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Tino Martinez: The Downs and Ups of His First Season with the New York Yankees

Bob Klapisch remembers the humiliating slump that marred the 1996 debut of Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez—leaving fans and Martinez himself doubting his worthiness to replace New York’s beloved Don Mattingly. 

By Bob Klapisch, April 9, 2018

Tino Martinez was a four-time World Series winner during five seasons after coming to the Yankees.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database  

Tino Martinez had spent the winter of 1996 promising himself not to let New York suffocate him in its long, powerful tentacles. On the other hand, everything about the Yankees appealed to this young hotshot first baseman who figured he was holding a winning lottery ticket after being traded by the Mariners.

“I couldn’t believe how excited I was, almost like a dream come true,” Martinez said. Ironically, he was instrumental in Seattle’s five-game takedown of the Yankees in the Division Series, finishing with a .409 average. That caught the attention of the front office in New York, where a search for a replacement for Don Mattingly would soon be under way.

Actually, the Yankees didn’t have to look far: Mattingly, who was retiring after 14 seasons, was represented by the same agent as Martinez. And, as if the synchronicity weren’t already perfect, Mattingly ended the Division Series—and his career—with a .417 mark. He strongly recommended Martinez as the candidate worthy of carrying the torch.

Mariners General Manager Lou Piniella helped shift the tectonic plates as well. He knew Martinez’s career was blossoming; the big contracts in his future would be more than the Mariners could afford. Instead of paying Martinez, Seattle’s answer was to trade him, which prompted the telltale conversation between Piniella and the soon-to-be ex-Mariner.

“Lou asked me where I wanted to go,” Martinez said. “He said he could trade me to either the Padres or the Cubs. I said, ‘I’d really like to play for the Yankees.’ Lou seemed surprised. He said, ‘You would?’”

“I told him [the Yankees] have a great group of guys. They have [Bernie] Williams and [Paul] O’Neill. They play hard. So Lou did that for me as a favor. He could’ve sent me anywhere. He could’ve had a better deal with San Diego, but he ended up sending me to New York.”

Martinez had already sampled New York’s raw energy the previous October. Like most out of towners, he respected the Yankees’ vast history and in this case, what it would mean to replace Mattingly.

During Tino Martinez’s tenure with the Yankees, he hit 175 home runs and 690 RBI’s.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database,

It was more than just numbers, of course. Mattingly was a walking advertisement for hard work, staying out of trouble, and a life without controversy. And for a time, in the mid-1980s, Mattingly was among the game’s best hitters. A bad back shut the window of the slugger’s most productive years, but the imprint wasn’t easily forgotten by Yankees fans. To them, Mattingly would always be the hitting machine who won the batting title in 1984 with a .343 average, or became a multidimensional threat a year later, blasting 35 HRs with 145 RBIs (an American League best).

The only blemish on Mattingly’s fine career was the absence of a World Series ring. He arrived too late for the back-to-back championships in 1977–78 and left just before Joe Torre rebooted the dynasty in 1996.

As the next in line, Martinez knew exactly what this meant: He had to assure the soldiers of Donnie’s army that the legacy would be upheld. It was an impossible task, at least at first. For all his mental preparation, Martinez started the 1996 season as a wreck. Every promise he’d made to himself—stay calm, breathe deep, don’t panic—was broken in a matter of days.

“I was fired up, especially because Yankee Stadium is great for left-handed hitters,” Martinez said. “But I would always get off to slow starts, it seemed to happen every year. The only difference is that it was happening with the Yankees. The media started asking questions and the fans started to boo me.”

Box scores confirmed Martinez’s angst: His average stood at a stunning .088 after his first 40 at-bats. Typical of hitters caught in a downward spiral, Martinez was getting himself out, swinging too hard, gripping the bat too tightly, missing pitches in the middle of the strike zone just begging to be crushed.

And if that weren’t bad enough, Martinez saved the worst of this slump for the home crowd in the Bronx. He was hitless in his first 23 at-bats in pinstripes, hardly the way to win over Mattingly’s loyalists.

Not surprisingly, Martinez was booed thickly.

“I understood it, to be honest,” he said. “I was the guy replacing Donnie. I wasn’t exactly impressing anyone. I was trying so hard not to let the team down.”

Martinez spent hours in the batting cage, exhausting himself before the games even started. But he knew the problem wasn’t as much mechanical as it was turning off the loop of negative thoughts. Martinez was too good to keep struggling; the only question was how long this monster slump could possibly continue.

He went straight to Mattingly for help.

Joe Torre and Don Mattingly were big influences on Tino Martinez.
Keith Allison on Flickr

“Donnie was the one who told me, ‘Just relax, you know you’re better than this,’” Martinez recalled. The advice came with a kicker, too: Ignore the media.

“That’s just the way it is in New York,” Mattingly said. “As bad as it seems right now, you have one good week and you’ll turn it around.”

The two spoke several times in that first month, but it wasn’t until a one-on-one with Torre that Martinez finally broke out. The manager was also new to the Yankees, but he was a native New Yorker and more comfortable with the Big Apple’s wavelengths, not to mention the best places to hide out.

Torre was hired by George Steinbrenner for the ultra cool personality he was about to demonstrate to Martinez. He summoned the first baseman into his office and closed the door.

“I’ve made reservations for you at my favorite Italian restaurant,” is how Martinez remembers Torre’s words. “Take your wife. Enjoy yourself. And don’t worry about anything. You’re staying in the lineup.”

It was Torre’s magic touch, knowing exactly what to say to a player suffering from self-doubt. The slump, of course, ended soon after and Martinez went on to enjoy a fine opening act with the Yankees. He finished the 1996 season with a .292 average, leading the Bombers with 117 RBIs.

From there, Martinez became a fixture in baseball’s last great dynasty, winning four championships over the next five years. He wasn’t Mattingly, but nevertheless forged a separate identity that won the fans over anyway. Tino was tough and clutch and always managed to be in the right place at the right time, evidenced by the massive grand slam he would hit off Mark Langston in Game 1 of the 1998 World Series.

Martinez played six years in New York before signing with St. Louis as a free agent in 2002. And wouldn’t you know, replacing Mark McGwire, he struggled at the outset with the Cardinals. His average was below .200 as late as May 11, but just as he did in ’96 with the Yankees, Martinez found his core skills and posted respectable numbers (.262 average with 25 home runs and 75 RBIs).

Martinez learned an important lesson about trust, even if it was delivered through a monsoon of boos and taunts from the stands.

“I never forget what Donnie and Joe told me about not listening to the negative thoughts,” Martinez said. “That’s something I carried with me for the rest of my career.”

Starting in 1996, Joe Torre went to the postseason 14 times—12 with the Yankees and two with the Dodgers. He ended those 14 years earning four World Series titles.
Rachel Fishman on Flickr




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