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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Tino Martinez

Our 1996 Retrospective continues with the man who replaced an all-time Yankees great at first base, only to craft an impressive legacy of his own.

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Constantino "Tino" Martinez, was raised in West Tampa, Florida by a Cuban-American father and a mother whose Greek ancestry helped to provide his given name. After working in his grandfather's cigar factory with eventual Arizona Diamondback and main character within my own nightmares Luis Gonzalez, Martinez's baseball career began to bud in earnest when he transferred to Jefferson High School before his junior year. Jefferson had churned out major league first baseman Fred McGriff only several years prior, so Martinez had big shoes to fill. The large Cuban population and preposterous baseball history of West Tampa helped introduce Martinez to his future profession at a young age.

After graduation, Martinez starred at the University of Tampa before he was drafted in the first round of the 1988 Amateur draft by the Seattle Mariners. He was aggressively assigned to Double-A in 1989 to start his professional career and then OPSed .912 at the Triple-A level in 1990 before reaching the majors at 22. He received about a month's worth of plate appearances with the Mariners in 1990 and 1991, while continuing to hit well in Triple-A. He became a full-time player in 1992 and slashed .261/.327/.453 for an OPS+ of 108 through 1994. It was his 1995 season that would set the table for the rest of his career, when he slashed .293/.369/.551 for a jump in OPS+ to 135. During the American League Division Series, which ultimately proved to be an audition for the Yankees, Martinez mashed to the tune of .409/.480/.591.

On December 7th, 1995, Tino Martinez was included in a trade to the Yankees for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. The trade, which also included future contributor Jeff Nelson (as well as Jim Mecir), was the long-awaited move to replace Yankees legend Don Mattingly, whose back pain had finally gotten the best of him despite incredible production in his final games. Martinez and the Yankees had agreed on a five year, $20 million extension prior to the completion of the trade, so there would be no audition. Martinez has since stated that December 7th, 1995 was "one of the best days of [his] life." On his 28th birthday, Martinez became a New York Yankee within hours of the birth of his daughter.

1996 Performance

Results: 155 G, .292/.364/.466, 28 D, 25 HR, 85:68 SO/BB, 117 RBI, 108 OPS+

It speaks to the contrast in eras as well as the balance of the 1996 Yankees that Martinez could finish with the above statistics and come in a a cool sixth on the team in Offensive Wins Above Replacement at 2.1. Behind Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Wade Boggs, Derek Jeter, and Mariano Duncan, Martinez led the team in RBIs at 117, which was a lower total than three of his former teammates in Seattle (Griffey, Buhner, Rodriguez).

Chronologically, Martinez remedied a shaky spring with an excellent summer. He raised his .244 April batting average each month through August, during which he hit .343 and drove in 24 runs. He slumped down to .227 in September and went into the Division Series against Texas as cold as he had been all season. In the first game of the series, Martinez went 3-4 with two doubles in a 5-2 loss, though he didn't collect another hit until the deciding fourth game, when he kept a 7th inning rally going with a single off Roger Pavlik following a Bernie Williams line out. The next batter, Cecil Fielder, singled to score Tim Raines and give the Yankees a 5-4 lead they would not relent.

Following his timely knock to help finish off the Rangers, Martinez's offense cratered to the earth at terminal velocity. His Championship Series against Baltimore saw him slash .182/.217/.227 over 23 plate appearances. Impossibly, his play struck rock bottom in the World Series during which he recorded one hit against five strikeouts across 13 plate appearances against the Braves' impressive pitching staff. Over the course of the series, Martinez lost playing time to Cecil Fielder, who started at first base during away games not involving a designated hitter. Fielder would hit .391/.440/.478 across 25 World Series plate appearances.

Martinez's inability to create offense in the 1996 playoffs provides a stark contrast to the example Don Mattingly set the previous year, when he turned regular season mediocrity into postseason brilliance that ultimately did not matter one bit. Martinez's respectable regular season gave way to a postseason nightmare many Yankees fans have understandably forgotten because it ended up working out.

What did he do after?

Thankfully, Martinez made up for it with an incredible 1997 season. The Yankees exploded for 16 runs against the Mariners on April 2nd thanks to Martinez's three home runs and seven RBI. His early success led to continued prominence in an all-time slugging season for professional baseball, culminating in a second place finish in the Most Valuable Player voting. His 44 home runs placed fourth in baseball behind Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr, and Larry Walker, and his 141 RBIs were topped only by Griffey's 147.

His immediate World Series win upon arrival in 1996 as well as his monster 1997 performance foreshadowed the longitudinal Yankees career of Martinez. Over the next five seasons through 2001, he would average 30 home runs and 115 RBI a season while slashing .276/.345/.493 and playing a respectable first base. He also rarely missed a game in that span, averaging 154 games and 645 plate appearances each season, and went to the World Series four consecutive times, winning three.

Martinez left as a free agent in 2002 and the Yankees signed Jason Giambi to play first base. He signed with the St. Louis Cardinals to replace the recently departed Mark McGwire, playing a league-average first base for the next two seasons. Yankees fans loved Martinez throughout his tenure in New York so much that when he returned as a Cardinal in 2003, he was given two standing ovations when he knocked two home runs off Andy Pettitte. Later, Martinez would say that he felt "out of place" during his time in St. Louis.

"The Yankees were the only team for me," Martinez said recently. "I figured if I was going to motivate myself to work out all winter, it would only be for the Yankees. There was no point going somewhere else just to play a year or two to finish out my career. It was pretty much the Yankees or else retire."

Tino Martinez, 2005

He was traded to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays the following season to facilitate Albert Pujols' move from left field. As a division rival, he played under Lou Piniella. He had a good season, finishing second on the team behind Aubrey Huff with a 117 OPS+. He hit the free agent market again at the end of the year.

Martinez returned to the Yankees in 2005 with retirement in mind. Though he played 131 games that season, he had already made up his mind to retire following the year. He split time at first base with Jason Giambi and managed to claw his way to a 104 OPS+ despite putting up some of the worst numbers of his career in semi-regular at-bats. He was 37 years old in his final season as a player, but he was not done in professional baseball. He returned to the Yankees as a special instructor in 2008 and began participating in Old Timers' Day at this time before eventually moving to the YES network booth in 2010 in a color commentary role. He returned to professional baseball in 2013 as a hitting coach for the Miami Marlins, which went as poorly as possible. The Marlins could not hit a softball through July 28th, on which date Martinez resigned from his position amid allegations of verbal abuse and assaulting a player. Martinez would later explain that the incident occurred over several players refusing to pick up balls during drills, and that he grabbed second baseman Derek Dietrich by the jersey over the course of an argument.

Less than one calendar year after his ill-fated foray into coaching, Tino Martinez received a plaque in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium for his contributions to four World Series Championships in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. He's likely to be remembered for his consistent play in his time in the Bronx, as well as his likable personality.