Orioles' Dennis Martinez Has a New Goal: Staying Sober

United Press International

(Editor's note: Back home in Nicaragua, everyone loves Dennis Martinez. The Baltimore Orioles love him, too, and the last thing they ever want to think about is losing him. But there was a point where they didn't have much control over that. Slowly and surely, day by day, Dennis Martinez was killing himself. Just as surely as if he were slashing his wrists or hanging himself in his clothes closet.

He was doing it with alcohol. Martinez' problem with booze goes back to when he was 14. Yet, his troubles first came to public light little more than a year ago when he was arrested for drunk driving in Baltimore.

Recently, after finishing his workout in the Orioles' camp, Dennis Martinez sat down with Milton Richman, UPI Senior Editor and columnist, and described in detail what happened the first time he took a drink, some of the times after that, and how he eventually turned his life around.

Some men would like to be president, some keep hoping they'll win the lottery and some would like nothing better than a reserved seat on the first space shuttle to the moon.

Dennis Martinez has a much more modest ambition.

All he wants to do is stay sober.

That's his primary aim in life right now, and if you think it's some kind of joke, you're wrong. It isn't.

Not with Dennis Martinez. With him, it's the new foundation he has set into place and on which he's trying to build the rest of his life.

Martinez is only 29. He's a clean-cut, good-looking young man with a devoted wife, two healthy children and a job that everyone else would love to have. He pitches for the Baltimore Orioles and is paid a few hundred thou a year on a contract that has two more years to go.

In addition to everything else, his name is a household word in his native Nicaragua where he's idolized as the finest ballplayer the country ever has produced.

For Martinez, though, the whole thing nearly became unraveled in December of 1983 when the police in Baltimore picked him up for drunk driving. This wasn't the first time Martinez had driven when he was bleary-eyed. It was only the first time he was caught and arrested.

Martinez thought he had kept his drinking problem concealed, hidden from the Orioles' management and everyone else, but like so many other habitual drinkers, he was merely deluding himself.

His agent, Ron Shapiro, talked and talked with him like some Dutch uncle trying to get Martinez to strengthen himself out. Then the Orioles called him in and laid it on the line to him. He remembers how concerned they were. Concerned about him.

"They said to me, 'Dennis, we believe you have a problem and we want you to do something about it,"' Martinez recalls the meeting. "They said, 'We love you and we want to help you, but we can't help you until you start to help yourself.' They weren't trying to force me to do something I didn't want to do. That was very clear to me. But I had a five-year contract and they started talking to me about that. That's when I got a little scared.

"They told me there was a clause in the contract that said it could be terminated by them if a player has a problem relating to drugs or alcohol and doesn't do anything about it. I didn't like that at all. When they were telling me all this, talking to me about my problem, I was saying to myself. 'You're crazy. What are you talking about? I have no problem.' That was on the inside. On the outside, though, I nodded and said,'Yes."'

Since he admitted he had a problem, primarily to placate the Orioles and get them off his back, they told him they'd try to find professional help for him and Martinez consented to have himself admitted to Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore for treatment of his alcoholism. The hospital specializes in handling various types of addiction.

"The first day I was in the hospital, I was still in what they call denial," Martinez explains. "In other words, I was still denying that there was anything wrong with me. I looked around and thought to myself what am I doing here with all these junkies, addicts and alcoholics. This was no place for me."

Shortly afterward, the Orioles' pitcher met his counselor, the one who would be responsible for him during his time in the hospital.

They chatted in general terms for a couple of minutes and the counselor then had a question.

"Do you pray, Dennis?" he wanted to know.

"I am a Catholic," Martinez answered him. "I grew up in a Catholic family and I go to church where I have prayed, but lately I've been getting so drunk that to tell you the truth I was forgetting about it. I'd come home and just fall in bed. I haven't been praying at all lately."

The counselor nodded, signifying he understood.

"Why don't you get on your knees and pray again," he suggested.

Martinez has a mind of his own. He doesn't jump simply because someone tells him to. He considered the counselor's proposal for a moment or so.

He then got down on his knees and prayed.

"That," he says now, "was the turning point of my life."

Dennis Martinez hasn't found any magic answer or Holy Grail. He has found something far more important, someone who was right under his nose all the time--himself.

You should see him. You should see the superb condition he's in and how easily he smiles now. Everything about Dennis Martinez bespeaks total peace of mind, and actually, what more can anyone possibly ask?

He hasn't had a drink since entering the rehabilitation hospital for three weeks on Dec. 21, 1983. He says he hasn't been tempted a bit.

"Look all over the world and what's the first thing two people say when they meet each other?" Martinez asks. "Either one or the other will say, "Let's have a drink. Have one on me. I'm buying."' Martinez answers his own question.

"Why does it always have to be that way? I look at drinking as if it's poison. I've lived among the alcoholics and the drug addicts when I was in the hospital. It's very easy, too easy, to make the transition from one to the other, from alchohol to drugs.

"You go to a party, get so drunk you don't know what you're doing, and the first thing someone there will do is offer you a joint. I've seen it happen. My choice was alcohol instead of drugs, but there isn't much difference."

Martinez' big trouble was he used to love parties and good times too much.

"I could never say no to anybody," he confesses. "That was my problem. I didn't want to turn down any invitation and make the person feel bad. So I wound up feeling bad myself."

If he wished, Martinez could blame baseball for his having becoming an alcoholic, but he doesn't; he blames himself. His very first experience with alcohol took place back home in Granada, Nicaragua, and although it occurred when he was only 14, the event remains imbedded in his memory.

"Back home, we mostly drink rum and beer, and when people drink rum, they drink it straight up," he says. "I was pitching the opening game of the season for our team that evening, and earlier that day, four or five hours before the game, I felt a little nervous.

"One of my friends said to me, 'Why don't you take a drink? It'll help you get over your nervousness.' I said OK and I took a shot of rum--straight. All my nervousness went away. Now I feel like a big man," Martinez says, raising his arms in the air to illustrate what he means.

Martinez pitched a good game. He felt guilty about having taken a drink, though. He thought it wasn't right, so he didn't tell anyone what he did.

He didn't drink again until two years later. Again, it was a friend, his catcher on the Granada team for which he was pitching, who influenced him to do what he did.

Martinez' team had lost a crucial doubleheader to Ingenio San Antonio, and he had pitched the nightcap in which he was beaten, 1-0. The trip back home to Granada took three hours and on the way, some of the older team members persuaded the bus driver to stop so they could buy some liquor.

"It's a long trip home," Martinez' catcher said to him when they got back on the bus. "C'mon, take a shot. You pitched a good game and this will help you forget."

Weary, disappointed over losing such a tough game and with his teammate and friend pushing him to have the second drink of his life, the 16-year-old Martinez took the bottle from him and drank. This time, he took more than one shot. He thinks he had at least three.

"Hey, Dennis, wake up! We're home," he remembers someone saying to him. He looked up from where he was sleeping in his seat to see his catcher shaking him.

"I don't feel too good," Martinez said.

His head hurt and he was trying to fight back the growing nausea. He didn't want to go home because he knew his mother would have a fit if she ever saw him in this condition.

He took a cold shower and felt a little better before going home. When he got there, he made sure not to get too close to his mother.

"I didn't want her to smell me," he says, laughing about it now.

Martinez was a good student in school and when he was 17 he entered University National Autonoma of Nicaragua studying engineering. He was there one year when the Orioles signed him.

When he joined them here for the first time in Miami, he was only 18, but he felt completely free, unencumbered by any of his previous restraints back home.

"I didn't have to be under my mother's belt," he says. "I felt I could so whatever I wanted. I saw all the other guys drinking beer, so I started to do the same thing."

Alcohol got Martinez into trouble for the first time in baseball in 1976 when he was with Rochester in the International League. He had been due to start a game in Toledo but had drunk too much the night before and didn't get to the ballpark until a few minutes before gametime.

Martinez went right over to the Rochester manager, Joe Altobelli, who's his boss now with the Orioles, and said, "Joe, I'm here."

"Well, kid, you're too late," Altobelli informed him. "I got somebody else to pitch."

Martinez started to cry. Right there in the manager's office.

"I feel good," he protested. "I can pitch today."

"Too late," Altobelli repeated.

"OK, but I'll be ready if you need me." Martinez assured him.

The game went into extra innings. Martinez had always been a starter for Rochester, just as he has been for virtually his entire career with Baltimore, so he had remained in the dugout for the game with Toledo. In the 10th inning, though, he went down to the bullpen and began warming up.

The Rochester pitcher filled the bases in the 11th without getting anyone out. Altobelli had used up all his pitchers except Martinez. He really didn't want to use him because he had shown up late, but he had no choice and he summoned him in.

Pitching as if it were the seventh game of the World Series, Martinez struck out all three Toldeo batters and Rochester came up with a run in the next inning to win the game.

"That made me forget everything," Martinez recalls. "Joe never asked me why I was late and I never told him. What I did--striking out the side that way--made me think I could handle anything."

The Orioles brought Martinez up with them to stay in September of 1976. Again he looks around him, at the players with the other clubs as well as his own, saw them drinking beer and took that as further license for himself.

"My feeling about it was everybody does it, so I might as well, too," Martinez says.

He thought he was getting away with his drinking, that it wasn't impairing his efficiency as a person or a pitcher, although looking back, he now laughs at himself and sees where he should've known better.

"It was craziness," he says. "I hurt myself 100 per cent. There is no excuse I can give for what I did. I have three brothers, every one of them older than me, and they all have an alcoholic problem. My father died two years ago and he was an alcoholic also.

"He was walking and a truck hit him and killed him in Granada. I can't say for sure, but I believe he was drunk and he just became careless from alcohol. That's what it does to you, makes you careless."

As a pitcher, Martinez actually has nothing to prove because he showed the Orioles how much ability he has them when he won at least 14 games for them in five of his first six seasons with them.

By his own say so, he started to drink more heavily in 1983 and that's reflected in the 7-16 record, the worst of his career, he posted that season. Last year, he won 6 and lost 9, not a great year, by any means, especially for him, but the important thing about it to him was that he stayed dry.

"I was happy to see the improvement in my mental problem," he says. "That was my prime concern. Baseball was second. Naturally, I tried to win every game I pitched last year. But if I pitched good or pitched bad, when the game was over, the first thing on my mind was that I wouldn't drink because I won or lost. That was what I used to do; no more, though."

The judge who passed sentence on Martinez in Baltimore on Feb. 28, 1984, fined him $500. He also ordered the Orioles' pitcher to give spend 150 hours doing service for the community.

Martinez has done nearly 100 hours already but he isn't even counting. He speaks to kids in school, patients in hospital and inmates in prison without pontificating to them about alcohol, but sincerely attempting to help them.

Even after he finishes his 150-hour sentence, he intends to continue what he's doing because he enjoys it.

"I go to these places because I want to see where I've been and where I came from," he says. "As soon as I forget where I came from, I will drink and I don't want that to happen to me."

Dennis Martinez feels very good about himself because, as he puts it, he's "still straight." He makes no grand predictions as to how long he will go without a drink, realistically saying he's taking his sobriety "only one day at a time," which is the way recovered alcoholics are taught to think.

"I know if I stay sober today I will be all right one more day, with or without baseball," he says, taking his shirt off in front of his locker after a long workout.

"But if I don't stay sober and drink again, I will die. Before I die, though, I will lose my job, my wife, my children, my family, my house, my car and all my other belongings. I will wind up in the street begging for money just to have coffee and then I will die."

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