RIVAS- Dennis Martínez hasn’t thrown a strike since he hung up the baseball spikes 14 years ago. But at 57 years old, he looks like he could still work a solid five innings if given the nod and handed the ball.
“I feel like I could still pitch, but I don’t think I have the arm for it anymore,” Martínez says with a laugh.
Martínez does, however, still have the head for baseball. And soon he hopes he can convince a Big League team to give him a shot at a professional comeback of a different sort: as Major League Baseball’s first Latino pitching coach in modern history.
Martínez is no stranger to trailblazing. He was the first Nicaraguan to break into the Major Leagues 36 years ago, and he was the first Latino to throw a perfect game in 1991. “El Presidente” has notched more innings (3,999.2) and more career wins (245) than any other Latino pitcher in Big League history.
But despite his celebrated All Star career and recent success as a minor league pitching coach, Martínez thinks traces of racism in Major League Baseball might be holding him back. While he made the Big Leagues on the merits of his pitching arm in 1976, he wonders if he can do the same on the merits of his baseball brain in 2012.
“Until now, we haven’t seen Latino pitching coaches,” Martínez told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview. “I am not sure if they’re so sure whether or not to give this responsibility to a Latino, because there has never been a Latino pitching coach and that could be something that’s still blocking the opportunity for me.”
That may sound strange, considering the important role Latinos play on the baseball diamond and the emerging role they play in the front office and dugout. In 2011, there was one Latino team owner (Arturo Moreno, Los Angeles Angels), two Latino general managers and four managers. Overall, Latinos represented 27% of Major League Baseball’s Opening Day lineups in the 2011, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethnics in Sports.
Still, there are no Hispanic pitching coaches. The only Latino that’s held the job so far was Cuban-born Dolf Luque, who was a pitching coach for seven years back in the 1930s and 40s.
But Luque was a light-skinned Latino who looked like any other white guy in a baseball uniform. And considering the dearth of Latinos to follow in his footsteps, Luque’s coaching role 70 years ago apparently wasn’t revolutionary enough to break the race barrier for others.
“You don’t see Latinos in this role,” Martínez says.
“It’s a very serious position; one that requires lots of responsibility,” the former Nicaraguan ace said. “A Big League pitching coach isn’t only in charge of the Major League team, but must also visualize the development of all the (minor league)teams in the organization. So it’s a very big responsibility.”
Martínez says he’s up for the challenge and hopes he’ll be considered for the job based on his merits, experience and mental toughness.
“I hope it’s not (racism), but I think there is some,” Martínez said. “I can’t say who, and I hope it’s not the case, because if it is, then (my return to the Majors) isn’t viable.”
Martínez says that after five years as a Class A minor league pitching coach in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, he feels he has cut his teeth and is ready to make his return to the Big Show by next year.
“I paid my dues in the minors and have shown what I can do,” Martínez said.
Given the situation in the Cardinals’ dugout, Martínez thinks his moment could be fast approaching.
Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa announced his retirement last November after winning the 2011 World Series. LaRussa’s longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, announced this month that he too is taking a leave from the Cardinals to spent time with his ailing wife. Former pitcher and bullpen coach Derek Lilliquist has since been named the Cardinals’ interim pitching coach.
The shuffle and shakeup has Martínez thinking he’s on deck for the job.
“I see a chance, depending on what happens this year. I think there could be a chance in the near future, maybe not this year but next,” Martínez said.
Martínez says other teams have also shown interest in him as a possible Big League pitching coach, “So we are seeing if the doors open elsewhere with another organization.”
The Hunger Inside
The experience of working with young Latino pitching prospects on the Class A Palm Beach Cardinals has reawaked Martínez’s competitive spirit.
“When I started with the Cardinals, I was trying to help the young Latino talent in the organization; that was one of the main reasons why I returned to professional baseball,” Martínez said, pausing to spit tobacco juice on the dugout floor of his youth academy training field in Rivas. “I was thinking there is a lot of Latino talent and they could use a person like me who speaks Spanish so they can feel more comfortable and express themselves better with someone who understands them.”
Martínez said the idea of being a mentor drew him back to baseball, but once he got a taste of the game again, it rekindled the old fire inside—that combination of competitive spirit, ego, and determination that makes good pitchers great.
“Once I got settled in the new job after the first few years, I started to get the hunger again. I said here I am again, so I have to set my own goals. And that’s when I set the goal of being a pitching coach in the Big Leagues.”
Now that many of the young pitchers he worked with in Class A have made it to the Majors, Martínez thinks he might soon follow on their coattails.
“Many of the pitchers in the organization know me and I know them and that’s how new terrain opens to move up to the Majors,” Martínez said. “Because the team looks at their new pitching staff that is moving up to the Big Leagues, and they say, ‘Who worked with these kids in the minors to get them here?’ They know the kids will respond to that coach.”
From the farm league to the campo
Another group of kids who are also responding to Martínez is the team of 16 young Nicaraguan prospects at the Nicaragua Baseball Academy, which Martínez opened last year in Rivas with several other investors.
The youth baseball academy, which aims to train and sign promising Nicaraguan prospects to Major League contracts in the United States, while providing them with room, board and a technical education, is currently working with a team of young players who will be looked at over the next few months by scouts from the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. The academy has already helped one prospect sign, and hopes three or four more will be signed by July.
Despite Martínez’s hunger to return to the Majors as a coach, he says he’s also dedicated to helping the next generation of Nicaraguans get their chance at the Big Leagues. After being a minor league coach and mentor for five years in Florida, Martínez is also feeling the pull of his ancestral acres.
Looking out across the baseball field to beyond where the kids are stretching, at the white-capped waters of Lake Nicaragua and the looming, cloud-covered Concepción Volcano that looms over the right field fence, Martínez spits tobacco juice and says, “Sometimes I wish I could be here all the time.”
This is Martinez’s field of dreams. And if he doesn’t get the call to the Majors soon, he’ll still have lots of baseball ahead of him in Nicaragua.
“I am looking to see what future I have in Major League Baseball in the United States, and if I see that it’s not viable for me, then I will come here and dedicate myself and focus my time more on this.”
Next Week: Prospects, Scouts and Headhunters: The baseball academy business comes to Nicaragua.