To their delight, Steinbrenner decided to make a statement about his belief in Martinez by going above and beyond with a five-year, $20.25 million offer that included a sixth year option. (My, how baseball contracts have increased in a couple decades.)

Then there was the matter of replacing Mattingly. The declining icon gave them the go-ahead to pursue options at first base, as his nagging back injuries seemed destined to force him into early retirement. Mattingly's contract was up, and he decided to sit out the 1996 season mulling his future. There was never really a threat of Mattingly returning midseason in '96 and Mattingly clearly wasn't the same player anymore, but the fans at Yankee Stadium still revered him, so when Martinez got off to a sluggish start in April, he was showered with mocking chants of "Don-nie Base-ball."

Fortunately, by the end of April, Martinez turned it around with four homers in seven games, including a memorable 15th inning grand slam in Baltimore that gave the Yankees an 11-6 victory after five and a half hours of baseball. It was smooth sailing from then on, as after April, Martinez hit .301/.371/.479 with 22 homers, capably filling the void left by Mattingly while becoming a leader in the clubhouse as well. His teammates glowed about his intensity coupled with his defensive excellence and knack for "homers in bunches," as he called them.

The '96 Yankees rolled to the AL East title and then took down the AL West-winning Rangers during the Division Series. Martinez slugged .400 with a pair of doubles during the four-game set, but shortly thereafter found himself in an awful slump. He went 5-for-33 with just one extra-base hit for the rest of the postseason, and manager Joe Torre reluctantly benched him in favor of the surging Cecil Fielder when the Yankees were unable to use the latter at DH during the World Series games in Atlanta. It was a tough blow for the high-strung Martinez to take, but he swallowed his pride and cheered on his teammates as they won the franchise's first championship in 18 years.

MVP candidate and World Series hero

1996 was just about everything Tino Martinez could have hoped for in his first season in pinstripes. The good times would only get better. The Yankees settled for the Wild Card and were unable to repeat in '97, but that was not because of Martinez. His lefty swing was in peak form as he peppered pitch after pitch into the short porch at Yankee Stadium. Martinez set career-highs in just about every category, including 44 homers, the most by a Yankee since Roger Maris set the single-season record with 61 in 1961. No Yankee first baseman had slugged 40 in a season since the legendary Lou Gehrig.

Martinez was named an All-Star, won the Home Run Derby in Cleveland, earned a Silver Slugger, and his tremendous season made him the runner-up for AL MVP. His old teammate Griffey was the unanimous winner, having crushed 56 bombs with 9.1 WAR as Seattle mashed its way to the AL West division title. There would be no playoff matchup between these two teams though, as both the Yankees and Mariners fell in the Division Series to the Indians and Orioles, respectively. Martinez slugged .444 in the five-game loss to Cleveland, but to no avail.

Some off-season maneuvers had the Yankees poised to return to the playoffs in '98. They famously exceeded all expectations by romping to a franchise record 114 victories, and they lost just two games in the postseason en route to their 24th World Series title. Martinez's power never reached his '97 prime again, but a 28-homer, 124 OPS+ season was hardly poor, either. After an awful ALCS against Cleveland, Martinez at last had a moment of true World Series glory in the Game 1 showdown with the Padres.

Chuck Knoblauch had just tied it up at 5-5 in the seventh inning with a three-run homer, and the Yankees had the bases loaded with two outs for Martinez. For a moment, it looked like reliever Mark Langston struck Martinez out on a 2-2 pitch near the heart of the plate, but home plate umpire Richie Garcia called it a ball. Langston's next pitch was up in the zone, and Martinez didn't miss it. He launched a grand slam to the upper deck in right field, sending Yankee Stadium into a frenzy with one of his greatest moments in pinstripes. Martinez would go on to hit .385 with a 1.145 OPS during the four-game sweep.

The Yankees went on to win three consecutive World Series titles as Martinez cemented his place in the hearts of Yankees fans. He notched another 28-homer season in '99 as that squad did the previous year's team one better by losing only one game in the entire postseason, an 11-1 record. The slick-fielding Martinez was also inexplicably jobbed out of the only Gold Glove award of his career when the voters decided to give first base honors to Rafael Palmeiro, who played just 28 games at first base. At age 32, Martinez's offense dipped to an ugly .258/.328/.422 triple slash with 16 homers, good for only an 89 OPS+, not exactly ideal production from a first baseman. However, he atoned for it by recording the best overall postseason of his career, batting .364/.394/.485 in 16 games as the team clinched a three-peat.

Throughout it all, Martinez remained one of the most beloved members of the clubhouse. He became very close friends with eventual captain Derek Jeter, who had decided to make his home near Martinez in Tampa, and the team's close-knit nature was never more apparent than when Orioles closer Armando Benitez decided to get into a beanball war. Bernie Williams had crushed a huge home run off him in an early 1998 game. On the very next pitch, Benitez drilled Martinez in the back with a fastball that did not miss his head by much. It wasn't the first time Benitez had gone after Martinez in his career either (they had a previous run-in back in '95 with the Mariners), and everyone was enraged. So... this happened:

It was one of the messiest brawls in recent memory. Unfortunately, that's what happens when an asshole reliever who has lost his cool decides to throw at a team leader.

Final moments of mystique

As Martinez headed into the final year of his contract, his future in pinstripes did not look promising. Top first base prospect Nick Johnson had posted an absurd .345/.525/.548 season with Double-A Norwich in '99, and despite an injury that kept him out of action in 2000, the organization considered him a big part of their future. Furthermore, 2000 AL MVP Jason Giambi was due to hit free agency after the 2001 campaign, and it was no secret that the Yankees coveted his power bat. Undeterred, Martinez hit the second-most homers of his career by bouncing back to lead the team with 34 homers while finishing 12th in AL MVP voting.

The disasters of September 11th gave the season a whole new meaning. The Yankees were not only gunning for their fourth consecutive title; they were playing to provide New York City with a welcome distraction to the heartbreak. They roared back from an 0-2 deficit to Giambi's Athletics in the Division Series to win it in five, then dispatched Tino's old skipper Piniella and the 116-win Mariners in a surprisingly tidy five-game ALCS.

However, the World Series against the Diamondbacks brought frustration all around. Martinez went 0-for-9 to begin it, and the Yankees fell behind 2-1 in the series, then trailed Game 4 by two runs with one out to go. That last batter was their biggest power threat. If Martinez struck out, then they would be one game away from elimination. It was not to be for closer Byung-Hyun Kim, whose first pitch to Tino was belted deep to right-center field and over the wall for a game-tying homer. Both the Yankees and their fans went berserk, and one inning later, Jeter tied the series with a walk-off bomb.

Tino's heroics were matched in Game 5 by teammate Scott Brosius with two down in the ninth against Kim again, but ultimately, the Yankees fell short. They were blasted in Game 6, and though Martinez registered a key game-tying single in the seventh inning of Game 7 against Curt Schilling (Tino's last playoff hit in pinstripes), Arizona emerged victorious. Sure enough, the Yankees let him walk as a free agent in the off-season, signing Giambi instead.

Martinez eventually came to an agreement on a three-year, $21 million deal with the Cardinals to replace still another icon at first base, Mark McGwire. During his two seasons in St. Louis, he was decent but unspectacular, and St. Louis fans quickly soured on his performance, though he did hit .267/.345/.434 with 50 doubles, 36 homers, and a 105 OPS+ over two seasons. His biggest highlight might have been his return to Yankee Stadium in June 2003, when he had a multi-homer game during the interleague series and earned an elusive road curtain call. The Cardinals won the 2002 NL Central but fell to the Giants in the NLCS as Martinez endured a miserable 2-for-25 postseason.

The Cardinals and Martinez mutually agreed that it was time to move on after missing the playoffs in 2003, particularly given their desire to find budding superstar Albert Pujols a permanent home on the field. At Martinez's suggestion, they came to a deal with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, sending Martinez back to his hometown, where he would also play under Piniella, recently hired by Tampa Bay. It was a forgettable season, though the Devil Rays won 70 games and finished above last place for the first time in their seven-year history. Martinez had 23 homers and a 117 OPS+, demonstrating he still had some pop left in the bat as he headed toward free agency again.

With his career winding down at age 37, Martinez felt he had one last stop to make. To the delight of the fans, he rejoined the Yankees on a one-year, $2.75 million deal to back up Giambi at first and make the occasional start while the defensively deficient Giambi took a spell at DH. It all started so well, as Martinez caught fire in May with a homer in five straight games and 10 over a mere 12-game span. From mid-May on though, he was a shadow of his former self, hitting just five homers in 97 games with a .625 OPS. The Yankees won one more division title with Martinez, but fell in the first round to the Angels while Martinez went hitless.


Photo credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It was time to call it a career, and Martinez obliged, ending it with a .271/.344/.471 triple slash, 365 doubles, and 339 homers, good for a 112 OPS+. He ranks 17th on the Yankees' all-time list with 192 homers, and he was honored with a plaque in Monument Park on June 21, 2014. No, Martinez was not the flashiest player, but he was absolutely dedicated to his craft, and the Yankee Stadium fans understandably loved him for it. Few Yankees ever had such big moments with the team, so here's to the "Bam-Tino" on an excellent career.

Andrew's rank: 70
Tanya's rank: 80
Community rank: 55.58
WAR rank: 81.5

Season Stats

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB rWAR fWAR
1996 28 NYY 155 671 595 82 174 28 0 25 117 2 1 68 85 .292 .364 .466 .830 108 277 2.1 2.4
1997 29 NYY 158 685 594 96 176 31 2 44 141 3 1 75 75 .296 .371 .577 .948 143 343 5.1 5.3
1998 30 NYY 142 608 531 92 149 33 1 28 123 2 1 61 83 .281 .355 .505 .860 124 268 3.2 3.3
1999 31 NYY 159 665 589 95 155 27 2 28 105 3 4 69 86 .263 .341 .458 .800 104 270 2.2 2.4
2000 32 NYY 155 632 569 69 147 37 4 16 91 4 1 52 74 .258 .328 .422 .749 89 240 0.3 0.2
2001 33 NYY 154 635 589 89 165 24 2 34 113 1 2 42 89 .280 .329 .501 .830 114 295 2.2 2.1
2005 37 NYY 131 348 303 43 73 9 0 17 49 2 0 38 54 .241 .328 .439 .767 104 133 1.5 0.2
NYY (7 yrs) 1054 4244 3770 566 1039 189 11 192 739 17 10 405 546 .276 .347 .484 .831 113 1826 16.6 16.0

Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs

References

Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

BR Bullpen

Curry, Jack. "A Determined Martinez Makes a Name for Himself," New York Times, 13 July 1997.

Donnelly, Chris. Baseball's Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty. New York: Rodale, 2006.

Tan, Cecilia. The 50 Greatest Yankee Games. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005.

Yankeeography: "Tino Martinez"

Other Top 100 Yankees